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 enables 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 to economically disadvantaged students, promote competition between schools and integrate schools across the city at large.
Beginning in 7th grade and ending by 8th grade graduation, the high school admission process requires families to jump through a series of hoops in order to ensure that their children continue climbing up the educational ladder.
Obstacle #1: The PSC program functions under the assumption that all students and parents are making informed decisions.
The PCS program for high school is a long and daunting process that begins when students are 12 years old and enrolled in seventh grade. The early preparation factor alone already disadvantages many families who are not made aware of the policy, and consequently, fail to act in a time appropriate manner. Furthermore, a student's access to parental support and a school guidance counselor may be limited in the instances that 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 in charge of 1,000 students (not unusual). Additionally, as students apply to up to 12 different schools, many open houses, school meetings, and interviews must be attended. 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 in the decision making process over 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 that informs 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 upcoming summer to prepare for the admission process.
Obstacle #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 that are located closer to home in order 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. Further, due to the historical relationship between neighborhoods and school quality, higher performing schools are rarely located within the larger geographical area of impoverished neighborhoods. Therefore, although school choice aims to override economic barriers and integrate schools, students generally remain in schools that reflect a similar demographic to their neighborhoods.
Proposal #2: Revitalize failing public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods rather than replacing them with charter schools.
A majority 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 involves reallocating the school's budget so that more money is spent on extracurricular activities, which promote productive use of students' time and energy, and less on security guards and metal detectors, which create a more negative and violent school environment. An overwhelming number of studies have shown that after school programs decrease youth crime and increase 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 an increase in parent-student engagement.
Understandably, there exists further challenges in 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. These include that education extends beyond the classroom and is heavily impacted by each student's family context and upbringing, which may create gaps in educational achievement that school choice cannot fully close. Additionally, choosing the appropriate high school involves a paramount decision making process which must take into consideration the needs of the specific student, making it difficult to rely on others' reviews or suggestions for choosing this or that school. And ultimately, as each 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 pushes closer towards its ideal form, with the knowledge that the learning never ends.