Student Voices

In their own words: Voices of high school admissions, round two

PHOTO: Cassandra Giraldo
From left, Lordes Lliguichiuzhca, her daughter Elizabeth Cuzco, 13, Sonia Bucur, 13, and her mother Dina Bucur, sit in front of Martin Luther King High School after attending the Round 2 high school fair.

Victoria Ramirez thought she had done everything right.

The eighth-grader wants to be a pediatrician, and with help from a teacher at P.S./I.S. 78, she picked schools that seemed to offer good programs in science and health for her high school application. But when students across the city received their admissions matches, she was told she would need to try again.

“I was kind of sad at first, but there are still good schools left,” she said.

When New York City students don’t get matched to a high school in the first round, or they’re unhappy with their match, they can try again in round two, though the pool of potential seats is more limited. Last weekend, schools with seats to fill set up in the Martin Luther King, Jr. campus, hoping to convince students like Ramirez that they were the right choice.

Here are a few of their stories.

Tsunami Ubiera

Tsunami Ubiera wants to become an anesthesiologist. So after she didn’t make the cut for specialized high schools, she was on the hunt for schools that offer honors classes in the sciences.

“I want a school that is going to teach me the things that will help me to get there,” said Ubiera, an eighth grader from Inwood.

Ubiera said her guidance counselor and teachers at Inwood Academy helped her navigate the admissions process. But she felt unprepared for the specialized high school admissions test last fall.

“I heard about it this year for the first time, and I tried studying for it the best I can but I didn’t get accepted,” she said.

Ubiera’s next move: Applying to A. Philip Randolph High School in Harlem.
—Anjali Tsui

“I think it was unfair everybody got their top choice and I didn’t,” said Joshua Pierre, a student at Eagle Academy for Young Men III.
“I think it was unfair everybody got their top choice and I didn’t,” said Joshua Pierre, a student at Eagle Academy for Young Men III. —Cassandra Giraldo
David Mizhquiri

David Mizhquiri, an eighth grader from Sunset Park, was nervous as he entered the fair. But he soon worked up the courage to talk to high school students and teachers.

“It’s basically my future in my hands, so I have to speak to them about how the school is, what they can give me, and how they can prepare me for college,” he said.

Mizhquiri, who attends J.H.S. 220 John J. Pershing, didn’t receive any offers during the first round. He says he made the mistake of only applying to three schools. Although eighth graders can list up to 12 schools on their applications, Mizhquiri prioritized schools that were in his neighborhood.

At the fair, Mizhquiri sensed the magnitude of the decision he was about to make.

“If I make a wrong decision, my future could go black, it could go dark, I could lose everything,” he said. —Anjali Tsui

“It’s different when you’ve been looking at a school in a book. It helps to meet people who can give you info,” said 14-year-old Bianca Watts (left), with her sister Alexis. Their mother, Xiomara Samuels: “I just want this to be over with so they can excel and achieve what they need."
“It’s different when you’ve been looking at a school in a book. It helps to meet people who can give you info,” said 14-year-old Bianca Watts (left), with her sister Alexis. Their mother, Xiomara Samuels: “I just want this to be over with so they can excel and achieve what they need.”  —Cassandra Giraldo

As she prepared her high school application, Maisa Alvarado went to 12 schools’ open houses.

So she was disappointed when it didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped: She was matched to Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem instead of Pace, her top choice.

“We didn’t know the application process well enough,” her mother, Maira Alvarado, said through a sign-language interpreter.

But Maisa still knows what she’s looking for. “For me, the school should be close to home, or a short commute,” she said. “I also want the school to motivate me.” —Ilgin Yorulmaz

Fraternal twins Chanel and Stedman Abban, 13, want to attend the same school, but only Chanel got a seat at Central Park East. “Some of the schools seem pretty interesting but not all I would rank as my first,” she said.
Fraternal twins Chanel and Stedman Abban, 13, want to attend the same school, but only Chanel got a seat at Central Park East. “Some of the schools seem pretty interesting but not all I would rank as my first,” she said. —Cassandra Giraldo
Marco Vargas

The guidance counselors at the Computer School on the Upper West Side offered plenty of help to Marco Vargas as he put together his high school application, he said.

