Zip Code Is ‘Destiny’ for Students in New York City

Despite school choice, a new study reports that a child's neighborhood still has a major impact on college readiness.

For many students, charter schools offer alternatives to failing public schools. However, according to a new report, where a child lives in New York City still matters. (Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

New York City has always been a city divided by its neighborhoods. This is especially true when it comes to education.

To help eradicate the achievement gap between neighborhoods, especially with regard to school choice, 500 new small schools and 100 new charter schools have been created over the last decade.

Despite this push for school choice by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a new study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, RI, suggests the city still has a long way to go to increase education equity.

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College readiness rates “are still largely predicted by the demographics of a student’s home neighborhood,” the study states. “This suggests that the strategies of school choice and school creation are not sufficient to create the equity that the administration has envisioned.”

For example, in neighborhoods that have 100 percent black and Latino residents, fewer than 10 percent of high school students graduate ready for college. That’s a direct contrast to wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods, which have the highest college-readiness rates. In fact, 13 of  the 15 neighborhoods with students most ready for college are in Manhattan.

“The relationship between the two variables—students’ college readiness scores and the racial composition of neighborhoods across New York City—is remarkably tight.” the study states.

The study, which is based on one year of data, shows that “the higher the average mother’s level of education in any New York City neighborhood, the higher the college readiness scores of the students residing in that neighborhood.” A higher percentage of single mothers in a neighborhood showed a lower level of college readiness of students.

The Annenberg study contrasts greatly with a 2010 “manifesto” by former New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein and former Washington, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Klein and Rhee, along with other educators and President Barack Obama, stated that while race or zip code plays into a student’s success in school, it’s the quality of teachers that matters more. In fact, the Annenberg study indicates that, indeed, these geographic factors do play a key role in student achievement.

Why does this disparity still exist after a decade of perceived improvements of school choice in New York City?

The authors of the Annenberg study refer to a 2011 study by Sean Corcoran, a New York University Assistant Professor, and Henry Levin, a Teachers College professor.

The New York City high school selection process is complicated. Students are allowed to pick up to 12 choices but often students—about 7 percent according to Corcoran and Levin—only pick one. The pair found a direct correlation between a student’s socioeconomic background and their neighborhood and how many programs they list.

In turn, students from poorer neighborhoods tend to list fewer choices than their richer peers. Low-achieving students picked schools with low graduation rates.

But even the matching process for students who chose a high-achieving school appears skewed, according to Corcoran and Levin. Students are often matched to a high school that is similar to their middle school.

The Annenberg study suggests more examination needs to occur regarding students in middle school before they make their choices for high school.

“It may well be, for example, that the relatively small numbers of the system’s middle schools that serve more advantaged students have lower student/guidance counselor ratios and more experienced and effective counselors,” the study’s researchers wrote.

The researchers argue that the number of placements in New York City’s educational option program has greatly decreased over the last 10 years. They suggest that the number should increase in order to help black and Latino students in the choice process.

In conclusion, the Annenberg study suggests that city’s restructured school system is “far from sufficient to meet the citywide equity challenge.”

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