Upper Manhattan Parents Debate De-zoning Again

The prospect of doing away with local school boundaries continues to be a divisive issue among parents in Harlem, Inwood and Washington Heights. This week, the Department of Education held community hearings to explore the topic again. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, dozens of residents gathered outside the DOE's headquarters with City Council Education Chairman Robert Jackson, of Upper Manhattan, to oppose eliminating local school zones.

Tony Kelso, a member of Community Education Council 6 (CEC 6), worried that de-zoning would lead the city to close down failing schools.

“Inevitably more people will migrate towards certain schools," he explained. “They won’t have enough people in those schools and it will make it easier for the DOE to say, 'well this space isn’t being used, we’ll just close it down and turn it into a charter.'”

Currently, students in the majority of school districts in New York City attend a school that is closest to their homes. But in the three districts that have been de-zoned, including District 1 in the Lower East Side, District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville and East New York, parents can apply to send their children to any school in their district.

Conversations about de-zoning District 6 began in October, 2012 when CEC 6 proposed a plan of its own. The news was met with mixed reactions. Some parents were eager for the opportunity to send their child to a better school. Others argued that eliminating boundaries would lead more children and parents to have to travel far for school, and would destroy a school’s sense of community.

Then, this week, the Department of Education held two informational meetings on de-zoning for parents in District 6. No action can be taken anytime soon, however. The newly elected CEC takes office this summer and it's not known whether its members will pursue the plan. But some say they hope changes are made.

“A lot of people feel stuck in their situations,” said the outgoing CEC 6 president, Judith Amaro, who said there are parents who want to revive the debate. Amaro said she thinks that most of the parents who are opposed to de-zoning are those with children in the district's better schools.

“The people with the loudest voices are the ones in the most comfortable situations, and I personally feel that’s not fair."

But Councilman Jackson said he felt the DOE was trying to pressure the community into de-zoning by holding another round of meetings this week.

“This is moving too fast,” Jackson told the crowd of opponents on Tuesday. “We don’t trust the DOE, especially the last six months of this current administration.”

Devon Puglia, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said the department was approached by several members of CEC 6 and was only responding to their concerns. “If you turned back the clock ten years ago, families were trapped in their zoned schools. Today, families are empowered with more great options than ever before,” Puglia said in an email.

But Gretchen Mergenthaler, a mother of a fifth grader in the district, said that the option of sending a child to a school farther away will hurt students, not help them.

“I do have many friends who have to travel for school for many reasons,” Mergenthaler said. “They say they barely know anybody at the school because they just can’t be there.”