Reform Proposals for the NYC Choice Program

I am proudly the product of public education — growing up, I attended the schools that were located in my district zone, and my transition to high school was simple and seamless. However, learning and working within the New York City public school system quickly made me realize the luxury I had been afforded as a young girl and made me aware of the convoluted primary school experience in NYC.

Each year, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) encourages students who attend low performing schools to participate in the Public School Choice (PSC) program. School choice allows students to apply to a range of schools across the city, rather than attending the school within their assigned zone. The school selection process is meant to create greater educational equity for economically disadvantaged students, promote competition between schools, and integrate schools across the city at large.

Between 7th grade and 8th grade graduation, the high school admission process requires families to jump through a series of hoops to ensure that their children continue climbing up the educational ladder. Below is my personal visual representation mapping the high school admission timeline under the PSC program:

Problems of the PSC Program and Proposed Solutions

Problem #1: The PSC program functions under the assumption that all students and parents are making informed decisions.

The PCS high school program is a long and daunting process that (unofficially, but in practice) begins when students are 12 years old and enrolled in seventh grade. The need for early preparation already disadvantages families who are not made aware of the policy, and, consequently fail to act in a timely matter. Furthermore, a student’s access to parental support and a school guidance counselor may be limited if they live in a single parent household, do not speak English as their native language, or attend a school in which one guidance counselor is responsible for of 1,000 students (not unusual). Additionally, as students apply to up to 12 different schools, they must attend many open houses, school meetings, and interviews. These steps in the school selection process require both time and knowledge on the part of parents in order to position their child as a competitive applicant. Because not all parents possess the luxury of a flexible job, students with parents who cannot attend informational meetings are placed at a significant disadvantage compared to their other peers.

Proposal #1: Integrate PCS program workshops into the 6th grade second semester curriculum.

All students and families should have equal access to information regarding the PCS program. As so, schools with 6th grade students who are eligible to participate in the high school selection process should implement a mandatory workshop series during the school day to inform students of the PCS process and provides informational handouts to take home to their parents. By providing the workshop series during the school day, more students will be made aware of the PCS program, and will have the following summer to prepare for the admission process.

Problem #2: There is a practical limit to how far students will travel (or should be expected to travel) to access a better school.

According to research conducted at NYU and the Brown Center at Brookings, students tend to apply to schools located closer to their home to avoid long commutes. On average, students in NYC are willing to commute a maximum of 30 minutes to school. Thus, commute time places restraints on the schools that students deem within their means to attend. Furthermore, due to the historical relationship between neighborhoods and school quality, higher performing schools are rarely located within or nearby impoverished neighborhoods. Though school choice aims to override economic barriers and integrate schools, students generally remain in schools that reflect a similar demographic to that of their neighborhoods.

Proposal #2: Revitalize failing public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods rather than replacing them with charter schools.

Most of the time, when public schools are reported as ‘failing’, they are replaced by charter schools rather than restructured. However, supporting the survival of quality public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods is key to preventing the privatization of the public school system. A significant first step to internal school reform is the reallocation of the school’s budget. More money should be spent on extracurricular activities, which promote the productive use of students’ time and energy, and less on security guards and metal detectors, which create a negative and violent school environment. An overwhelming number of studies have shown that after school programs decrease youth crime while increasing student safety and academic performance. In New York City specifically, programs started by the Boys and Girls Club resulted in a drop in drug use and petty crime and increased parent-student engagement.

Conclusion

Understandably, there are further challenges for the New York City PSC program. However, school choice is an important step forward in integrating economically and racially segregated school systems. And like any other education reform program, school choice is not a panacea, for several reasons. Education extends beyond the classroom, and is heavily impacted by each student’s family situation and upbringing, which may create gaps in educational achievement which school choice cannot fully close. Additionally, choosing an appropriate high school is a critical decision which must take into consideration the needs of the specific student, making it difficult to rely on others’ reviews or suggestions for choosing one school or another. And ultimately, as every household possesses its own beliefs regarding the purpose of education, schools will never be able to perfectly meet the needs of every student. Education should not be envisioned as a static, standardized product, but rather, as a process that constantly approaches its ideal form, with the knowledge that the learning never ends.