On December 18, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced that they were provisionally barring public middle schools (for at least one year, and possibly longer) from evaluating applicants based on academic criteria such as test scores, report-card grades, and attendance records, while permanently forbidding public high schools from giving admissions preference to students who reside with the same district as those schools.
Both of these changes will likely amount to seismic shifts for Lower Manhattan families, for whom highly regarded local public schools have long been a magnet that has drawn parents to buy or rent homes Downtown. This nucleus of middle-class families, especially those drawn to Lower Manhattan as it rebuilt during the years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, formed a critical mass who were largely responsible for the renaissance of Downtown as a new and thriving residential district.
For middle schools at which the demand for seats exceeds supply, competitive evaluations of academic records (or “screens”) formerly determined which students were admitted. This process will now be conducted by lottery. Middle schools will still be allowed, however, to give preference to applicants from within their district.
For the high-performing high schools attended by a preponderance of students from Lower Manhattan (such as Millennium, Lab, Beacon, Baruch, Salk, and Eleanor Roosevelt), academic screens will remain, but the option to prioritize students from within District Two (roughly, Manhattan below 96th Street on the East Side and below 59th Street on the West Side, with the exception of part of the Lower East Side) will vanish. And starting with the academic year following this one, those high schools will also be denied the opportunity to give preference to applicants from Manhattan.
Both of these protocols have, for years, translated into a significant statistical advantage for Lower Manhattan middle-school students, as they applied to some of the most sought-after high schools in the City, while those schools also sought to cherry-pick pupils with strong academic records, who were overwhelmingly likely to graduate and attend college.
These reforms will particularly jolt the affinity that students from Battery Park City, Tribeca, and the Financial District have long had for Millennium High School, which (unique among any public secondary school in the City) has been allowed for years to prioritize applicants residing south of Houston Street.
Also changing will be the capacity for high schools to rank students by the order in which they are to be offered seats: This process was once handled by the schools themselves, but now will be centralized within the City’s Department of Education (DOE). In another policy switch, the selection criteria used by each high school to select applicants will be made public, for the first time.
In anticipation of these moves, Community Board 1 (CB1) enacted a scathing resolution at its November 24 meeting, which noted that, “15 percent of New York City families have students in screened schools, for a total of roughly 165,000 young people, and any move to change this option for those families would be absolutely life changing and would result in massive disruption to these students and their families.” The measure also argued that, “due to COVID-19, it is impossible to have public forums that would allow for a full and complete consideration and weighing of public opinion on a policy change with such radical implications for the lives of so many students and families.” The resolution also pointedly observed, “the Mayor is in the last year of his second term and is term-limited, and a new mayor is more than likely to name a new Chancellor, meaning that both office holders have limited accountability to the electorate.”
CB1’s resolution concluded by calling upon, “the Mayor, Chancellor and DOE to abandon any plan to end screened schools in New York City until after the City has moved out of the shadow of COVID-19, more voices are engaged in public forums, and a new Mayor is elected.”
The Board also demanded the development of, “a plan for admissions that includes screened schools for the 2021-22 school year within this calendar year, preferably by December 1, so that New York City families are better served by the largest public-school system in America as they plan for their lives in the next school year.”
In the event, the Mayor, the Chancellor, and the DOE ignored these calls, and instead implemented the changes announced on December 18. Families can begin submitting middle-school applications the week of January 11 (and not later than the week of February 8), while high school applications will be accepted starting the week of January 18, through the week of February 22.