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Principal: State charter law creates rare zoned high schools

The conventional wisdom about charter schools is that they allow families a way out of their zoned schools. But for soon-to-be high school students, charter schools actually provide the nearest alternative to a zoned option, according to one school operator.

The high school admissions program run by the Department of Education is citywide, meaning that students can apply to any school in the city. But the state law governing charter schools treats high schools just like schools serving younger students: They are required to give priority in admissions to students living in their school district.

Because many charter schools have more applicants than seats, charter high schools necessarily end up with mostly students from their district. For that reason, “we’re actually a throwback to the zoned school,” Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the principal of Williamsburg Charter High School, told me last week at the lottery for the three schools in his Believe Network.

There are currently only a handful of DOE high schools who admit students based on their addresses, and there are no zoned high schools left in all of Manhattan. The decline of zoned high schools began decades ago when the city first introduced high school choice. By the time Joel Klein became chancellor, large zoned schools were underperforming, and he ramped up the rate at which they were broken down and replaced by small schools open to all high school applicants. 

Perhaps because of the low quality of what had once been zoned high schools, few have questioned the disappearance of zoned high schools. But Calderon-Melendez said serving a local population, even at the high school level, has benefits that citywide schools cannot replicate. When high schoolers go to school in their own neighborhood, they feel safer and more secure, they can participate more easily in after school programs, and their parents can stay involved, he said.

Calderon-Melendez said the state’s charter school law makes it possible for him to run schools that meet the particular needs of students in District 14, which includes Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and parts of Bushwick. Most of WCS’s students, including Calderon-Melendez’s own son, come from the neighborhood, and Calderon-Melendez said his goal is for the school’s new building, located in Bushwick, to become a community center for its families. He said he looks for local ties when hiring teachers and tries to provide paying jobs for parents who need work. WCS is even serving members of the neighborhood’s Polish community, who historically have not enrolled in its schools; Calderon-Melendez said more than 10 percent of his students speak Polish at home.

WCS is already keeping some students in the neighborhood. At the lottery last week, I met several students who said they would be attending one of the schools in the nearby Grand Street Campus if they didn’t get a spot at WCS. But far more of the eighth graders I spoke to said they would be commuting into Manhattan and Queens next year if they didn’t win a spot in the lottery, to schools such as Murray Bergtraum, Graphic Communication Arts, and Health Professions.