Bridge-and-Tunnel Kids

When city parents choose public schools far afield, what are the consequences?

 Each weekday morning, the commute begins: Carfuls and trainloads of Brooklynites make their way across the river to Manhattan, fighting traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge and jam-packed L trains. The trip can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour; on arriving, they strip off their coats, say goodbye to their mommies and daddies, and settle in for another day of elementary school.

While the Williamsburg shuffle has gotten increased attention of late, thanks to a Crain's article and an epic discussion thread that followed on the Brownstoner blog, parents sending kids as young as kindergarten age to schools elsewhere in the city is a time-honored tradition in the world of New York parenting. The city doesn't officially keep track of how many kids attend public schools outside their assigned districts—with or without legal permission—but every parent, it seems, knows someone who's done it.

And even as parents comparison-shop for public schools like they're applying for college, debates are beginning to erupt: Is this a positive sign of school choice or a worrying trend toward self-segregation?

photo: Willie Davis/Veras

Technically, city schoolkids are supposed to attend elementary school in their local "zone," a subdivision of the city's 74 school districts. (Magnet schools, which draw from a wider catchment area, and some privately contracted charter schools are exempt from the zones.) In reality, though, as most every parent who's visited the website or taken part in a playground strategy session knows, there are many ways to get around the rules.

The most aboveboard method is to request a "variance," whereby a school principal signs off on accepting a student from another zone. The official city variance form—now redubbed a "placement exception request" form—lists five categories of requests for exemptions: health reasons, safety issues, desire to attend the same school as a sibling, childcare hardship, and "other," which makes for a convenient catch-all that allows considerable leeway to principals.

"It's always been kind of random around the city," says director Pamela Wheaton of the variance process. "There certainly are chancellor's regulations, but they seem to be applied differently [from] district to district around the city." In Queens, she says, it's nearly impossible to get into a school outside of your zone; in some other parts of the city, meanwhile, principals have long been generous with variances. "I think schools are setting it up as they see fit."

photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Then there are the various levels of subterfuge. In neighborhoods with more highly rated schools, every block, it seems, has some child who, as far as the Department of Education is concerned, officially resides with a grandparent or other distant relative. Cheating your way in can be as simple as getting a friend to add your name to their Con Ed bill, say veteran parents. "Everyone's lying about addresses," says one Williamsburg mom whose daughter attends a magnet school in Manhattan. "People ask you, 'Can I use your address, because I want to go to your school?' "

The situation is especially apparent at red-hot schools such as P.S.321 in Park Slope, which is filled so far beyond capacity that official variances are almost impossible to obtain. Stacey Sarnicola, who recently moved to Bay Ridge but kept her daughter at P.S.321, says, "We did it all aboveboard. But I know I've encountered families where the directory says one address, and you call for a play date and they say, 'Oh, that's not really my address.' "

The reasons that parents choose far-flung schools are as varied as the schools (and kids) themselves. Greenpoint mom Lorraine Kenny tells a typical story: When her first daughter was ready for kindergarten in 2001, she looked at her local zoned school, P.S.110, but was turned off by what she says at the time seemed an uninspired academic setting. (Kenny says she was also concerned about being tracked into the local zoned middle school—a common concern expressed by parents interviewed by the Voice, one of whom called city middle schools "the black hole of the school system.") Instead, since P.S.110 lacked a specialized program for gifted and talented students, she was able to get a variance to send her daughter to P.S.116 across the river in Murray Hill.

Five years later, though, when Kenny's second daughter was ready to enter the school system, the city told her she'd have to apply to the gifted and talented program in her district, at a school several miles away in Bedford-Stuyvesant. "From the research that I did, on, they say things like, 'The kids can't go out on the playground because it's too dangerous.' " Add in that it was a brand-new program, she says, and "the idea of my daughter being a guinea pig in that situation, it just didn't seem like a viable alternative to what we were in, which is a fantastic school." Instead, she chose to send her younger daughter to New Explorations in Science, Technology and Math (NEST), a magnet school on the Lower East Side that draws so many Williamsburg kids that one enterprising Williamsburg parent made a custom Google Map to ease carpooling.

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