Walcott: School Choice Is Not Too Much of a Good Thing

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WNYC Listen to the SchoolBook community event on school choice

A few hundred people, the vast majority of whom were parents, turned out for SchoolBook's first community event Thursday evening on the campus of the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

Based on the questions submitted, it was clear that many in the audience had strong responses to the question posed to Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott by the WNYC radio host, Brian Lehrer, "School Choice: Too Much of a Good Thing?"

Parents applauded when Mr. Lehrer described the anxiety that choice provokes. And they applauded when a parent asked about the lack of diversity at the city's "big three" specialized high schools, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant.

There was dismay when Laura Klein, a middle school teacher in the Bronx, said during a panel that followed the Walcott interview that most of her students do not benefit from the high-school choice process — and only a few lucky ones get into schools that can really change their lives.

A parent leader, Kelvin Diamond, from District 13 in Brooklyn, said he was finding the process fragmented and discouraging as he began the high school search for his daughter. He was warmly applauded when he suggested that some school tours and other events take place on weekends, so that working parents can attend more and fulfill their desire to be involved.

And Carla Trujillo, who faces language and cultural barriers as a new immigrant in the city and was also a panel member, said she worried about the lack of translators and materials for parents like her. Beth Fertig, WNYC's longtime education reporter, said she had asked Ms. Trujillo before the event whether she relied on her son for translation. In a reply that had many parents in the room chuckling, Ms. Trujillo said she could not always be sure he would pass along everything she needed to know.

Mr. Walcott remained a staunch defender of the school choice process, saying he wished he had the same options for his children when they were heading to high school. He said, though, that the choices must all be of high quality — something the Department of Education is working toward, he said, including by closing schools that are not deemed to be working academically or otherwise.

(On the matter of quality, Rashid Davis, principal of the new P-Tech high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said high schools with open enrollment do not know what kind of education a child has received in the 10 years before he or she arrives at his doorstep, making it difficult for high school educators to address any deficits. He suggested that the city create a "high school readiness index" for middle school students to better gauge what is going on in the lower grades.)

When one parent asked the chancellor how soon she should start worrying about the choice of middle school for her two children who are now 4 and 6, the audience gasped and giggled. But Mr. Walcott displayed no emotion as he talked up the importance of parents' involvement in their children's schooling — and told her it is never too early to start thinking about the path to college and choosing the appropriate schools.

But how? The night was long on discussion, short on specifics. After the event, many parents said they came looking for some concrete advice to help them navigate a system that they are finding overwhelming.

Mr. Lehrer, on his radio program on Friday, will be asking listeners to send suggestions to help fellow parents get through the months leading to middle-school and high-school balloting. The listeners are being directed to SchoolBook's query, below.

We invite those of you who have been through the process to share your wisdom. We will create a SchoolBook "Guide" out of your answers.

Please share three tips/bits of advice/observations that can help other New York City school parents in their school search.

To all who came and participated, many thanks.