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District 29 nears vote on choosing middle schools

District 29 Superintendent Lenon Murray discusses middle school choice with the Community Education Council. Photo by Rich Bockmann
TimesLedger Newspapers

One of the few powers left to local school districts in the Bloomberg era is the ability to make decisions on zoning matters, and next month one southeast Queens district plans to exercise that power when it votes on middle school choice.

After about a year of discussions, soliciting opinions and sending out surveys, Community Education Council District 29 decided it will vote next month on the program, which allows parents to send their children to any middle school in the district regardless of where they live.

There are currently six middle school zones in the district, which stretches along the border between Queens and Nassau counties west to Merrick Boulevard, south of the Grand Central Parkway.

If choice were implemented, parents would fill out an application each year on which they list and rank their top school choices. Preference would be given to students living in the middle school’s zone.

Proponents of choice say it allows parents to send their children to the best school. Critics say it draws the best students to a few schools, leaving others behind.

Sara McPhee, director of middle school admissions at the city Department of Education, said if the council voted for choice, parents would attend middle-school fairs next year to decide which school to send their children to beginning in fall 2014. Even then, she said, the department expects it will take a while for the idea to catch on.

“It takes a couple of years for middle-school choice to be part of people’s thinking,” she said.

Over time, the competition created between schools in the district could lead to significant changes. McPhee said certain schools could highlight particular programs, gaining a reputation as either a science or an arts school, for example.

District 29 Superintendent Lenon Murray said it could motivate staff at poor-performing schools.

“No one wants to be the school everyone’s talking about at the Laundromat,” he said.

Members of the CEC said the overwhelming majority of responses from parents have been in favor of middle school choice. The council plans to vote on the issue at its Dec. 20 meeting at PS 195 in Rosedale.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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