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 InsideSchools.org 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 InsideSchools.org 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 InsideSchools.org, 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.

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?"

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."

The one solution that all can agree on is more good schools, so that there's no need to do triage by either geography or parental savvy. Yourke, who is an arts and education instructor by training, is working with P.S.132 to build up its arts program, but wishes there were more support from the Department of Education, especially in schools with clashes of educational and socioeconomic cultures. "There is no process that I know of that the DOE has in order to help implement integration in the schools," she says.

Says Kenny, now in her sixth year as a commuting parent, "Would I rather walk across the park every morning than go over the Williamsburg Bridge or through the Midtown Tunnel? Yes." P.S.116, she notes, was a failing school until it set up its gifted and talented program, which brought in resources that benefited the entire school. "It doesn't take a huge group of people, and I would think Williamsburg/Greenpoint would have the population to do that." If you weren't all going to Manhattan? She laughs. "If we weren't going away. It's a Catch-22."

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