Shopping for Schools in NYC

An article in the New York Times discusses the school choice process parents face for their children in NYC. In a city where education is such an important issue for families, parents and kids are stressing out over it earlier and earlier. The article questions whether educational choices give more options or whether "school shopping" just makes it harder for families.

Mommy Poppins was interviewed for the article and I will share excerpts of the interview with you. I hope it provides some useful information on the school process and the education choices for kids in NYC. Here's Mommy Poppins' experience:

Our overall plan was to find a school that we liked and then move nearby (even if it's not a zoned school, we wanted to live close for convenience and to make it easier to be more involved with the school.)

Our process was pretty methodical. We got the New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools book by Clara Hemphill, read it from cover to cover; cross-referenced schools we liked with neighborhoods we would be interested in living in. We then toured as many of the schools as we could (about 10), narrowed it down to two that we actually applied to for pre-K, and then we had some others we were interested in that didn't start until K.

Does New York City provide enough good, local neighborhood school
options for families?

I think the more money you have the more educational options you have. We had the luxury of moving to a neighborhood that has a good school. Even though we chose a choice school, we still moved into an expensive area to be near it. I still found, though, we had a lot of options and I think there are a lot of choices around the city.

Is sufficient information provided to families to make navigating
school choice a fair and equitable process?

This one's easy. No. As far as I know the DOE does not give any
information to help families figure out what their options are and
how to exercise them. Even their website is impossible to navigate. We got all our information from private sources like the Clara Hemphill book and other websites and through friends who have older kids. Hopefully, the Mommy Poppins web site will be another resource. I think that there are many families who don't even know what the choices are and that's a shame. Many are daunted by the process and don't even want to try.

Are the admissions rules fair and equitable?

I understand that changes were made this year that made them more fair. I think that there has been a certain unspoken sense of
entitlement that the G&T programs were made to keep the white middle class families in the public schools and so people expected they would be given a spot. I understand this is being broken down, which is probably a good thing, but is making the people that think they are entitled to those spots nervous.

What schools did you look at? The 10?

PS 150, The Neighborhood School, The Earth School, Lower Lab, Anderson, PS 41, PS 3, PS 234, NEST, Special Music School, PS 191, Hunter and Manhattan New School are the ones that I toured.

What kind of school/program were you looking for? Why?

The things that were important to us were class size, school size, a really engaging and adventurous curriculum, and amazing teachers. A Spanish program was a big plus, we also wanted a school that felt like a healthy environment--kids got to move around and the school cared about the community and social issues. The school community and charm were also really important. After looking at all the schools they kind of all seemed the same for the most part. I mean, I liked specific things about certain schools, but it all kind of came out in the wash. I think I looked at a pretty broad range of schools, and quite a few of them, and they all seemed pretty good. In the end, charm was a huge decider for us.

The Manhattan New School, for instance, is super charming with it's oriental rugs, antiques and reading nooks in the halls. Plus all the teachers there seemed amazing. Each one felt like "your favorite teacher" type--lots of personality and really engaged. The computer teacher really impressed me with both his personality and talking about how the kids create a video news program. The school just really seemed to have good energy.

The Neighborhood School has a totally different kind of charm--a little more East Village-y in vibe and a cool energy. The kids were all over the classroom doing research and they do robots in the older grades. Also a strong Spanish program.

PS 150 is also very charming. It's such a tiny little school, with just one class per grade, so it has this little village feeling. I liked that it seemed like I could be really involved in the school--make an impact-- without having to deal with scary PTA politics that I felt existed in some of the big power-PTA schools like 41 or 234.

My basic feeling is that the academic part of elementary school --especially until 3rd grade--is pretty basic. Kids are going to learn to read and write and do arithmetic at any school. But this is a time when kids are shaping their identities and their sense of community. I went to PS 41 in the 70s. Most of what I got out of that experience was the PTA and community stuff. I remember protesting for a crossing guard and doing all the fundraisers. That shaped me a lot more than any of the other stuff I learned there. --so community is huge to me.

