School district sets new sibling policy

When New Haven parents scramble in the coming months to secure a spot for their children in one of the city’s most popular public schools, brothers and sisters of current students will receive first priority enrolling at their siblings’ schools.

The new sibling preference policy — so named in a Jan. 3 New Haven Public Schools press release — is the first of a series of NHPS registration procedure recommendations by the city’s Board of Education. Set to take effect for the 2013–’14 school year, the sibling policy is the brainchild of the board’s school redistricting committee, which formed last year to consider redrawing attendance zones and streamlining registration and enrollment processes for the city’s schools.

The policy adds an additional tier of preference for public school enrollment, said Ed Linehan, the former education board director of magnet schools who headed the redistricting committee. With the shift, children who live in a given school’s attendance zone and have siblings already enrolled in that school have top preference, followed by those with siblings and those residing in the attendance zone, respectively.

Prior to the change, top priority was given to students solely based on attendance zone, while those who lived outside a school’s zone but had a sibling already enrolled received second priority. At popular schools like Edgewood Magnet, attendance zones are so large that spots were typically claimed entirely by neighborhood students, forcing siblings to look elsewhere.

Keeping siblings together eases the burden on families while tying parents to their childrens’ school, NHPS Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries said.

“For parents and families, it’s a hardship to have students in multiple schools,” Harries said. “One of our big challenges is family engagement in schools. This policy will make it easier for parents to be engaged in local schools and devoted over the long term.”

NHPS spokeswoman Abbe Smith said parent complaints helped accelerate the sibling preference shift. The superintendent’s office moved on the proposal after the Board of Education — with the input of Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — asked the school district to move forward on the enrollment policy change and encouraged expediting this recommendation for the coming school year. According to Smith, sibling preference is an administrative policy over which the school district has ultimate jurisdiction.

As the shift in priority enrollment procedure does not automatically guarantee placement, the sibling policy still may leave many students without the spots they seek.

“This will be one part of the application process for the start of the fall 2013 school year,” Smith said. “It’s not going to guarantee anyone a spot because it all still depends on the space being available.”

The difficulty in achieving a spot in certain schools was made evident when the district revealed last year’s numbers behind the annual public school lottery that every year leaves thousands of students without their top choice for the city’s charter and magnet schools. At Hill Regional Career School alone, where only 59 seats were available for the ninth grade last year, 290 applicants were turned away.

According to Linehan, the problem of space remains the central issue before the Board of Education.

“This sibling policy is an important but relatively small issue within the broader question of people getting their children into the schools they want. It has to be understood in the context of New Haven’s long-standing commitment to both neighborhood schools and to parental choice,” Linehan said. “There’s a tension between those two commitments because attendance zones, which create neighborhood schools, aren’t always in line with the schools that parents want for their kids.”

Applications for magnet and charter schools are due Feb. 15, and the NHPS lottery — where the new preferences will officially take effect — will be held on March 12.

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