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 plan

Advocates call on Chancellor Fariña to take ‘morally necessary’ steps to end school segregation

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall in District 3 in 2015. She is seated next to Superintendent Ilene Altschul, second from right.

The deadline is fast approaching for New York City officials to release their “bigger vision” plan to promote school diversity, and advocates are once again demanding more input on the final proposal.

In a draft letter obtained by Chalkbeat, a self-described group of “parents, students, educators, advocates and elected officials” pushes the education department to declare integration a priority, include the community in any plans that will be put forward, and to adopt “systemic” approaches to desegregate city schools.

“We do not pretend that it will be easy,” states the letter, which is addressed to Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “But we insist that it is logistically possible, educationally sound, and morally necessary.”

In April, Councilman Brad Lander presented a similar letter to members of the “New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation,” or ASID — a relatively new group of desegregation advocates from across the city.

Councilman Lander’s office declined to comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the education department have said they will release a plan to address school segregation by June. The state has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, driven in large part by New York City, and advocates have been pushing for years for a large-scale remedy.

In 2015, advocates sent a similar letter to the department that included some of the same requests, including the adoption of a formal policy statement making integration a priority. When asked about that in an August 2016 interview, Fariña told Chalkbeat: “Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.”

A new element of the advocate’s proposal calls for integration efforts to start in pre-K. Parents can apply to any of the city’s universal pre-K sites, but pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens, according to a recent report. The letter also calls for the education department to set “measureable goals” towards desegregation.

In recent years, the education department has moved forward with some plans to increase diversity in schools, such as allowing schools to set aside a certain percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria. But advocates have criticized that approach as piecemeal and are eagerly awaiting the city’s broader diversity plan.

See full letter below:



Revised Letter to DOE 5 5 17 (Text)

By the numbers

NYC middle schools, pre-Ks meet diversity targets — and more high schools join initiative to spur integration

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

New York City middle schools participating in an admissions program designed to encourage integration met their targets in making offers to incoming students, Chalkbeat has learned.

Additionally, two more high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions pilot, bringing the total to 21 participating schools — still a tiny fraction of the roughly 1,800 schools across the city.

This is the third school year that principals could apply to the program, which allows schools to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a measure of poverty. In some schools, only a sliver of seats are set aside; at others, it’s more than half.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have come under increasing pressure to spur integration in city schools, which are some of the most segregated in the country. While the education department has been eager to tout the Diversity in Admissions program, many activists have criticized the approach as piecemeal, calling instead for wider-scale approaches. The city has promised a broader plan by June, and the chancellor recently hinted that changes to high school admissions could be a part of the proposal.

The four middle schools in the diversity program all met — or surpassed — their set-aside targets in making offers to incoming students, according to data provided by the education department. However, it’s not guaranteed that all students who are offered admission will actually enroll.

Two of the participating middle schools are in Brooklyn’s District 15, where parents and Councilman Brad Lander have called for enrollment changes. At M.S. 839, 42 percent of offers went to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At the Math & Science Exploratory School, 30 percent of offers did.

Two high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions program for the 2017-18 enrollment cycle: Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design in Brooklyn, and Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens. Both will set aside 63 percent of seats for students who qualify for free lunch — a higher threshold of need. Currently, 83 percent of students at Williamsburg High School qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (rates for only free lunch were not immediately available). Only about 50 percent of students at Academy for Careers in Television and Film qualify for free lunch, according to Principal Edgar Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said he has seen the school’s population slowly change since it opened almost a decade ago. Television and Film was a Title I school when it launched, meaning enough students were poor to qualify for additional federal funding. The school has since lost that status, and Rodriguez said joining the Diversity in Admission pilot will help preserve economic diversity.

“We work very hard, in the four years we have students with us, to provide them a space that gives them a sense of the real world,” he said. “The school is already diverse as it is, and I think ensuring the diversity continues, and that it’s sustained over time and deepened, just enhances that experience overall.”

The education department also shared offer information for nine pre-K sites in the Diversity in Admissions program.

Most pre-Ks in the diversity program met their offer targets, except for the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. The school aimed to make 10 percent of offers to students who have incarcerated parents, but the school wasn’t able to make any offers based on the students who applied and priority status given to other students.

A recent report by The Century Foundation found that the city’s pre-Ks are more segregated than kindergarten classrooms. Testifying recently at a state budget hearing, Fariña seemed to chalk that up to parent choice.

“I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying,” she said. “This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K.”