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School Choice Hasn't Fixed Graduation-Rate Inequity in N.Y.C., Study Says

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NYCMap.JPGUPDATED Since 2004, students in New York City have been allowed to choose where to attend high school. But that freedom to leave their neighborhood schools hasn't translated into higher graduation rates for students from low-income families, according to a study released Wednesday.

A new analysis of graduation rates by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, shows that while New York City's overall four-year graduation rate reached 70 percent in January, the graduation rates for students who live in low-income neighborhoods lag behind those of their wealthier peers by as much as 34 percentage points.

Only 60.9 percent of the high school students who live in the beleaguered Morris Heights, Fordham South, and Mount Hope neighborhoods of the Bronx are graduating from high school in four years, even though many chose to attend schools in other neighborhoods. For students who live in the wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods of Battery Park City, Greenwich Village, and SoHo, on the other hand, the high school graduation rate is 95.1 percent, the study found.

"After more than a decade of universal school choice, a child's community district is still highly associated with his or her likelihood of graduating high school in four years," the study said.

The data-mapping project by researchers Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps provides the first look at New York City high school graduation rates based on where students live, rather than where they attend school. It poses layers of questions about how much a high school choice system can improve outcomes for low-income students by freeing them from their neighborhood high schools.

It's likely that a number of students have indeed enrolled in far better schools than the ones their home neighborhoods offered, and have benefited from those choices, Lewis and Burd-Sharps say in the report. But overall, the persistent low graduation rates in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods means that school choice has "not fixed the problem it was designed in part to solve," they write.

A cluster of factors likely account for the persistent low graduation rates among students who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, the study says, including the possibility that there are simply too few good high schools in the city.

Another is the tremendous complexity of the high school choice process. Investigating and visiting schools, and guiding students through the portfolio submissions and other admissions requirements, takes time, resources, and savvy that give educated, wealthy, socially connected parents an edge.

"Competition in this arena is a blood sport, and successful admission to the best selective high schools requires focus, contacts, money, time,
flexibility, transportation, extreme attention to detail, and the ability to prioritize the school admissions process over work or family obligations," the study says.

Families get much of their information about high school through word of mouth, and New York City's socioeconomically segregated neighborhoods could mean that a low-income family's information is more likely to be "limited to others with fewer resources."

Distance can play a factor in limiting students' high school choices, too. Even though students are theoretically free to choose their top schools anywhere in the city's five boroughs, enrollment patterns suggest that most attend schools they can reach by traveling no less than 30 minutes from home. "Schools that are closer to the homes of low-income high schoolers are more likely to be struggling than those in affluent (but often far away) neighborhoods," the study says.

The elementary and middle schools that students attend can also play a role in their high school graduation pathways. Many of the high schools that produce the best outcomes are tough to get into, and if students had weak academic preparation in their neighborhood elementary and middle schools, that puts them at an admissions disadvantage, the study says.

Lewis and Burd-Sharps call on the city to invest more heavily in supporting low-income families and neighborhoods, and addressing residential segregation.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education told the Wall Street Journal that 60 percent of students attend high school outside their neighborhoods. The city has worked to provide better supports for the high school choice process in low-income areas, she said, including admissions support, translation services, and guidance for students in temporary housing.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, who was the senior deputy chancellor of the city schools, said the department never intended high school choice, in and of itself, to be the force for improvement. Its key aim was to create many more school options for students that offered more engaging, personalized and rigorous learning experiences. And studies have shown that those options did boost graduation rates significantly in high-poverty neighborhoods, he said.
But it's also true that the new schools didn't close the achievement gap, said Polakow-Suransky, who is now the president of Bank Street College. That's because the skills gaps are so profound by the time students enter kindergarten, he said. The city has made an important investment by extending prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, he said, but deeper investments need to be made in infants, toddlers, their caregivers and their families in the zero-to-four years.

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