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Five-Year-Olds at the Gate

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Source: Eric Greenleaf, Stern School of Business, New York University  

The DOE has no in-house demographer. Instead, it contracts with the Grier Partnership, a husband-and-wife team in Bethesda, Maryland. Eunice and George Grier “simply get the most-recent birth data,” Eunice explained to me. They consider net migration but not housing starts or up-zonings. As a result, they tend to forecast lower enrollments in development hot spots, a distortion that “leads to perpetual [school] overcrowding in these neighborhoods,” according to the city comptroller’s office. (While the School Construction Authority says it tweaks the Griers’ projections with development data from three city departments, it won’t reveal its formula.) As late as last year, the Griers foresaw a mild but steady decline in District 2’s kindergarten enrollment between 2009 and 2016. They finally smelled the Enfamil and about-faced in February, projecting a modest 6 percent hike over the same span.

Following the Griers’ lead, the DOE historically “looked for seat need based on district,” says press officer William Havemann. “We said, ‘District 3 is not using all of its space, so we don’t need to build in District 3.’ ” But districtwide figures are worthless in defining need in a given zone, which explains why so many elementary schools are bloated. While the department’s new five-year capital plan (titled “Building on Success”) claims to gauge need by neighborhood, there is still no sign of the fine-brush, zone-by-zone analyses that are de rigueur in most major school districts.

Addressing a recent meeting of the District 2 Community Education Council, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm apologized for the waiting-list chaos: “We’re sorry. We have stumbled on some of this planning.” But the DOE’s demographic oversights seem too consistent to be mere lapses. They reflect an ideology, a leadership with no great fondness for zoned schools. If you believe that the overwhelming factor for student success is some fixed absolute of “teacher quality,” then it doesn’t much matter where instruction takes place—or how many children share the classroom. It’s a hermetic, data-driven conception of the learning process, per the corporate model: You pay teachers well (salaries are up 43 percent under Klein, topping out at more than $100,000), and then hold them accountable for student progress, as gauged by the imperfect measure of state test scores. If kindergartners need to be ported five exits down the L.I.E., all that counts is the skill of the figure at the front of the room. Parental involvement, neighbors’ interdependence, a 6-year-old’s fatigue after an eight-hour day—all of these are peripheral.

“The chancellor’s idea of equality is that middle-class parents should be treated with the same disdain as poor parents.”

Those close to Klein say he is agnostic when it comes to neighborhood schools, that he views them as one of several workable modes of learning delivery. But one imagines that the zoned schools’ inefficiencies must trouble him. Because of the distortions of real estate and race, among other things, some schools become too popular and others underutilized—a waste of space.

The chancellor promotes a different model: a system of choice, where parents are consumers whose role is to pick the right product for their child. Klein has labored doggedly to enrich the system with a bigger menu: from charter schools to galaxies of small high schools to an expanded universe of gifted-and-talented programs. Some experiments thrived and others fell away, just as Klein intended. For that was how families would mold the system to their needs: by choosing what worked and voting with their feet.

School choice has much to recommend it. These options have kept many families in the system who historically might have opted out, and better served some who couldn’t afford to leave. Still, the ideal of the neighborhood school—free and open to all within its domain—remains seductive to parents. “My goodness, how marvelous to have your children around the corner and to easily walk them to school,” says Deborah Meier, a pioneer and founding principal in the small-public-schools movement in New York. “They get sick, you can hop over there. The children’s friends live nearby. The pull has to be enormous, especially if you haven’t got a nanny and all those advantages that private-school parents have.”

At the end of the day, the parents of District 2 have an embarrassment of options, save one: a guaranteed seat at a school nearby that isn’t bursting at the joists. In the DOE’s perfect universe, they fear, every school would be “of choice”—transcending proximity, unconstrained by relationships outside its doors. “What they don’t get,” Andy Lachman said, “is that parents love to bring their kids to school, they love walking to the PTA meetings, they love picking their kids up—and the kids do better, too. Joel Klein just doesn’t get it.”


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