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Magdalena Silva sent her first child to Intermediate School 70 in the late 1980s. Over the course of the last decade, she has sent five others to the school, around the corner from her apartment on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. Her youngest son, Carlos, an eighth grader, will graduate next June, making him the last child in the family to attend I.S. 70.

He will also be one of the last in the city to go to that school. Provided a widely supported resolution is passed by the local board on November 30, I.S. 70 will be shuttered for good come June. The remaining students–there are only about 125–will be “rezoned” with a guaranteed spot next year at a school across town, Middle School 104 on East 21st Street.

There just aren’t enough kids to keep I.S. 70 open, and the ones who are left are doing poorly. The number of students has dwindled steadily during the last decade, and this year the sixth grade class was eliminated because almost no one enrolled. In a high-performing school district, test scores are embarrassingly low. Many factors have contributed to the school’s decline–it has few programs, poor students, and borders several housing projects. But the reason the school will be closing for good is simple: under District 2’s 10-year-old middle school choice program, every student had the option of going somewhere else.

Although District 2’s system is new, New York City’s high school students have had a school choice system in one form or another since the 1970s. Eighth-graders getting ready for high school can apply to nearly any school citywide, and they are only guaranteed a spot at one local school. Manhattan’s District 2 was one of the first to introduce this system for middle-school kids, but since then, the Board of Education has phased in some version of a choice system for nearly all students citywide.

The version of school choice brought in by former District 2 superintendent Anthony Alvarado was intended to allow parents to select their children’s schools, as well as push administrators to keep standards and spirits high in order to hold onto students. Any school that couldn’t cope, like I.S. 70, would eventually have to close, a loser in the educational marketplace.

In New York, an unusually broad alliance backs school choice, from activist community groups like ACORN to conservative voucher proponents. Now, with the closing of I.S. 70, New York has an opportunity to see what happens–for better or worse–when school choice works the way it is designed to. For some educators, administrators and policy experts, what has happened at I.S. 70 is evidence that school choice has succeeded. “The parents voted with their feet because the school wasn’t doing a good job,” says Beth Lief, president of New Visions for Public Schools, which promotes specialized small schools. “I think this shows that [choice] is working.”

Yet casualties like I.S. 70 testify that the logic of school choice, by which schools must flourish or flounder, deprives schools of resources just when their students need them most. “Tony Alvarado created some schools that are really, really good, but he wasn’t able to sprinkle fairy dust on all of them,” says Clara Hemphill, who has just published a book on New York’s middle schools. “There are still some orphans out there, and I.S. 70 is one of them.”

For many of the parents, teachers and students who must now cope with this change, the benefits of closing their school down are not so clear. Some, like Silva, simply think it’s unfair that 12-year-olds may now have to take the bus or subway simply to go to school. “I always thought it was a good school,” she says. Other parents worry that their kids will get lost at M.S. 104, which has over a thousand students.

The reality they already face is that some parents at M.S. 104 have made it clear that they don’t want the kids from crosstown. At meetings in November, many of those parents fretted that their school will lose its “cachet” if it is forced to take on these new students.

The unfortunate truth is that under this version of school choice, someplace has to become the school of last resort, taking in the children that can’t find any other place to go. That may have been what destroyed Chelsea’s IS. 70. And that’s what the parents of M.S. 104 fear.

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In a city known for dysfunctional and corrupt school districts, District 2 is a shining exception. It has a nationally recognized professional development program for teachers, and test scores for low-performing students have improved dramatically during the last decade. In 1991, 22 percent of students in the district scored in the bottom quartile on city reading tests. By 1997, that percentage was down to 10 percent. No other district in the city has come close.

I.S. 70, however, has always lagged behind. The number of kids who perform at grade level on math and reading tests has consistently trailed citywide averages by 10 to 20 percent, even after the choice system was put in place. Some teachers at I.S. 70–many of whom have been there since the school opened in 1966–say the scores fail to reflect students’ improvement. They report that they get barely literate students and bring them up to fourth or fifth grade level. “It doesn’t show how much you’ve improved them, it just shows that you have kids below grade level,” says Ken Goodfriend, who has taught at the school since it opened.

The school has been losing students for a while. The zone that I.S. 70 falls in is racially and economically mixed, with middle-class families from Greenwich Village and poor families from the Chelsea housing projects, many of whom are black or Latino. But for the most part, I.S. 70 never did attract many white students from Greenwich Village.

The choice system merely sped up that process of attrition. Many of those kids who had remained in the public system now skipped over I.S. 70 for the successful “option” schools next door, the Lab School for Collaborative Studies and the Museum School. In 1987, before choice was instituted, there were 600 students at I.S. 70. Ten years later, there were 272.

“Because of school choice, kids were going elsewhere,” says Goodfriend. “They were not going to their neighborhood school.” Those who did enroll at I.S. 70–kids who couldn’t get into other schools or simply wanted to go to school nearby–often had low test scores. “It became a snowball effect. All you were attracting, all you were getting in, were kids with lower scores.”

As the school lost students, it lost programs. At the end of last year, the music, art and bilingual programs were eliminated for lack of students. Originally, there were seven industrial shops, says Goodfriend, but last year, the remaining two–print and pottery–closed. “Students drive the budget’ explains Joyce Yuen-Toy, principal of I.S. 70. “If you don’t have the students, then you can’t offer the programs.”

Just as the textbook model of school choice would predict, I.S. 70’s inadequacies became more glaring as parents gave up on the school and enrollment went into freefall. Karen Feuer, president of School Board 2, says that choice “highlighted” the problems at I.S. 70 four or five years ago. She says the school board probably should have closed the school back then.

