When Parents Say "No" to Neighborhood Schools

When I was an elementary school student in Queens, New York City, I attended my local public school, P.S. 115. (NYC schools are often numbered and the P.S. just means “Public School.”)  From kindergarten through sixth grade my younger sisters and I would troop seven blocks from our house to our familiar and friendly neighborhood school. It was our second home.

When I reached seventh grade I started P.S. 172, our local junior high school. Things weren’t quite so homey.  There were safety issues – another seventh-grade girl was sexually attacked in a stairwell – and the academics were middling.  My parents were well aware of these issues because they both worked for the New York City Board of Education in other schools in Queens, my father as a high school social studies teacher and my mom as a social worker. They also knew that the high school I was slotted to attend, Martin Luther King, was more crowded and less safe than 172. So these two devout union members made a choice. Just before the start of my 8th grade year we moved to a better public school system in Nassau County.

So when I read about the passion families have for their local neighborhood schools, whether in Newark or in Chicago (where Randi Weingarten is helping lead a hunger strike to protest the phasing out of Dyett High School), I think about my parents’ quandary.  How did they square their loyalty to traditional neighborhood schools with their concerns about their daughters’ safety and academic growth?

The same way parents do in Newark.

Today the Wall St. Journal reports  on the second year of One Newark, the universal enrollment plan that allows parents to choose among all charter and traditional schools, regardless of neighborhood of residence. Now, the rhetoric among parent choice is fierce. (Example from Diane Ravitch:  It’s “the end of neighborhood schools. All district schools and charter schools will be part of a pool. Or something.”)

But parents there are making the same choice that my parents made: quality over proximity.
Just 25% of kindergartners listed the school closest to home as their top pick—a statistic officials used to bolster their argument that families want options beyond their neighborhoods.
And from today’s Star-Ledger, which reports on Cerf’s appearance before the Newark Advisory Board: “"Overall, parents are engaged and exercising their voice. They're demonstrating in huge numbers that they prefer choice. They're expressing greater satisfaction with process and how they've been treated throughout," he said.”

Neighborhood schools are cherished parts of communities. But when those schools fail to adequately nurture students, they lose their value. And when other options are available – in Newark,  those options are often charters (this year 42% of  kindergarten parents listed charters as their first choice) and for my family it was relocation – then parents do what’s best for their kids. This is  not politics. This is parenting.

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