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7th November
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, November 7, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

If there is any part of the public school system that totally, completely embodies its failure, it is our high schools.The policies followed for the past generation are, in my judgment, directly responsible for the exodus of tens of thousands of middle-class and uppermiddle-class families from our city. 

    I vividly recall one incident, back in the mid-1990s, that drove this home to me in a dramatic way. I was at a public event, chatting with a top Board of Education official. A tearful parent approached us, desperate to tell her story, a tale that has been repeated by similarly distraught parents across the city every year since the mid-1980s. 
    This woman owned a co-op apartment in Riverdale. She was satisfied with the education that her son received in the local public schools through grade 8. But now her family had hit the brick wall that the city’s high school admission options had become. When the results of the test for the specialized high schools were released the previous week, the envelope her son brought home contained very bad news: He had fallen short on the test, and the family’s one acceptable high school option, the fabled Bronx High School of Science, was now off the table. 

    The test for the city’s “science” schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech, has become the ultimate high-stakes test. The reason is simple. These schools are among the best anywhere, but the choices beyond are abysmal, particularly the schools that children can attend as a matter of right without a special admission process. In Riverdale and dozens of other similar communities in the city, it has long been the widely held belief that if you don’t “make” Science or Stuyvesant, you’re in deep trouble. 

    At that time, for this child, the only guaranteed option was John F. Kennedy High School, a school whose poorly conceived zone was a reflection of the fact that it was far too large to serve any one community. This contributed to the school becoming an overcrowded hotbed of turf wars, violence, and failure.This was recognized by the New York Times, which reported in early 1997 that Kennedy’s principal told another prospective Riverdale parent that in order to ensure the safety of her son, she should “teach him to strut, not walk, and to watch what was going on behind him.” Needless to say, that parent refused to expose her child to Kennedy’s dangers, as did the woman I encountered a couple of years earlier. 

    What was left to this parent was the city’s Education Option, known as “Ed-Opt” high schools. This has been the last hope for many of the city’s children, but the system has been, and continues to be, stacked against them. 

    Among the best of these schools, such as Baruch College High School, Beacon, and Environmental Studies, there are many more applicants than available places. However, perversely, these places are apportioned in a manner that actually make it enormously easier for the lowest performing students to get in than those achieving at the highest levels. 

    Places are assigned according to a curve: 16% of the places are reserved for the highest-scoring students, 68% for those in the vast middle, and 16% for those at the bottom. However, the number of applicants is much greater among the top scorers than among the bottom. The result? 

    The lowest-scoring students get in, while the higher scoring pupils are routinely passed over. New York magazine examined this issue more than five years ago, using the Baruch College School as an example of how the system worked. For the 100 openings, 553 students applied from the top scoring group, vying for just 16 places; 878 came from the mid-range group, from which 68 were chosen, and just 63 of the applicants came from bottom, vying for 16 places. Thus, the odds that a low-scoring child would be admitted exceeded 1-in-4; 1-in-13 for the child in the middle, and 1-in-35 for the best performing students. This is meritocracy turned on its head. 

    Of course, this system was created with the best of intentions, not to “leave any child behind.” The presumption was that the middle class would fend for itself. And they did, more often than not with their feet. The tearful parent from Riverdale pulled herself together, pulled her family out of Riverdale and moved up to Ardsley, in Westchester. That’s a town that many refer to as “Riverdale North,” because of the large number of Riverdale refugees who have settled there. Well-intentioned public policy often has unintended consequences. Since then, the Ed-Opt formula has been slightly modified, giving the top 2% of the applicants a guaranteed spot, and additional schools have been created that have admission criteria either based on the same test used by the science schools or some subjective portfolio or interview process. A new high school admissions process retains the troublesome quotas and may well exacerbate the problem by only admitting students to one school based on preference. 

Like so much else that is being done by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, the new system was imposed without open public discussion, comment, and debate. However, still left out of the mix is the concept of a reasonably sized, zoned neighborhood high school. Many experts feel that 1,000 students is optimal: small enough to maintain control; big enough to offer a wide variety of elective courses. 
In Riverdale, parents and community leaders took the situation in their own hands in the late 1990s, demanding that their middle school be expanded to include a local, zoned neighborhood high school. When the local school board refused, and the superintendent reneged on her promise of support, the angry community organized an effort to toss out the school board. In a massive turnout, the pro-high school slate swept the 1999 Community School Board election, and the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy was born. Local politicians, neighborhood leaders, and Realtors agree that the new school has sparked renewed interest in the community as a place for upscale young families to settle, reversing a long exodus. 
Unfortunately, the Riverdale model has not been followed elsewhere. On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, parents have energetically campaigned for a local, zoned high school for years, winning twice, only to have their victory snatched from them at the eleventh hour. The aforementioned Baruch College School was one of the “stolen” schools, sucked into the toxic Ed-Opt system. The second is the newly opened Eleanor Roosevelt High School, which morphed into a District 2 “lottery” school. 

There still is no acceptable high school at which children from Manhattan’s Upper East Side can be assured a place. For the system to work for the middle class, parents must have a guarantee that their children have viable options, regardless of their scores or the luck of the draw in a lottery.And when we hear that the system and the city lack the financial resources to provide an adequate education and provide other public services, remember those former neighbors of ours who now make out their tax checks to the Village of Ardsley.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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