As late as 1998, Jamaica held a respectable standing among the city’s large high schools. Though it was no longer the élite institution of earlier years, more than seventy-five per cent of the students graduated on time. But, by 2009, the graduation rate had tumbled to thirty-nine per cent. A confluence of events brought about the decline. In that period, talented students in northern Queens were given the option of attending two other high schools, both based on college campuses. In 1995, Townsend Harris, a magnet high school on Parsons Boulevard, moved onto the campus of Queens College. With roughly half the number of students as Jamaica, Townsend Harris had graduation rates that fluctuated between ninety-nine and a hundred per cent. During the eighties and nineties, Jamaica allowed students to enroll in courses at York College, a liberal-arts institution about a mile south of the high school. In 2002, York became the location of Queens High School for the Sciences, which granted admission based solely on standardized-test scores.
In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation, and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea. It’s even possible to see the Bloomberg plan as a long-awaited response to Arthur Levitt’s claim, in 1954, that the problem in New York was not segregated schools but segregated neighborhoods. But it also meant that students whose parents—owing to language difficulties or work demands, immigration status or a generalized fear of bureaucratic authority—could not or would not pursue other educational options for their children found themselves relegated to increasingly unappealing schools.
The demographic balance that characterized Jamaica during my years became impossible to maintain. In 2011, the year that the city formally decided to close the school, fourteen per cent of the student population had disabilities and twenty-nine per cent had limited English proficiency. In the year before the school closed, it was ninety-nine per cent minority, a demographic that would not in itself be a concern were it not also the case that sixty-three per cent of the students qualified as poor.