2003's CIF report about segregation in District 3
CIF's 2003 report about segregation in District 3

Rather than tinkering with zone lines, District 3 should do away with school zones altogether and instead institute a near-random lottery for school placement, advocates for the district’s immigrant families say.

The Center for Immigrant Families says students should be assigned to schools not because of where they live but by a lottery that takes into socioeconomic status into account. This type of admissions system, called a “controlled choice” program, would be radical for New York City.

Cambridge, Mass., has had a controlled choice policy in place for more than two decades. Some parents in Cambridge say the policy is too formulaic and are advocating for a return to neighborhood schools, the Harvard Crimson recently reported.

In a letter sent yesterday to the Community Education Council for District 3, CIF argues that the district’s residential segregation requires attention: “The catchment seats increasingly reflect the gentrifying reality of our neighborhoods and further cement segregation.”

CIF, an advocacy group based on the Upper West Side, was one voice that in 2005 successfully lobbied for the introduction of a lottery to fill empty seats in the district’s zoned schools. *

It’s unlikely that CIF’s proposal will gain much traction. The group suggested a similar policy in 2005, but the changes made that year to district admissions procedures were nowhere near as radical as CIF advocated. And the current rezoning process on the Upper West Side is nearing its end.

Still, if the plan were implemented, it would certainly face intense opposition from families who chose their homes based on its assigned school.

Jennifer Freeman, a member of CEC 3 who heads its space committee, told me this morning that she hadn’t yet seen CIF’s letter. But she said the council supports allowing people in the district to attend schools outside of their zones. “The details of how this is done would be for another discussion,” Freeman said.

CIF’s letter to CEC 3:

For far too long, low-income and families of color in District 3 have experienced discrimination in our public elementary schools and in the process of applying to our schools. For two years, beginning in 2003, the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF) organized to bring these issues to the forefront in the district and to demand equity and access for all our families. In a community report, Segregated and Unequal: The Public Elementary Schools of District 3 in New York City, CIF documented the mechanisms by which low income families of color were excluded from some of our public elementary schools.

In 2005, at a community meeting called to address the district’s admissions policies, Chancellor Klein acknowledged that: “The current policy is not transparent, it’s inequitable, and it needs to be changed.” Soon after that meeting, CIF participated in the District 3 Kindergarten General Education and Dual Language Admissions Policy Committee for District 3 public elementary schools to help develop a proposal that would insure equity and access in our district’s elementary schools. The final proposal that the committee presented to Chancellor Klein, which resulted in the lottery for out-of-catchment seats, addressed some, but not all of our community needs.

CIF has always made clear our view, grounded in strong community research, that implementing a lottery for non-catchment students is only the first step in the process of achieving equity and desegregating our schools. We are, therefore, sending out these comments, based on recommendations we proposed at the time of the implementation of the lottery, because we strongly believe that they are germane to today’s discussions about overcrowding and rezoning and also speak to the impact of the increasing gentrification we are currently confronting in District 3 neighborhoods. We believe these issues, which are the subject of current debate in our district and throughout the city, must be examined within a framework of furthering equity and that resulting decisions and policies must be rooted in a commitment to high-quality education for all our children.

Therefore, to further equity and access for all families we are proposing:

the implementation of a “controlled choice” lottery program for all District 3 elementary school seats, which would include incorporating socio-economic status (SES) as a factor in the lottery; and re-examining our zoning/catchment lines.

Incorporating Socioeconomic Status as a Factor in the Lottery:

The inclusion of family socioeconomic status in the admissions process—that is, a controlled choice lottery plan—will help insure that diversity does, in fact, take place and that our schools do indeed fairly reflect our district’s racial and socio-economic make-up. CIF has been buoyed by the knowledge that there are 40 school districts across the country already implementing school assignment plans by socioeconomic status. Further, this type of controlled choice lottery plan would enable greater access to, and investment in all our district’s schools among a greater number of District families.

Re-Examining Our Zoning/Catchment Lines:

There is little historical perspective and understanding about the ways in which catchment lines in District 3 have been drawn and whose interests they have served; for example, it is hard to make sense of why some buildings are included in a certain catchment area while others are not. Any consideration of the redrawing of zoning lines requires a full understanding and analysis of this history.

Also, changing demographics and gentrification have turned many catchment areas into completely different communities where only those with economic resources are offered the opportunity to exercise real choice in our district. The catchment seats increasingly reflect the gentrifying reality of our neighborhoods and further cement segregation and an even harsher division among our district’s schools and within our community.

Our vision of having our district schools truly reflect all of our neighborhoods includes having a controlled choice lottery while carefully considering the longer term goal of potentially eliminating or dramatically altering the catchment lines altogether to insure that there is real choice for all our families, and not just for a small, privileged group.

Considering eliminating or substantially rethinking the catchment lines is feasible in District 3, which covers a relatively small geographic area and where large numbers of District 3 elementary school students already take public transportation to their schools.

School districts that have eliminated catchment lines have found that it has helped further equity among and in the schools and offers meaningful choice to far greater numbers of families (see Cambridge, MA school system as one example).

Simply re-drawing the district’s zoning lines based on the needs of one group of families is not the appropriate or ethical way to move forward. We believe the issue of rezoning in District 3 requires greater input and partnership from all families, communities, and neighborhoods within the district and that a major rethinking of the catchment lines to develop a proposal that meets the needs of all our families is in order.

In addition to the work we have done in District 3, we have engaged in research on different models and mechanisms that have been implemented by school districts around the country to learn from their attempts to insure equity and real diversity in their schools. We firmly believe the current proposals about overcrowding and rezoning that are being considered must be addressed within the context of how they serve the needs of our entire community, rather than being defined by, and catering to, narrow interests. Our time, energy, and resources must be devoted to insuring that all our children receive the education they deserve and to which they are entitled. We want district policies and practices that embrace and strengthen all our children. We must not accept any proposal that does not move us closer to achieving that goal and hope this proposal helps move us in that direction.

* This article originally suggested that CIF has reservations about how middle-class families have used the lottery. It does not.

About the organization’s proposal to consider abolishing or substantially rethinking zone lines in the district, Donna Nevel of CIF said: “The goal of our proposal is open discussion and to really put equity and fairness at the forefront of the discussion. Let’s really make sure that the voices of all members of our community are a part of the conversation.”