A NYC Mom Asks, “Why Aren’t Un-Zoned Schools Held to the Same Standards as Charter Schools?”


Hunter College Elementary School just released applications for spots in its 2017 kindergarten class. Popular perceptions to the contrary, Hunter is not a public school but, rather, a “publicly- funded” school. While the K-12 Upper East Side lab school is tuition-free, it is not under the auspices of the New York City Department of Education (DOE). It does not need to follow the DOE’s curriculum or regulations, and students are not required to take the annual state tests.

Applications just opened also to The Special Music School, a public/private partnership. The academic portion of the school’s programming is provided by the DOE; students take the state tests and are ranked among the highest scorers in the city. Intensive music instruction is funded by private donations.

These schools aren’t open to everyone who wants in; in fact, both are notoriously selective. Hunter requires an IQ test, followed by a group interview for the top scorers. Of the 2500 Manhattan-residing students who apply annually, only 50 are offered admission at the Kindergarten level. The Special Music School accepts merely 15 of the 650 children who audition from all over NYC.

Yet neither school faces media charges of poaching the best students, private contributions creating an uneven playing field, screening out low performers, having a demographic that doesn’t match the surrounding neighborhood, or creating an obsession with testing. These are all charges that are leveled at New York City charter schools.

Well, the argument goes, Hunter and SMS are schools for gifted and talented kids. They shouldn’t be held to the same standards as charter schools, which are supposed to serve all students.

What about New York City’s unzoned schools, then? Unzoned schools are general education public schools that don’t give priority to students in their zone, but are open to applications from the entire district.

In Manhattan’s District 2, the unzoned school is the high-performing Midtown West. Located on West 48th Street, it is 48% White and 21% Free Lunch. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, PS 111 on West 53rd Street is 50% Hispanic, 16% Black and 100% Free Lunch. How exactly is Midtown West not skewing the diversity of the neighborhood schools or stealing away top performers and their affluent, involved parents?

In District 3, the unzoned Manhattan School for Children’s PTA raised over $400,000 in 2015 for field trips, technology and extra classroom supplies. The school is 80% White and Asian, with 18% qualifying for Free Lunch. It shares a building with MS 256 (88% Free Lunch) and MS 258 (67% Free Lunch). Would it have been better for the community if MSC didn’t raise money privately for themselves but shared it with the other schools in their building for extras everyone could enjoy? Instead, MSC parents donated a greenhouse with an environmental science lab and urban farm for the roof… that only MSC students use.

District 4’s unzoned Central Park East I was founded in 1974 to bring the children of East Harlem a hands-on, progressive, art-focused education. Now in 2016, only 24% of the student body resides in District 4. In fact, 29% live in District 3, and only 25% of the school’s enrollment qualifies for Free Lunch, at odds with the district’s broader demographics.

District 4 parents have even gone so far as to accuse the school of deliberately keeping local families away in favor of more affluent ones from other districts via a manipulated waitlist. The school responded that it was committed to enrolling parents who were in sync with their progressive model. How exactly is that not cherry-picking students?

Unzoned schools share a great deal in common with charter schools, including drawing their students through lottery.  Both attract parents looking for something different than their local schools, whether that’s a more progressive environment or a more academically-rigorous one. In both case, parents must be  informed and proactive enough to know how to go about getting it.

So why aren’t unzoned school judged for it too?

— Alina Adams

Alina Adams is a New York City mom of 3 school-age children. Her website is NYC School Secrets. This post originally appeared on New York School Talk.

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