Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.
In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.
I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.
The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.
As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.
We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.
The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.
In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.
This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.
So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.
Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.
As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.
Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.
By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.
Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.
A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.
The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.
If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.
So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.
In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.
The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.
Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.
How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.
The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.
So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?
Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.
Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.
Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.