Small number of schools enrolls large share of public housing residents, report says

A small portion of schools serves an outsize share of students who live in public housing, according to a new report that shows how school zones can fuel disparities.

At 123 elementary and middle schools, or about 9 percent of schools, students who live in subsidized housing make up more than a third of the enrollment, according to a report released Friday by the city’s Independent Budget Office. By contrast, at over 700 other schools, such students account for less than 5 percent of the population.

Experts say the uneven distribution of those students, whose families must have low-to-moderate incomes to qualify for public housing, reflects the way school zones have historically been drawn. In some cases, a school’s catchment area consists almost entirely of public housing buildings.

“It’s kind of built into the bones of the school system that when these public houses were built, this is how the zoning maps were drawn,” said Ray Domanico, the IBO’s research director.

Research has long shown that schools with high concentrations of poor students tend to perform worse than schools with more affluent students. In New York City, where housing projects sometimes butt up against high-priced condominium buildings, stark disparities can develop between neighboring schools with vastly different concentrations of low-income students.

That is the case with two neighboring schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, whose zones the city recently proposed redrawing.

P.S. 191’s zone encompasses much of the adjacent Amsterdam Houses, leaving the school with an enrollment that is 90 percent low-income. Just nine blocks away, P.S. 199’s zone is filled with apartments that can cost upwards of $1 million; just 8 percent of its students are poor. P.S. 199’s state test scores soar above the city average, while P.S. 191’s fall far below it.

The proposed rezoning would have shifted some P.S. 199 families to 191. The city agreed to table the plan after a fierce backlash from families in the wealthier school’s zone.

Noah Gotbaum, a member of the district’s community education council, said the situation exemplified how hard it can be to convince some families to send their children to schools that serve many students from public housing — even when gentrification draws those families into the same neighborhoods.

“Because the school is dominated by the housing projects,” he said, “the non-minority families that move into the zone tend not to send their kids to the school.”

Not all housing projects are zoned for a single school. Some are split up so that several different schools each have a few buildings from a particular project, explained Nicole Mader, the education policy analyst at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

The IBO report found that the average K-8 student attends a school where 8 percent of pupils live in public housing. In 2013, 95,000 students lived in public housing, or about 9 percent of all public school students, according to the report.