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

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.