District 6 Zoning Proposal Sparks Debate Over Choice

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A proposal to eliminate elementary school zones in District 6 has provoked a heated debate over school choice and community involvement in a section of northern Manhattan -- parts of Harlem, Inwood and Washington Heights -- that has seen tremendous demographic change in recent years.

The local Community Education Council has proposed an open application process for all the elementary schools in the district. Reports from DNAInfo.com and the Wall Street Journal have chronicled the unfolding conversation. But the issues run deeper than lines on a map. Many of the wealthier, whiter and newer residents said in recent interviews that they do not want to be subjected to school lotteries to attend their neighborhood school. While other parents, many of them Latino, say the choices in District 6 are uneven, and unfair, and they would like access to better schools, particularly the well-regarded P.S./I.S. 187 Hudson Cliffs.

Mark Narron, a father of two who lives in Inwood, said the de-zoning could drive many parents – who moved to Inwood with school proximity in mind - out of District 6.

“In a pure choice system where every family is able to put their hat in the ring for a few high quality schools, then obviously there is a good chance you’re not going to be in the neighborhood or school you choose,” said Narron, 37, whose eldest child will enter kindergarten in the fall. “If that were to happen then definitely we would leave. Even if it doesn’t happen we would think twice about staying in the neighborhood.”

There are already about a half-dozen schools in District 6 which are unzoned and have their own application but proponents of the new plan say many district residents don't know about those options. Bryan Davis, the chairman of District 6 CEC’s zoning committee, said the plan gives parents better access to all of the 25 schools in the district.

“The discussion from the beginning was how do we provide equal access to everyone in the district so that every parent has the opportunity to find a school that best fits the educational needs of the child,” Davis said.

Currently, a parent can apply to zoned schools in their district or choice schools. Each school requires a separate application. The CEC proposal eliminates the multiple applications and asks parents to rank every school in the district.

The Department of Education at first seemed to embrace Davis's proposal but now has taken a neutral stance as hearings continue. "The D.O.E. is generally interested in choice. We are working with the CEC to respond to their questions and ideas," a D.O.E. spokeswoman said.

Gretchen Mergenthaler, a mother of a fifth-grader at the Amistad Dual Language School, believes the neighborhood is vulnerable because there are many non-English speakers and others who may not know how to advocate for themselves. She said she wants parents to press for improvements at all the district schools rather than eliminating the zones.

“Its very easy for us to be pushed around which is why we are trying to get out to the new immigrants, Latinos and people of other ethnicities to understand that what our schools in this district are getting is not what schools in 'rich' districts are getting,” said Mergenthaler, who has been translating information for Spanish-speaking families.

But Davis said the proposal would benefit those very families.

“The Spanish community feels there isn’t an equitable parent involvement in the schools,” Davis said, adding that Latinos comprise about 90 percent of the District 6 school population. “The Spanish parents in this district should have equal voice and opportunity to hear the proposals on the table.”

Some residents said they fear the proposal is part of a larger move to privatize the system by closing district schools and adding charter school options.

“This district in general doesn’t get the resources it needs. In many ways District 6 is one of those marginalized communities,” said Tony Kelso, 53, a member of the CEC and parent of a fourth grader at Amistad. “If you starve the district to where the schools don’t have what they need, then its so much easier to come and close them down and put up what they want.”

Elizabeth Aguiluz, a parent of two elementary school children at Muscota, said she didn’t feel a divide between Latino parents and other ethnic groups when it came to education.

“That’s what parents have in common, no matter if you’re black, Latino, or white,” Aguiluz, 46, said. “We all want our kids to have a good education.”

As the DOE and the parent council consider the proposal, parents can weigh in. The council's zoning committee will host public hearings, starting at 6 p.m., on October 25 at P.S. 115 and on November 1 at P.S. 98.

Helena Rincon escorts her daughter Belen to P.S. 314 Muscota New School