high school and beyond

How some low-income students discovered the unwritten rules of high school admissions

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Ellis Wu and Maya Holtham learn about the high school admissions process through Breakthrough New York.

Maya Holtham describes herself as a talkative girl. High school interviews, she thought, wouldn’t be a problem.

But when she got to Breakthrough New York — a program that helps high-achieving, low-income students get into and succeed at selective high schools and colleges — she learned she sometimes strays off-topic when facing questions.

“I kind of learned how to center it and give my idea precisely,” said the eighth-grader, who attends M.S. 260 in Manhattan.

Holtham’s lesson is a testament to the fact that getting into a selective high school in New York City can require following mostly unwritten directions that many low-income students don’t have access to. The city’s high school directory includes more than 100 schools that screen students, using tools such as interviews and writing samples.

“You’ve got this school application that at first glance, looks really simple and you could very easily think it’s a matter of filling out the application and you’re done,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. “But it’s all the preparation and leg work and education that really can make the difference.”

Breakthrough tries to help close that knowledge gap, first by helping students sort through the 649-page high school directory. Then, Breakthrough staffers coach them on all of the other ways they can improve their chances for a coveted admissions slot at public and private schools alike, from basics like handshakes to more complicated strategies for advocating for oneself.

“Many of our kids end up taking the leap into a very elite, private space that their families haven’t necessarily had access to in the past,” said Natalie Cox, Breakthrough’s senior program director. “It’s not devaluing their comfort zone, it’s teaching them a set of strategies for how to navigate this new space that has new norms.”

STEP ONE: CHOOSING SCHOOLS

There are stark differences in the amount of support New York City students receive when completing a high school application.

Some have access to guidance counselors, parents who can take them on school tours, and a network of adults who understand how to identify schools that make sense for them. Others have overworked guidance counselors and no great ways to know which schools are best, Frumkin said. Those students  can end up overwhelmed and in schools that aren’t a good fit.

Before finding Breakthrough, Ellis Wu, an eighth-grader who lives in East Harlem, thought there were only two kinds of high schools in New York: Stuyvesant and “bad” schools.

Now an eighth-grader at Manhattan’s New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math, a school that serves gifted students from across the city, Breakthrough helped him identify other top public schools with less name recognition and pushed him to consider a few prestigious boarding schools as well.

“Breakthrough just opened our eyes to these different schools,” he said.

THE NEXT STEPS

The city’s high-school choice process is designed to be straightforward: Students are told to list up to 12 schools on their application, then wait for an algorithm to match schools and students. Some schools are screened, which means they have discretion over which students are most likely to be accepted. Successful applicants to those schools often must take school-specific tests, participate in group activities, or submit writing samples.

The city approves schools’ admissions processes, and schools aren’t supposed to depart from them. Yet people with a close view into admissions processes say families frequently try to help students get their applications noticed with informal communication such as writing a letter or placing a phone call.

“There are even more unwritten kinds of things that families are doing, techniques they’re doing to advocate themselves,” Frumkin said.

Breakthrough helps fill these informal information gaps with a curriculum designed to give students “fluency in the language of power.” The program tells students about the mandatory open houses and deadlines they’re up against, then helps them perfect how they’ll present themselves in an interview with feedback about eye contact and body language.

To help one student with his eye on Manhattan’s prestigious Beacon High School, for example, Cox told him to call the school every morning for a week to make sure they paid attention to his application. He hasn’t got in yet, but he did land an interview. Ellis participated in a series of mock interviews and learned that he should talk more when questioned.

“A lot of middle-school students, they don’t know what to talk about — they’re very modest, and they feel like they haven’t accomplished anything,” Frumkin said. “A lot of it is getting them to understand that they have a lot to be proud of.”

Throughout the process, Breakthrough staff members tell students that this process is designed to give them a new set of tools, not to change the way they act or speak.

“We’re really explicit about it from the beginning, and that it can sometimes feel really defeating,” Cox said. “The whole focus of what we’re trying to do is equip them with a toolkit for when I walk into this space and I feel uncomfortable.”

diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.