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6th June

First Published in The New York Sun,  June 6, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Pity the poor children of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Their parents may be among the most well-to-do in the city, and the public school children there perform better than kids in just about every other New York neighborhood, but they still lack one thing that every child should be entitled to: A neighborhood high school of excellence.

You may have read that there will indeed be such a school on the Upper East Side, but I can report to you that calling it an “Upper East Side High School” belies the truth. Yes, there will be a new small high school located there. Yes, a lease for a new facility has been approved and the first freshman class has been chosen to start in temporary quarters this September. Yes, the politicians will be claiming credit for a great victory for the community. Their claims are empty.
Lurking in the background may well be a scandal that will rival the political influence peddling that surrounded admissions to the Petrides School on Staten Island right after it opened. In that case, politicians and school administrators rigged the admissions process for the elite K-12 school to favor the well connected.

Last Thursday, I attended a meeting of the task force that supposedly is guiding the Upper East Side’s new school. Chaired by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the meeting was attended by City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, the chair of the Council’s Education Committee, Vice Chancellor Tony Shorris, District 2 Superintendent Shelley Harwayne, and Roy Moskowitz, District 2’s general counsel (one wonders why the district needed to bring a lawyer as their spokesperson). Representatives of the United Federation of Teachers, State Senator Liz Krueger, Assemblyman Pete Grannis, Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and Manhattan President C. Virginia Fields were also there.

All that the parents of the Upper East Side wanted was a zoned neighborhood school big enough to accommodate the local kids who don’t choose to apply or don’t make it in to specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. They wanted a neighborhood school reflecting the high academic standards held by the residents of that community.That’s not how things turned out. This may be a school located on the Upper East Side, but it is not a school for the Upper East Side.

The bottom line is that for the second time in the past decade, the hopes of the Upper East Side parents for a public high school for their children have been dashed. The first disappointment came five years ago when the Baruch College High School fell victim to the Board of Education’s Byzantine high school admissions regulations, which actually insure that the better a child does in school, the less chance he or she has of gaining admission.

The neighborhood parents who weren’t turned off by this first disappointment slogged on. Despite the “victory” of establishing this latest new school, only about forty of the hundreds of eighth graders graduating this month from the area’s two middle schools have been admitted to the newly-named Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Scores, perhaps hundreds of other Upper East Side kids, have been turned away.

Most of the kids in the school the Upper East Side parents won through their efforts will not come from their own neighborhood, but from other communities in School District 2. This is a sprawling piece of Manhattan real estate that stretches from Tribeca and Chinatown up to the edge of Harlem. And even more outrageously, at least a few of the kids will come from out of District 2 altogether, perhaps even from out of Manhattan. When the deal to create the new school was struck a few months ago between the Board of Education and neighborhood politicos, it was agreed that students would be selected for the school by an “objective” academic standard.That means test scores. While the school would be open to all eighth graders in District 2, it was promised that this selection process would, de facto, insure that a majority of the kids would come from the higher performing Upper East Side.

This is how it was reported in the press, and how it was presented to me by a member of the Board of Education at the time the school’s lease was voted on.To their credit, a core of the parent leadership behind the school fought this plan. Events have proven them right.

At the meeting last week, the newly selected principal of the school, Susan Elliott, admitted that she and she alone chose the 106 freshmen from among the 450 applicants.This process is an open invitation to favoritism. Only students meeting the objective academic cutoffs should be admitted. If there are more such students than places at the school, then a lottery should be held.

Unfortunately, my worst suspicions about political interference may have been confirmed when, at the end of the meeting, Ms. Maloney approached a very unhappy Melanie Cissone, one of the parent activists who led the fight for a neighborhood zone for the school. “Don’t worry,” the congresswoman told an incredulous Ms. Cissone. “I’ll help you get your child into whatever school you want.” This is not hearsay or rumor. I was standing next to them and heard the entire exchange.

Because of this incident, I have to question just how much special influence went into the selection of students at Eleanor Roosevelt, and at other District 2 schools such as East Side Middle.
I was already suspicious about East Side Middle’s admission policies. District 2 seems to have carte blanche to “cream” the smartest kids from all over the city. Since there is an enormous demand for this school from families in District 2, I wonder whether this is a thinly-veiled (and
successful) effort by District 2 to artificially raise its test scores at the expense of other districts in the city.

Instead of a neighborhood high school of the kind that parents in Riverdale and Park Slope won for their children, the kids of the Upper East Side have been robbed, yet again. There are 3,500 high school students attending schools located on the Upper East Side, yet only about eighty of them come from the local community. The rest of the Upper East Side kids have been scattered to the winds.

There are many clever ways to give these children a local school. For instance, return the under-utilized Julia Richman building, in whole or in part, to the community. That venue is now home to four Board of Education boutique high schools serving an almost entirely commuter population. These four schools could be located anywhere. As long as there is unmet need, shouldn’t the kids of the Upper East Side have first crack at any facility in their own community?

Why do the Upper East Side kids always seem to get the short end of the stick? Are they merely victims of the educational bureaucracy? Is their political leadership more concerned with political correctness than serving their constituents? Perhaps these kids are too white and too rich for an overburdened school system to care about them. But anyone who thinks the strategy of driving away the middle class has made education in this town better, fairer, or more diverse, is crazy. We need to make the school system attractive to everyone.

Families deserve better choices than paying huge private school tuition bills, moving to the suburbs, or hoping that somehow their kids will find a place in some barely acceptable high school by the “luck of the draw.” But then again, you can always call Ms. Maloney.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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