legal quirk

Principal: State charter law creates rare zoned high schools

Charter school principal Eddie Calderon-Melendez, right, speaking to parents and students at his schools' lottery. (GothamSchools, Flickr)l
Charter school principal Eddie Calderon-Melendez, right, speaking to parents and students at his schools' admission lottery. (<em>GothamSchools</em>, Flickr)

The conventional wisdom about charter schools is that they allow families a way out of their zoned schools. But for soon-to-be high school students, charter schools actually provide the nearest alternative to a zoned option, according to one school operator.

The high school admissions program run by the Department of Education is citywide, meaning that students can apply to any school in the city. But the state law governing charter schools treats high schools just like schools serving younger students: They are required to give priority in admissions to students living in their school district.

Because many charter schools have more applicants than seats, charter high schools necessarily end up with mostly students from their district. For that reason, “we’re actually a throwback to the zoned school,” Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the principal of Williamsburg Charter High School, told me last week at the lottery for the three schools in his Believe Network.

There are currently only a handful of DOE high schools who admit students based on their addresses, and there are no zoned high schools left in all of Manhattan. The decline of zoned high schools began decades ago when the city first introduced high school choice. By the time Joel Klein became chancellor, large zoned schools were underperforming, and he ramped up the rate at which they were broken down and replaced by small schools open to all high school applicants. 

Perhaps because of the low quality of what had once been zoned high schools, few have questioned the disappearance of zoned high schools. But Calderon-Melendez said serving a local population, even at the high school level, has benefits that citywide schools cannot replicate. When high schoolers go to school in their own neighborhood, they feel safer and more secure, they can participate more easily in after school programs, and their parents can stay involved, he said.

Calderon-Melendez said the state’s charter school law makes it possible for him to run schools that meet the particular needs of students in District 14, which includes Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and parts of Bushwick. Most of WCS’s students, including Calderon-Melendez’s own son, come from the neighborhood, and Calderon-Melendez said his goal is for the school’s new building, located in Bushwick, to become a community center for its families. He said he looks for local ties when hiring teachers and tries to provide paying jobs for parents who need work. WCS is even serving members of the neighborhood’s Polish community, who historically have not enrolled in its schools; Calderon-Melendez said more than 10 percent of his students speak Polish at home.

WCS is already keeping some students in the neighborhood. At the lottery last week, I met several students who said they would be attending one of the schools in the nearby Grand Street Campus if they didn’t get a spot at WCS. But far more of the eighth graders I spoke to said they would be commuting into Manhattan and Queens next year if they didn’t win a spot in the lottery, to schools such as Murray Bergtraum, Graphic Communication Arts, and Health Professions.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”