At council budget hearing, talk turns to high school admissions

A middle school in eastern Queens has been hit particularly hard by the limits of the city’s high school admissions system, according to a local elected official who wants a new high school program opened to serve shut-out eighth-graders.

City Councilman Mark Weprin announced during a council hearing today that 67 students at M.S. 72 in Springfield Gardens wound up without a match last week when high school admissions decisions came out. The students made up 20 percent of the eighth grade, meaning that M.S. 72 students went unmatched at twice the citywide rate.

“There are 67 kids who think they did something wrong,” Weprin said. But their only offense, he said, is that students at M.S. 72 — which posts lower-than-average test scores but has a selective program — often don’t want to go to the high school most likely to accept them.

“The zoned high school is Martin Van Buren High School, and not a single parent put it as one of their choices,” Weprin said. Instead, he said, students aim for Francis Lewis High School or Bayside High School — two of the last high-performing comprehensive schools in the city. Both have many more students than their buildings are supposed to accommodate.

Education Committee chair Robert Jackson cautioned Weprin about sticking to the assigned topic, the Department of Education’s proposed capital budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. (The council is holding a hearing about the department’s operations budget on Thursday.) Weprin acknowledged that M.S. 72’s situation is “tangential to the capital budget” but that one solution would be to build more schools to accommodate the demand at schools that are overenrolled right now.

Another solution, Weprin told Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, who was testifying about the budget proposal “is to put a new program into Van Buren that would attract some of the M.S. 72 kids. It’s crazy that no one wants to apply there.”

The strategy is one that the Department of Education is trying this year at several other schools where demand for seats is low. For over a decade, the department has focused intently on closing low-performing schools and opening new ones in their place, but this year, most of the large schools that the city tried unsuccessfully to shutter last year stayed off the chopping block. Instead, they’re getting new selective programs designed to boost enrollment; reduce the density of high-need students, which the state is demanding; and add academic rigor to buildings where that has been lacking.

In 2011, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch criticized the city for turning Automotive High School, one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city, into a “warehouse” for needy students. This year, Automotive is getting its first screened program, in mechanical engineering. John Dewey High School, which was almost closed last year, is getting a screened health professions program, and in Queens, John Adams High School is adding performance arts and engineering programs that will be open only to students with certain grades and scores.

The strategy might not work at Martin Van Buren, whose most famous dropout might be — somewhat ironically — the Nobel laureate who designed the city’s high school admissions system. After a dramatic enrollment decline in the last few years, the school is actually serving exactly as many students — about 2,200 — as it was designed to, according to Department of Education data about school capacity. And it already does have selective programs, in health professions and math and science. But those programs attracted few applicants last year, according to data published in the city’s high school directory.

The school might rebound without any enrollment intervention. After parents protested against longtime principal Marilyn Shevell last year, the Department of Education replaced her with Sam Sochet in July. Weprin praised Sochet but said, “It’s going to take people a long time to start believing in” Van Buren again.

The discussion of high school admissions was only a brief sideshow in a hearing that focused heavily on the city’s plans to remove light fixtures that can leak toxic PCBs from school buildings. The department plans to clear 97 buildings of PCBs this summer and another 73 in 2014 using its proposed budget, Grimm said. But Jackson called that timeline “totally unacceptable” and asked repeatedly whether more schools could be cleared if the department had more money for the project. (Comptroller John Liu, who is running for mayor, has championed using “Green Apple Bonds” to raise funds for PCB removal.)

More money could potentially speed PCB removal, Grimm replied, but having enough time to work on school buildings when students and teachers are not present also factors into the timeline.

About the pace of PCB removal, which is needed in nearly 800 buildings, Grimm said, “Can we see if that could be increased somewhat if there were more resources? Yes. Can we do everything in the summer of ’14? No.”