So for administrators, the decision to shut it down was straightforward. According to Feuer, closing I.S. 70 will prevent more students from attending a failing school, and give current students there a better chance. “They will end up in better schools,” she declares, pointing out that I.S. 70 has become racially and educationally segregated, and that students should be given the opportunity to attend “schools with more of a mix of kids.”

District spokesperson Andrew Lachman puts it most bluntly. “If you didn’t have choice, then you are forcing the least powerful to go to a school that is not performing,” he says. Under this system, “if a school is not performing, then we shut it down.”

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In October, the students at I.S. 70 learned about their fate at an all-school assembly called to elect a new student government. Before nominations were announced, Yuen-Toy, the principal, told them this would be their last year at the school. “A lot of them were very quiet,” Yuen-Toy says.

While both parents and students admit that their school has had problems, a lot of them aren’t happy with the idea of giving up on it altogether. Many of them feel that the decision to shut down this school was just an extension of the second-class treatment that I.S. 70 has always suffered.

“I think it is a good school, but it could use a lot more programs,” says Shante Watkins, an eighth-grader who has been at I.S. 70 since sixth grade. “I think the city overlooks the school. They don’t pay attention to us. If you look at the reading scores, they are very low. Look at the location of the school: It’s right across the street from the projects. Many people, they don’t look at us as regular individuals. They look at us as animals.”

In addition, teachers and parents worry that the kids won’t be able to handle life at the bigger school across town. “We feel angry about what is happening to us as teachers, but we feel worse about what is happening to the kids,” says Susan Scron, who has taught at I.S. 70 since 1967. “For some of our kids, this is their second home. They feel more comfortable here than they do at their house.” At bigger schools, she says, “these are the kinds of kids that are going to get lost.”

Some of the parents want their kids to be given priority to get into Lab and Museum, the other schools in the building. The district says it won’t do that but that it will give students extra help in deciding which schools are appropriate for them.

Ultimately, that won’t satisfy parents who simply don’t want to see a neighborhood institution vanish, “I would like it to stay this size and go on,” says Barbara Springs, co-president of the I.S. 70 Parent-Teacher Association and a parent of a seventh-grader, Gregory. “I think they are kicking us out because we are poor. We are in the projects, so the stereotype is that we don’t care.”

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Crosstown, the debate about how to handle the I.S. 70 kids has been heating up. In tense closed-door meetings, M.S. 104 parents have aggressively lobbied against the rezoning proposal that would guarantee the West Side kids a spot at their school.

Minutes after sitting down in the school’s well-kept library at one November Parent Teacher Association meeting, parents began venting their worries: that the school will become even more crowded, that its mix of high- and low-performing students could be unbalanced. Under a much-criticized formula, the city Board of Education says M.S. 104 is at 81 percent of capacity. Parents, on the other hand, say their school is already overcrowded and can’t accommodate the 125 kids from across town.

“You could jam 1,200 kids in that school, but it wouldn’t be the same quality education,” said Maryann Stimmer, the outspoken co-president of the PTA. “It wouldn’t be the same school.”

Race, as always, is a major subtext. Many of the Chelsea kids who would be coming to this school are black or Latino; although the student body at M.S. 104 is well integrated, most of the parents at this meeting are white.
It becomes a flashpoint in the restructuring debates. At a November school board meeting a week later, District 2 Superintendent Elaine Fink said some M.S. 104 parents bordered on racism when they complained their school would lose its status if it took on too many West Side kids. Douglas Robinson, the only black member of board, agreed. “I was deeply alarmed by some of the comments made by parents at 104,” Robinson says during the meeting, his voice rising. “In 1999, it should not even be about that.”

Stimmer says the accusations of racism made her “furious.” Stimmer acknowledges that a few parents may have made racist remarks at meetings, but says they weren’t speaking for the parents’ association. She says that she and other parents’ association leaders are worried that their school won’t get the resources to handle the influx of low-performing students from I.S. 70.

What is particularly galling for many of the parents is that the proposal continues to enforce a two-tiered choice system. When M.S. 104’s zone expands over to the West Side, it will obliged to offer all students in that area a seat. Option schools, which are allowed to have rigorous admissions requirements, can be much pickier.

Some education experts point out that this arrangement undercuts what school choice is supposed to do: offer all students the same opportunities. “When you have a mixed system–zone schools and choice schools–then probably the people whose kids are left in the zone schools are the most disadvantaged families,” says Norm Fruchter, director of Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. “Choice favors advantaged families.”

M.S. 104 parents fear that the least desirable students from the district will end up at their school. “The way it is now, children who are average or below average are not going to get into [option] schools,” says Lisa Crystal, a parent at M.S. 104. “They don’t want them.” These parents lobbied their administrators for a zone-free district, so that kids wouldn’t get sent by default to M.S. 104. District 4, which pioneered middle school choice, has been set up this way, so that no school there is an official school of last resort.

But while district superintendent Elaine Fink eventually acceded to some of their demands, like promising to re-evaluate the setup if M.S. 104 becomes deluged with “zone” students, the parents couldn’t get the board to consider unzoning the district.

“I think that children that live in a neighborhood should have a right to go to a neighborhood school,” Fink insists. I.S. 70 parents agree, saying all they want for their children is the chance to go to a local school. PTA co-president Springs says she is uncomfortable with a system that may force her to send her kids to a school out of the neighborhood. “I don’t want my kid to have to take the subway or the bus because I still feel he has to mature,” she says. “I just don’t trust it.”

And students, even ones who are graduating, say they will miss the neighborhood intimacy of I.S. 70. “It’s not right because people have been going to that school for three years and now it is closing,” says eighth-grader Yolanda Gilchrist, as she stood outside school one day with her friends. The students may be getting the chance to go to a better school, but they might have instead preferred that I.S. 70 become a better one.

Matthew Strozier is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.