First Person

Researcher: Class divide extends to HS admissions

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In this installment, Madeline Pérez presents her research into how families approach the high school admission process. Perez, an assistant professor of social work and Latino Community Practice at Connecticut’s University of Saint Joseph, worked as a community organizer in Brooklyn and as a consultant on community engagement before earning a PhD from the City University of New York.

Leave questions for Pérez about her research in the comments section. 

What questions guided your research? 

Both as a former education organizer but also as someone whose own educational trajectory was changed when I attended a specialized high school, I was interested in better understanding how families navigate high school admissions.

I wondered: How do families, middle schools, and the Department of Education experience and influence New York City’s public high school admissions process? In what ways do one’s social and economic circumstances (e.g.: the neighborhood one lives in, the people one knows) manifest in the process? In what ways does the city’s public high school admissions process use choice to remedy inequality, and in what ways does it increase the segregation of students by race, social class, and cultural background?

Although the Department of Education stated that high school admissions was designed around “choice and equity,” I wanted to learn more about how “choice” looks like for low-income eighth-graders and their families whose scheduling inflexibility — due to multiple jobs, language unfamiliarity, or lack of information — deny them access? How differently do well-resourced families experience the system?

How did you conduct your research? What were you looking for and how did you find it?

I spent 18 months at three research sites to understand how middle-school families and school staff understood and experienced high schools admissions. The research sites included a regional office of the Department of Education and two middle schools that were 40 blocks apart in Manhattan. The “Gracie School” served solidly middle-class and upper-middle-class families, while “El Barrio Academy” served low-income families of color.

I collected data from February 2007 to August 2008. During this time, I administered three questionnaires (two for parents and one for students) and conducted interviews (80 in all: 30 parents, 25 students, 15 school staff members, and 10 administrators). Also, I spent a day a week at each of the two middle schools (1,000 hours in total), observing and participating in parent meetings, professional development activities, and school events.

What were your major discoveries?

I found that middle schools are the most important link between eighth-grade families and the high school admissions process — and also that schools’ ability to support families relies heavily on the resources, time and, expertise that staff members have available. I also found that low-income and middle- and upper-middle-class families made different decisions about the high school admissions process.

Gracie’s principal had systems in place for staff to manage many school responsibilities, which allowed the principal to build relationships with the school’s families. El Barrio Academy’s principal, in contrast, was surrounded by constant crisis and thus had far less time to build relationships with staff and families. Both principals had limited time to meet with me but for very different reasons: Gracie’s principal was working with eighth-graders to provide advice on how to negotiate the maze of high school admission, while El Barrio’s principal organized was organizing a funeral for a student who died in a drive-by shooting.

I saw that parents’ ability to intervene and influence the high school admissions process effectively was shaped by their economic resources and social connections. Gracie School parents hired tutors, secured consultants to assist in preparing portfolios, and could enroll their kids in art, dance, and music classes, giving their children substantial advantages in the high school admissions process. Gracie School parents also imposed private rules on a public process by securing “first-choice letters” and unsolicited teacher letters of recommendation to increase their child’s chances of being selected by high schools. These insider tactics were shared within the Gracie School parent grapevine but were not part of the public information about the high schools’ admissions requirements.

El Barrio Academy parents also intervened, but their participation manifested in ways that no one at the institution noticed or credited; it was “invisible involvement.” This non-traditional involvement included creating systems to monitor and ensure accurate record-keeping from the middle school and advocating for free transportation passes for their children. These parental interventions required a great deal of energy, but with the middle school as the target, and in many cases, over things that should have been a given (accurate attendance records, safe travel to school). Often, these interventions pitted El Barrio Academy parents and staff against each other, each group frustrated by limited resources in a broken system. At the Gracie School, parents and teachers were strategically united, which at times was mutually beneficial and at other time mutually exploitive — but always worked to the benefit of students having the best chance of success with the high school admissions process.

I also found that economic resources and social connections shaped parents’ strategies for choosing high schools. El Barrio Academy parents pursued a school choice agenda of what I termed “survival” as indicated by their top three high school criteria selected in my questionnaire: (1) distance/travel; (2) sports/activities; and (3) art/music classes. Parents encouraged their children to apply to high schools close to home, so that they could assist with the child care of younger siblings or return the neighborhood in time to engage in paid work as supermarket baggers or babysitters — and very importantly, to ensure their physical safety in a neighborhood with a high crime rate. The focus on extracurricular activities as priority criteria for El Barrio Academy families highlighted their dependence on schools to provide enrichment for their children.

On the other hand, Gracie School counterparts supplemented such activities (and were able to pay for them out of pocket), allowing them to prioritize a college-preparatory curriculum when selecting high schools. Moreover, some Gracie School parents pooled their financial resources to pay for a private bus to transport their children to specialized high schools and bypassed the public transit system altogether. Overall, Gracie School parents were able to pursue a high school choice agenda of “mobility.” The top three high school criteria they indicated in my questionnaire were (1) academic profile of students, (2) colleges the high school’s graduates attend, and (3) school philosophy. Gracie families also knew that it would cost them less to pay for extracurricular activities or make donations to a parent-teacher association than it would to pay private school tuition. Because students came from families who were financially stable, they could focus on their learning and development as opposed to on contributing to the family’s finances as a teenager.

In order to enter the game of school admissions (or just recognize that it is in fact a competitive process) and play it well, one has to feel as though one has a real chance to influence the process in one’s favor. One of the key differences between the families at the Gracie School and El Barrio Academy was that El Barrio families didn’t even know there was a game, let alone the rules for it.  Because they were not aware of the dynamics of the political economy that creates the conditions for those with more resources to benefit from the admissions system, El Barrio families tended to blame themselves for undesirable results. The Gracie School’s principal demonstrated an understanding of the political economy by saying, “We are not better people. We simply have better circumstances.”

What can policy makers learn from your work?

This research is one step in juxtaposing the assumptions of Department of Education decisionmakers against the lived realities of families and school staff across class lines. A public high school admissions process that serves mostly low-income people of color but is based on white, middle-class assumptions must be redesigned. Providing school choices — such as by creating more small high schools or welcoming charter schools — is not enough to improve the prospects of students’ high school placements. Policy makers have to change their expectation that all parents respond to the process as though they have all have the same resources. It would behoove policy makers to create stronger mechanisms to inform parents of how the process works, and consider various possibilities of parental behaviors that might deviate from what they would expect if the family has limited resources.

Are there further questions you are exploring?

My exposure to the personal and professional histories of the two groups of teachers and administrators at the Gracie School and El Barrio Academy developed my desire to look more closely and examine ways in which they served as bridges and/or barriers to students in gaining access to the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the high school admissions process successfully.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.