Is all this effort really worth it?

Worth what? Worth staying in the city? Worth finding a better school? There has been some writing about how having too many choices makes people unhappy and that urban parents have so many choices that they feel like they have to have "the best" of everything. If we didn't have choices we would probably be happy with what we had--or we would work to make our schools better. I think this would probably be better for most people. But then there are people who live in neighborhoods with bad schools and in communities that aren't going to work to make the school better. For those people it's probably a good thing to have choice. For me personally, I found touring the schools interesting so it wasn't really a "worth it" problem. I did it partly because I enjoyed it. I didn't really get too crazy about the whole thing. I don't think in the end we necessarily pick a school touted as "the best." We picked a very good school where we liked the community and it worked for our lives overall.

You seem to have been committed to NYC but not to any particular neighborhood. Is that right?

We're from NY. I didn't feel like I had to live here, but I wanted to be around my family. As for neighborhoods, we weren't committed to one neighborhood, but when push came to shove neighborhood became an important deciding factor. We weren't actually able to bring ourselves to move to the Upper East Side even though Manhattan New School might have been my favorite school.

Having kids totally changed living in the city for me. I was surprised, but I LOVE having kids in the city. It has made the city a lot more fun for me. I love all the things that we can do here. I love the lifestyle you can have with kids. That's probably the impetus for my website. I want to share my love of NY as a kid-city. I want more people to take advantage of the amazing resources here and to break through the myths of the city--like that the schools aren't good, or that the bureaucracy is crazy, or that you have to go nuts over the application process. I want to help people be less afraid of the "system" by arming them with the information that will help them navigate and realize it's not that big of a deal. I'm not saying there aren't serious problems, but for most individuals it's usually not as bad as people think.

Did you consider just moving to the suburbs?

The suburbs? I don't think there is a "just move to the burbs". It's not like that's so easy. So then, instead of searching for the school and neighborhood, you are searching for the burb. It would have been a lot more time and effort to sift through all the towns and cross reference schools, with community, price of homes, commute, is it a walking town, etc etc etc... makes finding a school in the city sound easy. And, it's not really cheaper. They're paying 45K in taxes in the towns with great schools! But, most of all, I was committed to living within half an hour from my office. I want to work in the classroom, go to PTA meetings, be able to pick my kids up from school on occasion and all that. That's not possible if you live in the suburbs and work full-time so that pretty much ruled out the burbs for me.

Did you consider private school?

We considered it. We've had both experiences ourselves. As I said, I think community is a huge part of elementary school and the city has such fabulous elementary schools. I'm also sad that the private schools have kind of "jumped the shark". Many of the New York City private schools are really wonderful, but they have become so expensive and there is so much wealth, the communities just feel different. If money really wasn't an issue we might do private just for class size alone, but I think the publics are good enough that you don't need to spend all that money just for elementary school.

Have you thought ahead to the middle school process?

Of course! We hope to stay in the public schools as long as we can, but we will go private if we have to. Depending on our circumstances we would consider moving to a cheaper location to help swing private school. I am hearing that there are also a lot of good choices for public middle school. The Lab School sounds great. PS 89 sounds pretty solid and they say they take most of the downtown kids that apply--so kind of a safety. But I know also that things are going to change a lot between now and then. Downtown parents are lobbying pretty hard for a zoned middle school and they are building a new K-8. In sum, I think there are a lot of good choices and I am optimistic that there will be even more by the time it comes up for us.

About the process in particular, I hear from other parents that it is pretty bad. The increased importance in testing is just a bad idea. It's too much pressure on kids at too young an age and it diverts class time to teaching to the test. I don't really understand why the middle school process is different from elementary and high school. For both of these, kids can apply independently to the schools they want and only take the tests for those schools if they choose to apply. Having to rank your school choices just doesn't seem very fair. I think moving to the K-8 model will be much better. If there were more K-8s and/or good zoned schools then 8 year olds wouldn't be worrying so much about testing. And only families that decide to get into the specialized schools could take the tests.