Bridge-and-Tunnel Kids

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

Kenny and her husband now drive to Manhattan daily with their two daughters, carpooling with another Brooklyn family. The afternoon commute, she says, is more difficult: "Three days a week our older child goes to Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts and waits for my husband to get there. She's a responsible kid, but she's only 10. I would prefer not to have to do that, but there doesn't really seem to be a way around it."

The Williamsburg school debate came to an especially public head last year in the battles surrounding P.S.84 in South Williamsburg. From all accounts, it began when a group of young parents who were newcomers to the neighborhood began pushing for changes at the school, where most of the students are the children of longtime Latino families already feeling besieged by the area's rapid gentrification. The resulting three-way fight between parent groups and a recalcitrant school administration ended in a mass resignation of the PTA, and was so bitter that none of the involved parties will speak publicly about it.

It also left many of the would-be reformers even more distrustful of the local schools. As one anonymous post on Brownstoner put it: "Everyone here loves to bitch and moan [about] 'gross yuppies,' 'they are going to ruin the neighborhood,' 'their kids are spoiled,' etc. Yet now it seems that if these 'neighborhood ruining, Starbucks drinking, rich rent raising spawners' would just send their kids to the public school we could save generations of the underprivileged. So which is it?"

photo: Willie Davis/Veras

Kate Yourke, a Williamsburg parent and community organizer who briefly sent her daughter to a private school in Manhattan before returning her to the local zoned school, is one parent who has been a vocal proponent of both parents and the Department of Education working harder to make local schools work for local kids. For her, the key is being a part of her community. "When kids are really young, you're bonding with all these families, and with a community of kids that all know each other. And then when it gets to be school age, they start splitting up and all going to different schools, and in our neighborhood that's quite extreme."

The larger question for Yourke, though, isn't of privileged kids (or parents) "turning around" a school—a phrase she finds problematic to begin with—but rather what's left behind when a large slice of a neighborhood leaves its zoned school behind. The first result is that the school ends up with an enrollment below its allotted capacity, something that's a growing problem for Williamsburg schools. As a consequence, says Yourke, the under-enrolled school will "probably end up with another school in their building if they can't maximize enrollment, and that school will essentially compete with them for students." Meanwhile, under the Department of Education's fiscal calculus, a school with fewer students means less money; Yourke's daughter's school, P.S.132 in East Williamsburg, must give back more than $100,000 this year thanks to the drop in enrollment.

Even more troublesome is that when kids leave a district, they take their parents with them—and in today's city school system, parents have become a vital cog in the educational machine. Virtually every successful school has parents acting not just as unofficial classroom aides, but as fundraisers as well, providing certain schools with a windfall of off-budget cash. "If your school has people in it who can pick up the phone and talk to the head of Citicorp," notes Yourke, "you're going to have a pretty good science lab."

photo: Willie Davis/Veras
It's a phenomenon that only becomes more worrisome when principals begin handing out variances based not on what's best for the kids, but what's best for the school's resources. "Obviously, principals and schools want parents who are going to be more involved," says Wheaton. "If a principal has three applications and there's no clear waiting list, and they've got space for one kid, who are they going to take? It's like if you have three job applicants, wouldn't you want the one who's the most interested and who's going to be the most involved in the work?"

Paul Wein, a Williamsburg parent whose daughter attends NEST—where, several years back, the then principal landed in hot water after stories filtered out that she was rejecting kids based on such criteria as their parents' English-language skills—says he understands the motivation to seek out committed parents. "They want everyone to work for the school. And I totally understand that, because if you don't have parents working for your school, you're just not going to have a good school. Because the Department of Education is not going to give you what you need. If that's what you're depending on, you're going to go where the money is."

Wheaton argues that, all things considered, allowing out-of-district enrollment is a plus for city kids, in part since it allows parents to match up their kids with schools they're better suited for. "I hear the arguments against choice and for choice, and on balance I'm for choice—as long as it's done as equitably as possible," she says. "You should have the same rules applying everywhere, depending on space availability and demand." For its part, the Department of Education says it's trying to standardize variance procedures, but it's a daunting task—unlike the recent overhaul of admissions to the city's gifted and talented programs, it's hard to develop a standardized test for "other."

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