Stuck in the middle

New York's drive to help low-income students has left some middle-class families feeling squeezed out

In the race to improve urban schooling, one group in particular is feeling neglected: those in the middle.

Take Melanie Cissone, a mother of two young boys living on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Ms. Cissone says she's not asking for anything extraordinary. She'd like her children to attend a good public high school with a traditional curriculum. And she doesn't want them to have to ride the subway for an hour to get there.

Many cities, including New York, have been encouraged by greater interest from middle-class families in sending their children to public school. But particularly when it comes to high school, some middle-class parents are protesting that they're not finding what they need.

"It's the A-, the B+ kids who are getting the miserable treatment," says Jeanne Kassler, another Manhattan mother of two. And when parents of such students do make requests for their children, as Cissone and Dr. Kassler have done as part of a group called the Partnership for an Upper East Side High School, they are stung by accusations of elitism and racism.

The drive for a neighborhood high school in an area often considered a bastion of privilege is in some respects a tale unique to the Big Apple and its clustering of great wealth and great poverty, sometimes in neighborhoods just a subway stop or two apart.

But in other ways, the tug-of-war over the issue reflects tellingly on school reform across the United States. In recent years, much of urban school reform has focused on pulling up the schools at the bottom of the system, all the while funding magnet schools that continue to attract elite students. There is little interest, many parents argue, in creating high schools for students from middle-income families who may have strong academic records but can't ace the tough entrance exams for the few prestigious public schools.

"There are so many advocates for the dysfunctional, and their voices get heard, and there just aren't any advocacy groups for middle-class, functioning people," says Heather MacDonald, a fellow at New York City's Manhattan Institute.

Getting sympathy for a group that has not had to face some of the worst conditions in urban schooling can be difficult.

For one thing, the situation has often been reversed, as is the case in Chicago, where some residents recently went on a hunger strike to protest the building of two magnet high schools in affluent city neighborhoods and the neglecting of the needs of a low-income, largely immigrant area.

Targeting middle-class concerns amid other pressing needs can also be politically perilous. "It is at best ill-advised and at worst downright unattractive to talk about closing down those programs [for disadvantaged children] to make room for kids from families with more options," says Anthony Shorris, deputy chancellor for management and policy for New York's board of education. Anyway, adds Mr. Shorris, "that community turned its back on [a neighborhood high school] many years ago" when large numbers of area families pulled out of the public system in favor of private institutions for high school.

We want to stay

But for those now interested in staying in the system, that explanation falls flat. For the East Side parents, the concern is that while their neighborhood contains several good elementary and middle schools, "when it comes to high school, you drop off a cliff," Kassler says. Although most New York parents, wealthy or not, dream of getting their kids into one of the city's academically elite public high schools, few will make it. At New York's famed Stuyvesant High School, for instance, about 18,000 students compete annually for 850 places in the freshman class.

For those who don't make it, options are not plentiful. There are about seven high schools on the Upper East Side, but most are narrow in focus, either working with at-risk youth or concentrating on a particular profession like commercial arts, teaching, or health-related careers. The academic achievement in these schools is also significantly lower than at the stronger East Side elementary and middle schools.

Other options often involve long travel. One East Side mother says she felt like crying when she was told the best high school for her child was in Queens - an hour's trip by subway, with classes beginning at 7 a.m.

One of the more emotional flash points embedded in the call for an Upper East Side high school is the fact that it occurs in the shadow of Julia Richman, an enormous, old high school in the heart of the Upper East Side. The school was designed to serve about 2,200 students. Today it houses a little more than 1,000, divided into six separate schools. It largely serves children from outside the neighborhood, often from disadvantaged areas.

The new schools are highly praised, and the Board of Education is proud to showcase them to outsiders. But their presence is an irritant for some neighborhood residents who have been told that the need for small class sizes and a student-teacher ratio of no larger than 20 to 1 makes it impossible to use any space in the building for neighborhood residents. Meanwhile, the student-teacher ratio for a popular East Side middle school hovers near 40 to 1.

Historical patterns

There is no question, say some observers, that certain interests of the middle class have been ignored in recent education-policy debates. "The discourse has favored the needs of the poor," says Frederick Hess, professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "In a lot of these discussions [politicians] feel a bit embarrassed about being seen as advocating middle-class needs."

But there are reasons for that discomfort, others counter. "Historically, we've done so poorly with disadvantaged kids that it's time to focus on that," says Paul Reville, executive director of the Pew Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. If some middle-class students are feeling the sting of that shift in attention, he says, "this is a minor corrective."

It may not seem minor to parents whose children are involved in the crunch. And yet, says Shorris, in the midst of the debate, a positive point is being overlooked. "People are coming back to be interested in the public system, and that's a great thing, a real vote of confidence," he says. "There was a time when parents were not interested."

He admits there are problems finding space in the densely packed city and determining access, but on the whole, he says, "I'd much rather have [parents] banging on the door than walking away from the table."

Parents from the Partnership, however, say the group has been clamoring for a high school for at least six years - long enough now that most of the parents originally involved have given up.

Shorris insists help is on the way. He says an academically rigorous high school for 500 to 600 students will be launched on the Upper East Side by fall 2002, although perhaps at first in a temporary dwelling. He says building neighborhood high schools throughout the city is a goal.

Since the desegregation efforts of the 1970s, the desire for neighborhood schools has often been regarded suspiciously, with some observers insisting that racism is a force. But that's unfair, Mr. Hess says: "What we forgot during the busing dispute is that a lot of folks just want their kids to go to school close to home."

That's the dream Lynne Tucker, another member of the Partnership, has for her daughter, who will be ready for high school in three years. "Walking to school would be ideal," she says. "But taking the bus would be fine, and by high school she could even take a subway. If it were in the neighborhood, this would allow her to be more active in extracurricular activities and would allow me to participate more."

Shorris says that's what the city wants: "Schools focused on the community, located in the community. That's an idea that has come back."

Hess warns that attempts to create neighborhood schools in urban areas with racially mixed populations will inevitably lead to charges of racism. It's a sad truth, he says, that "the way we handle these issues shows exactly how conflicted we still are as a society."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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