New York: In District 3, advocates say zones lines should disappear

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Nov 7 22:18:57 UTC 2008

In District 3, advocates say zones lines should disappear
by Philissa Cramer

CIF's 2003 report about segregation in District 3
Rather than tinkering with zone lines, District 3 should do away with
school zones altogether and instead institute a near-random lottery
for school placement, advocates for the district's immigrant families

The Center for Immigrant Families says students should be assigned to
schools not because of where they live but by a lottery that takes
into socioeconomic status into account. This type of admissions
system, called a "controlled choice" program, would be radical for New
York City.

Cambridge, Mass., has had a controlled choice policy in place for more
than two decades. Some parents in Cambridge say the policy is too
formulaic and are advocating for a return to neighborhood schools, the
Harvard Crimson recently reported.

In a letter sent yesterday to the Community Education Council for
District 3, CIF argues that the district's residential segregation
requires attention: "The catchment seats increasingly reflect the
gentrifying reality of our neighborhoods and further cement

CIF, an advocacy group based on the Upper West Side, was one voice
that in 2005 successfully lobbied for the introduction of a lottery to
fill empty seats in the district's zoned schools. Since then, center
officials say, the lottery has been used mostly by middle-class
families to escape low-performing schools that are primarily attended
by low-income children of color.

It's unlikely that CIF's proposal will gain much traction. The group
suggested a similar policy in 2005, but the changes made that year to
district admissions procedures were nowhere near as radical as CIF
advocated. And the current rezoning process on the Upper West Side is
nearing its end.

Still, if the plan were implemented, it would certainly face intense
opposition from families who chose their homes based on its assigned

Jennifer Freeman, a member of CEC 3 who heads its space committee,
told me this morning that she hadn't yet seen CIF's letter. But she
said the council supports allowing people in the district to attend
schools outside of their zones. "The details of how this is done would
be for another discussion," Freeman said.

CIF's letter to CEC 3:

For far too long, low-income and families of color in District 3 have
experienced discrimination in our public elementary schools and in the
process of applying to our schools. For two years, beginning in 2003,
the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF) organized to bring these
issues to the forefront in the district and to demand equity and
access for all our families. In a community report, Segregated and
Unequal: The Public Elementary Schools of District 3 in New York City,
CIF documented the mechanisms by which low income families of color
were excluded from some of our public elementary schools.

In 2005, at a community meeting called to address the district's
admissions policies, Chancellor Klein acknowledged that: "The current
policy is not transparent, it's inequitable, and it needs to be
changed." Soon after that meeting, CIF participated in the District 3
Kindergarten General Education and Dual Language Admissions Policy
Committee for District 3 public elementary schools to help develop a
proposal that would insure equity and access in our district's
elementary schools. The final proposal that the committee presented to
Chancellor Klein, which resulted in the lottery for out-of-catchment
seats, addressed some, but not all of our community needs.

CIF has always made clear our view, grounded in strong community
research, that implementing a lottery for non-catchment students is
only the first step in the process of achieving equity and
desegregating our schools. We are, therefore, sending out these
comments, based on recommendations we proposed at the time of the
implementation of the lottery, because we strongly believe that they
are germane to today's discussions about overcrowding and rezoning and
also speak to the impact of the increasing gentrification we are
currently confronting in District 3 neighborhoods. We believe these
issues, which are the subject of current debate in our district and
throughout the city, must be examined within a framework of furthering
equity and that resulting decisions and policies must be rooted in a
commitment to high-quality education for all our children.

Therefore, to further equity and access for all families we are proposing:

the implementation of a "controlled choice" lottery program for all
District 3 elementary school seats, which would include incorporating
socio-economic status (SES) as a factor in the lottery; and
re-examining our zoning/catchment lines.

Incorporating Socioeconomic Status as a Factor in the Lottery:

The inclusion of family socioeconomic status in the admissions
process—that is, a controlled choice lottery plan—will help insure
that diversity does, in fact, take place and that our schools do
indeed fairly reflect our district's racial and socio-economic
make-up. CIF has been buoyed by the knowledge that there are 40 school
districts across the country already implementing school assignment
plans by socioeconomic status. Further, this type of controlled choice
lottery plan would enable greater access to, and investment in all our
district's schools among a greater number of District families.

Re-Examining Our Zoning/Catchment Lines:

There is little historical perspective and understanding about the
ways in which catchment lines in District 3 have been drawn and whose
interests they have served; for example, it is hard to make sense of
why some buildings are included in a certain catchment area while
others are not. Any consideration of the redrawing of zoning lines
requires a full understanding and analysis of this history.

Also, changing demographics and gentrification have turned many
catchment areas into completely different communities where only those
with economic resources are offered the opportunity to exercise real
choice in our district. The catchment seats increasingly reflect the
gentrifying reality of our neighborhoods and further cement
segregation and an even harsher division among our district's schools
and within our community.

Our vision of having our district schools truly reflect all of our
neighborhoods includes having a controlled choice lottery while
carefully considering the longer term goal of potentially eliminating
or dramatically altering the catchment lines altogether to insure that
there is real choice for all our families, and not just for a small,
privileged group.

Considering eliminating or substantially rethinking the catchment
lines is feasible in District 3, which covers a relatively small
geographic area and where large numbers of District 3 elementary
school students already take public transportation to their schools.

School districts that have eliminated catchment lines have found that
it has helped further equity among and in the schools and offers
meaningful choice to far greater numbers of families (see Cambridge,
MA school system as one example).

Simply re-drawing the district's zoning lines based on the needs of
one group of families is not the appropriate or ethical way to move
forward. We believe the issue of rezoning in District 3 requires
greater input and partnership from all families, communities, and
neighborhoods within the district and that a major rethinking of the
catchment lines to develop a proposal that meets the needs of all our
families is in order.

In addition to the work we have done in District 3, we have engaged in
research on different models and mechanisms that have been implemented
by school districts around the country to learn from their attempts to
insure equity and real diversity in their schools. We firmly believe
the current proposals about overcrowding and rezoning that are being
considered must be addressed within the context of how they serve the
needs of our entire community, rather than being defined by, and
catering to, narrow interests. Our time, energy, and resources must be
devoted to insuring that all our children receive the education they
deserve and to which they are entitled. We want district policies and
practices that embrace and strengthen all our children. We must not
accept any proposal that does not move us closer to achieving that
goal and hope this proposal helps move us in that direction.

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