School Choice Liberates Students from Zip Codes

Editor's Note: This op-ed offers an alternative perspective to the post outlining concerns about New York City's system of high school choice.

In 1995, I moved to New York to make a difference. I became a teacher at P.S. 66, a low-performing K-8 in the Bronx. It didn’t take me long to realize that my students had limitless potential.

Yet, there was always a sense that no matter how many early mornings and late nights we put in, no matter how much extra planning we did, no matter how much success my students saw in the classroom, it wouldn’t make a difference. Why?

Students at P.S. 66 were zoned for Morris High School.

Morris embodied dysfunction. At the time – and for at least a few decades prior – it had a graduation rate that should make us all ashamed. It was characterized by poor instruction, atrophied systems for teacher support, and out-of-control classrooms. In 2002, just 31 percent of kids graduated. Parents would do anything to get their kids off that campus and into a good school.

A decade ago, that’s what our school system looked like across the five boroughs. Operating under 32 unequal districts, instructional quality varied wildly between neighborhoods. Zip code – and income – often determined where students went to school. A child’s educational outcomes were largely pre-determined.

But in a short period, these dynamics started to change for the better. In 2004, I returned to the Bronx to found and lead a new high school on the Evander Childs campus. Like Morris, Evander was previously a large, failing high school that closed. The campus housed several new, small schools that delivered quality instruction. Kids were engaged. Real learning was happening. In the same borough that had known such abject failure for too long, with the same population of high-needs students, and the same per pupil funding, I witnessed a new approach that led to dramatically improved outcomes. The landscape had undergone an incredible transformation.

A simple, elegant, and common-sense policy shift enabled these changes. Instead of being told where their kids would attend high school, parents were empowered with new school options and, equally important, processes that allowed for choice among them. Zip code and family income no longer relegated kids to failing campuses.

Any high school student, in any borough, can apply to schools throughout the city. In 2003, the Department of Education streamlined and standardized the high school admissions process by introducing an application system that allows students to identify and rank up to 12 high schools in order of preference. This year, nearly 50 percent of students received their top-choice school, and almost 75 percent of students were admitted to one of their top three selections.

It was once a foregone conclusion that in America’s largest city, graduation rates would never break 50 percent. Today, it’s reached 65 percent, a record level. Among under-served populations, drop-out rates have been halved, while graduation rates have seen double-digit jumps. In 2005, only 40 percent of Black students and 37 percent of Hispanic students graduated in four years. Today, it’s 60 percent and 59 percent respectively.

The Hispanic-White and Black-White achievement gaps have closed a whopping 25 percent and 22 percent respectively. And in every borough, our new schools are graduating a higher percentage of students than the citywide average, even as it’s at an all-time high.

There are some who believe that reversing the policies that brought us to this point would somehow improve our schools. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Our system is far from perfect; we have a long way to go to deliver for the 35 percent of our students - many from low-income, high-needs neighborhoods - who still fail to graduate. But our policies have triggered a remarkable transformation of a system once widely derided as unsalvageable.

I see how far we’ve come every time I visit with students in the Bronx. Their parents can tell you that our strategy to improve the prospects for our city’s high-needs kids is working.

Instead of turning back the clock on this progress, we need to build on it.