The Secret Lottery System: New York City Public Schools Considered The Best Want White Children, The Wealthier The Better
The NYC Department of Education has established a system whereby white children from wealthy neighborhoods are placed in "The Best" public schools in New York City. How they do this: creating PR around a "Lottery" that does not exist; interviews, telephone calls to the 'right' people, all the same moves that are in place for a secret government. by Betsy Combier
February 18, 2005
City Considers Lottery System for Admission to Top Schools
By SUSAN SAULNY, NY TIMES
For decades, the principals of some of the highest performing neighborhood schools on the Upper West Side have been allowed to handpick students from outside their geographic zones to fill hundreds of coveted empty seats.
But that practice may be over. Under pressure from neighborhood residents who say the system favors wealthy white families, the Department of Education is considering a lottery system to distribute spots in those schools.
The old practice - widely known but not documented as official policy - let knowledgeable parents place their children in top-performing schools and avoid neighborhood schools seen as less desirable.
For the better part of a generation, this maneuvering has been commonplace, and often regarded as the only alternative to private school or moving out of the city. In the wealthier parts of District 3, around the Upper West Side, many schools have empty seats because of the large number of children who attend private and parochial schools.
Critics charge that the system, unregulated by the central administration, has allowed principals there to exclude families from the poor and overcrowded parts of the same district in Harlem and Manhattan Valley. Faced with increasingly heated complaints from such families, the city decided to reconsider the way extra seats would be distributed as of this spring.
"We're trying to improve a past practice," said Roser Salavert, the local instructional superintendent for the area, at a community meeting on Tuesday in Harlem, where tempers flared about the lack of information about the old practice and the new rule. Dr. Salavert tried to reassure the crowd, saying the goal was to revamp the system "and make it more fair for everybody."
Parents said they were left with the impression that the lottery had been accepted as the new admissions policy. Dr. Salavert said a task force would be convened to study the feasibility of the lottery. Yesterday, a more senior official, Michele Cahill, said that the whole idea was merely a proposal being considered.
"There's been no decision on this," said Ms. Cahill, the chancellor's senior counselor for education policy. A decision should be made by mid-March, she said.
As news of the lottery idea spread, it upset parents on both sides of the issue and in all parts of the district, known for its striking contrasts in wealth and ethnic makeup, from the northern end in Harlem to the southern part near Midtown.
Parents said the change was too abrupt, coming so close to spring, when decisions have to be made about where to send a child to school.
"We cannot accept this notion that we are somehow out of bounds for trying to find the best schools for our children," said Mark Diller, co-president of the parents association at Public School 87, on 78th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.
At P.S. 87, one of the most sought-after schools in District 3, about 44 percent of 915 students come from outside the zone.
Another parent, Tom Thompson, who enrolled his son at P.S. 87 rather than his neighborhood school, P.S. 166, said: "District 3 is proceeding with this change behind closed doors and proposes to enact it immediately."
According to the new proposal, students in District 3 would have access to the first lottery. Any remaining seats would be offered by lottery to students in neighboring districts, then to students citywide.
Last June, a nonprofit immigrants' advocacy group, the Center for Immigrant Families, presented the Education Department with two years' worth of research into what it called discriminatory practices in District 3, said Priscilla Gonzalez, an organizer for the advocacy group, which is based in Manhattan. Another official with the group, Ujju Aggarwal, said that it had been exploring legal action against the schools. "We identified many ways that school officials in this district have been keeping families out of their own schools," Ms. Gonzales said. "This district holds itself up to be one of the more progressive in the city. For this to be happening, it's shameful."
The report from the group, "Segregated and Unequal," said that the student population in District 3 was 38 percent black, 33 percent Latino, and 22.8 percent white. "However," the report states, "the racial breakdown in individual elementary schools is very different from the districtwide figures, and reflects a clear pattern of racial concentration. A number of our district's elementary schools range from 38.6 to 64.4 percent white, while other schools are over 95 percent children of color."
The schools that Ms. Gonzalez said were the "most exclusionary" to the poor and racial minorities are also the most sought-after by parents: Public Schools 9, 87, 166, 199 and 333 - all between 70th and 93rd Streets.
At the gathering in Harlem where Dr. Salavert spoke, a meeting of the District 3 Community Education Council, parents and council members expressed displeasure with the way changes to the admissions policy were being made.
"I'm a little insulted because I feel we, as parents in the community, deserve the details," said Beth DiGiandomenico, co-president of the PTA at P.S. 75.
The old process allowed for the automatic acceptance of siblings in families that had been admitted into the sought-after schools. The proposal would end that practice after next year.
Mr. Thompson, for example, said he had counted on his 4-year-old child joining an older brother at P.S. 87 in the fall. The change creates a "logistical and emotional burden" for him and similar families, he said.
Cordell Cleare, the president of the District 3 Community Education Council, said the panel had already voted to try to delay the city's decision until next year.
Of the lottery idea, she said, "In its current state we can't support it."
At Booker T. Washington MS 54, the demographics of the student population are misleading, as the programs in the school are segregated by race: The Delta Honors Program is almost completely white; the students are given applications to take the Specialized High School Exam for Stuyvesant High School, Bronx Science, and the other specialized schools, the students are picked for the Math/Science Institute, they are given textbooks and a rigorous academic program. The NOVA, Charles Drew, and Manhattan Valley children are mostly black or hispanic, do not receive textbooks, but xeroxed copies of pages or nothing; they are not told about the Specialized High School Exam, and if they ask about this, are told "This test is not for you"; the students have substitute teachers many days of the week; the students who are in Special Education are not tested or put onto the roster of the school, if they come from a restricted environment school such as P811M.
Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina was for more than 10 years, Principal of one of "The Best" public schools in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side: PS 6. She kept the school's student population mostly white saying that the demographics of the neighborhood supported this, and she still has never answered questions about the allocation of Annenberg Challenge For the Arts Grant money - $225,000 - to the partner school, PS 198.
At PS 198 the student population is mostly black and hispanic.
Carmen Farina: Politics Wins With Her Appointment as Deputy Chancellor in New York City