In N.Y.C., choice words about 'choice'

A soft-spoken eighth grader, Samantha Logan seems almost demure in the shadow of her mother. Laura Logan is fuming, and has been since May 5, when she first tore into a letter from the New York City Department of Education. It stated simply that her daughter had not been "matched" - which meant that Samantha did not have a high school to attend come fall.

In New York, families may choose from a vast array of public high schools. Open enrollment - just one part of the school choice movement here - allows students to attend any of the 290 schools in the city, eliminating the geographic constraints that have traditionally - and some say arbitrarily - confined students to their neighborhood public schools.

The idea is that students who select a school will be happier and more successful, and families will become more involved in their children's education.

Today, 46 states have in place some form of open enrollment - either within a district or city, or, as in Minnesota, even within a state - according to the Education Commission of the States. Last year 32 states had such programs. With provisions in the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act that encourage parents to pluck their children from failing schools and move them to other district schools, even states without explicit policies do, in effect, have open enrollment.

But demonstrating just how complicated it can be to throw open school doors citywide - particularly here in the nation's largest school system - Samantha was one of 12,000 to 14,000 rising ninth graders who, until earlier this month, had no idea where they would be going to high school.

It's left some critics pondering the toll that this dizzying number of options might be taking on children - and their parents.

"I believe it has a devastating effect on parents," says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less."

In a choice-saturated society where there are alternatives for everything from electronics to education, Professor Schwartz says that people expend too much time and energy gauging their options. And hoping to make the perfect decision - an elusive aim that he says is unrealistic - inevitably leaves one disappointed. Schwartz's advice is to learn to be content with "good enough." But picking a school, he says, "is an area of decisionmaking where parents are especially vulnerable." After all, what parent is willing to settle when it comes to her child?

After the "match" letter arrived, her family was "in an uproar," says Laura Logan. She took a week off work, visited Samantha's guidance counselor six times, and penned a furious letter to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein admonishing: "I find your new system a disgrace to children."

To manage the tens of thousands of students entering ninth grade each year, New York requires high school applications. This year brought a new system similar to the one that matches medical students with residency programs: Students rank their choice of schools, schools rank students, and a computer matches them. Students could apply to as many as 12 schools and programs, up from just five in past years.

But for families like the Logans, New York's system of choice came to feel like an unruly web of applications, mysterious computer assignments, and, ultimately, disappointment worthy of the college application process.

Logan says she still doesn't understand what happened - why her daughter, a student with a 90 average and good scores on city tests, wasn't accepted to any of the schools she listed on her application. The lesson Samantha says she has walked away with is that "even if you do well, it's not like it pays off."

This year, 3,200 more students applied to public high school than in 2003, exacerbating an ongoing problem: insufficient slots in the most desirable schools.

Rather than a case of choice gone awry, though, school officials say 38 percent more students were matched this year than last.

And despite a perception among parents that computers haphazardly controlled the fate of their children, Elizabeth Sciabarra, who oversees high school admissions for the city, says, "The way kids listed the schools on their application is the catalyst for the computer figuring out the match."

As of June 10, every applicant had a seat in school for next year. And for every parent like Logan, there were more than five whose children received offers from schools on their original list. That makes for 70,000 to 80,000 "happy parents," according to Ms. Sciabarra.

The model held up as open enrollment at its best also comes out of New York - circa 1974. Within eight years, Harlem's District 4, composed predominantly of low-income minority families, had risen from dead last among the city's 32 school districts to 17th. By 1982, every student in the district was required to apply to junior high.

"Parents weren't stuck in a school," says Deborah Meier, a principal at the Mission Hill School in Boston, who was one of the reformers behind District 4's "miracle." "That gave them a certain loyalty to the school they chose." Even if they stuck with their neighborhood school, the act of choice made them more engaged.

Rather than expending so much effort on picking the best schools for their children, Schwartz says, parents should be encouraged to invest that energy into improving neighborhood schools. The momentum of school choice, with its movement away from neighborhood schools and emphasis on market values and competition, doesn't look to be ramping down anytime soon.

New York, however, is trying to smooth out some of this year's glitches - largely communication problems. An outreach program for sixth-graders and their parents will give families an extra year to research and select schools.

For the Logans, though, it's too little too late. Laura has pulled her daughter from the public school system, opting instead for parochial school and tuition fees that she's not sure she and her husband can afford. Had she known the anxiety and disappointment that awaited them, she says, "I would never have put us through this."

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