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N.Y.C. Choice Plan Will Open Boundaries of 800 Schools

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Beginning next fall, New York City parents will be able to send their children to any public elementary or middle school in the city provided that space is available, Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez announced last week.

The plan, which has been circulating among the city's community school district superintendents for weeks, does not require formal approval by the city's board of education to take effect, officials said.

The open-enrollment plan would apply only to the city's 633 elementary and 179 intermediate and junior high schools, which are divided into 32 community school districts and governed primarily by local school boards.

The city's board of education makes systemwide policy decisions and oversees the high schools. A myriad of magnet and other choice options is already available at the high school level.

"The ability of students to transfer to another district,'' Mr. Fernandez wrote in a nine-page outline of the plan, "will promote greater choice and parent involvement and ensure that students have access to appropriate programs and are served in well-chosen settings.''

The city's program would be among the largest of its kind in the nation when it is fully implemented.

"Urban schools are proposing and developing substantially new plans for providing choice to parents within their system,'' said Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

The council, which represents the nation's largest urban school districts, will release a report this week indicating that about 74 percent of its member school systems provide some form of choice in at least some of their schools.

'Creative Tension'

New York currently permits a significant number of both intra- and inter-district student transfers in elementary and intermediate schools.

For example, some parents who live in the boroughs of Queens or Brooklyn but work in Manhattan have been granted permission to enroll their children in public schools closer to their jobs.

The new policy will remove a significant barrier that has kept even more parents from exercising this option.

Under the current policy, the superintendents of both the sending and receiving districts must approve a student transfer. Under the new policy, only the superintendent of the receiving district must approve the transfer.

"We have always gotten hundreds of kids into our district from other districts,'' said Anthony J. Alverado, the superintendent of Community School District 2 in Manhattan. "My guess is that with this plan, we will get a couple of hundred more. But we don't have space for thousands.''

Mr. Alverado was superintendent of Community School District 4 in East Harlem when the district launched its pioneering and nationally acclaimed experiment in intra-district open enrollment. District 2 and another Manhattan district also currently have open-enrollment policies.

"This adds good creative tension'' to the school system, Mr. Alverado said of the chancellor's plan.

Reservations Expressed

The plan has not won universal acclaim, however.

Donald Singer, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, said the policy should not be applied to the entire school system in one stroke because it would cause the least popular schools to spin into "a cycle that will continue downward.''

Judy Baum, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Association, a local group that monitors the school system, cautioned that many schools perceived as the most desirable are already overcrowded and probably would not be able to accept new students.

"It's not a bad idea because it does give more parents flexibility, and it might help fuel school improvement,'' she said. "The big problem in the city is that the capacity does not match the problem.''

The chancellor noted that transfers will be granted only if space is available after the enrollment of assigned students and if the change will not upset racial-balance and other civil-rights requirements.

The plan states that transfers may be granted to help children participate in a curriculum offering that is not available at their assigned school or to "assist working parents.'' It requires superintendents to provide a valid reason for not accepting transfer students and forbids the use of interviews or examinations to screen applicants.

Mr. Fernandez's draft of the policy said the school system would not provide bus service to transfer students. But a spokesman for the chancellor said that some bus re-routing might occur to accommodate such students. Presumably, many parents would accompany their children to a distant school or have them use the city's extensive public-transportation system.

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