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Over a warm, sunny weekend last September, 40,000 middle-school students and parents converged on Brooklyn Technical High School, a venerable, Art Deco structure in Fort Greene, to learn about New York City's many high school programs. It was the New York City Department of Education's annual school fair, where representatives of hundreds of high schools large and small throughout the city's five boroughs recruited students and their families from behind folding tables that ringed the hallways of the eight-story building.
Signs welcomed students in languages from Russian to Urdu. A small army of department of education staff in orange T-shirts handed out school directories with the heft of Manhattan phone books. Upstairs, administrators and students from schools with names like Bronx Aerospace High School, Bronx Expeditionary Learning High School, Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, Bronx Latin School, and Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice touted their schools to visitors seeking everything from Advanced Placement physics to fencing teams to swimming pools. The representatives of Manhattan's Food and Finance High School sported white chefs' hats. The baseball coach at Wings Academy in the Bronx pitched the school's new indoor batting cage, surrounded as he spoke by some of his players in uniform. At nearly every table, conversations ended with students being encouraged to attend open houses that the schools would host in the following months.
The Brooklyn Tech extravaganza is a yearly event in the nation's largest public school system. It is part of a program that permits any rising New York City ninth-grader to attend any high school program in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, or the Bronx. Each year, students choose a dozen schools from among hundreds of high school programs and rank them 1 to 12 in order of preference. This past spring some 63,000 of the city's 81,000 new high school students gained a place at one of their top three choices, and over 80,000 students—99 percent of the incoming high school class—were set to attend a school they selected.
From tuition vouchers for private schools to charter schools to voluntary transfer programs within and between public school systems, school choice has been at the center of the school reform debate for two decades. But with the voucher movement unable to sustain much momentum, charter schools still serving a small percentage of the nation's students with mixed results, and the public school choice system in the federal No Child Left Behind Act plagued by low participation rates, New York City's public high school selection system stands out as a model strategy for harnessing the power of the marketplace to better serve students' diverse educational interests and needs and to stimulate improvement through competition for students.
The school system has sponsored choice on a scale unprecedented in public education by requiring each of its eighth-graders to select schools. And, along with the Boston school system, which has also made choice mandatory, it has adopted computer software that allows it to place students in the schools on their lists far more efficiently and fairly than most public school choice programs.
As a result, the choice systems in New York and Boston, though not without challenges, have stimulated a new entrepreneurialism among many public educators, improved the perception of public education among middle-class families, and served as a catalyst for school reform by providing a rationale for taking action in schools that fail to compete successfully for students. They can be powerful engines of urban school reform and valuable prototypes for other cities working to match more students with schools of choice.
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