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After panel on school choice, critique of city’s system of schools

Many of the parents and teachers attending a forum last night about school choice said it was their first time hearing Chancellor Dennis Walcott talk about the Bloomberg administration’s school policies.

Walcott defended the school choice model that has developed during Bloomberg’s tenure at the event, which was organized by the New York Times and WNYC in conjunction with their SchoolBook reporting project.

(Listen to WNYC’s coverage of the event.)

The event took place against the backdrop of a spate of school closures announced by the Department of Education earlier in the day. The city’s closure strategy, meant to clear space for better school options, has in large part fueled the increasing number of choices that families face, especially when applying in middle and high school.

Parents and teachers we spoke to said the apparent options could be dizzying, even for the most involved families. educators, some parents said they didn’t think Walcott’s answers got to the root of their concerns.

“It’s very confusing. The whole process reminds me of voting. People don’t engage because there’s too much information out there. They don’t know how to process all of it,” said Tania Cade, who has a child in third grade at P.S. 278 and another in seventh-grade at a gifted-and-talented program in Washington Heights. “I don’t think that [Walcott] addressed that issue at all. It’s all up to the parents, and God bless those parents who don’t have the time or don’t speak the language.”

Cade said she created a shortlist of criteria when she started looking for middle schools.

“That way I start off looking at five schools instead of a hundred,” she said. But she said visiting even five schools is too onerous for most parents.

Judith O’Driscoll, who lives in District 13 but sends her child to seventh-grade in nearby District 15, said she and many of her friends do not believe they have enough high-quality school options to choose from.

“There just aren’t enough seats that would feel acceptable for the parents that are really looking. There are not 12 schools that I would put on my list,” she said, referring to the number of choices high school applicants may list. “There needs to be academic rigor; discipline in the school; classes that are able to operate without disruption; a nice school facility with a gym, with outdoor space, with an auditorium — what other people take for granted.”

Three teachers from a school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, not too far from the event’s Clinton Hill location, told me they had came to the forum with high expectations of Walcott, whom they said they did not know much about, but left “disappointed.” They said they thought Walcott had glossed over the fact that some schools do not succeed by emphasizing the benefits of competition without delving into its downsides, which include school closures.

“Competition has winners and losers and there should not be winners and losers in education,” one of the teachers said. “That’s a repulsive statement to me.”

Another argued that the expansion of options in the city had actually led to more schools falling short.

“What I don’t understand is, when you close 100 schools and you open up 500, then that’s four or five times the schools that need support,” the teacher said. “You can’t even support those 100 and now you are going to try to support 500? That’s unfeasible to me. I think it even more greatly perpetuates the problem.”

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