“They told me not to put down just a couple of schools, but to list more than that,” he said. In the end, when he wasn’t matched with his first-choice school, “Even the assistant principal in my school was surprised.”

Vargas lives in the Bronx, but listed only the schools in Manhattan. It probably hurt his chances, his mother, Jodi Morales, said.

“How they match people is a mystery and not fair,” she said. —Ilgin Yorulmaz

Dominique Torres, 13, said opening her admission letter in front of her friends at school was devastating. Her advice: “Look more into the schools before you put them on your application." —Cassandra Giraldo
Dominique Torres, 13, said opening her admission letter in front of her friends at school was devastating. Her advice: “Look more into the schools before you put them on your application.” —Cassandra Giraldo
Tejas Wini

To Tejas Wini and her family, the number and variety of schools at the fair seemed overwhelming.

Tejas trailed behind her father, Sudhakar, a banker, who had relocated his family from Mumbai to New York just a month ago. Together, they listened as teachers and cheerleaders explained why they should consider their schools.

“I need to go to a school specialized in science and math,” Wini explained. “In India, almost everyone goes to the same school from kindergarten to 12th grade. This is all very new to me.”

She took notice how friends at her current school, I.S. 237, took the news when they opened their admission letters last week.

“Some of them were very upset,” she said. “Some got in only their sixth or seventh choice.” —Ilgin Yorulmaz

Deshearra Irby, 15, and her friend Jasmyn Kentish, 15, were there to represent Urban Assembly School for Global Commerce. Kentish's advice: “Don’t just pick a school because it’s the school your parents like."
Deshearra Irby, 15, and her friend Jasmyn Kentish, 15, were there to represent Urban Assembly School for Global Commerce. Kentish’s advice: “Don’t just pick a school because it’s the school your parents like.” —Cassandra Giraldo

This story was produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Newcomers

With students arriving every day, Memphis seeks to join other cities with newcomer programs for English language learners

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A teacher leads class at a newcomer academy that opened in 2016 in Indianapolis for students who recently arrived in the United States. Leaders of Shelby County Schools want to open a similar program for high schoolers in Memphis in the fall of 2017.

Responding to an influx of students from Central America and a federal investigation into how Shelby County Schools is treating them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to create a “newcomer program” for high schoolers new to the U.S.

The program for English language learners would be housed at Wooddale High School and would accept 100 students this fall. A second location is planned for the following year.

The $750,00 program is part of Hopson’s proposed budget, which the school board is expected to approve in May.

Newcomer programs have been in place for years in cities with a long history of educating immigrant students. Others like Nashville and Indianapolis have added them in recent years as their immigrant populations have swelled.

In Memphis, English learners are the district’s fastest-growing subgroup and make up about 8 percent of the student population. Most are from Spanish-speaking countries, but many are refugees from elsewhere.

Under Shelby County’s plan, core classes such as math, science, history and language arts would be infused with English language learning for up to two years. Students would join the rest of the student population for elective classes.

Currently, the district places newcomers in two class periods of English language learning before they join core classes alongside native English speakers — an approach that officials say contributes to the achievement gap between subgroups.

The school-within-a-school model would be more intensive. “What we want to do … is to help them fill in those gaps while they are developing a foundation in English,”  said ESL adviser Andrew Duck.

The program would create a new option for English language learners in Memphis following the 2016 closure of Messick Adult Center. Before the state pulled its workforce development contract with Shelby County Schools, Messick was the district’s only ELL program for adults and students ages 16 and older.

The newcomers program also would help address concerns raised by a federal civil rights investigation launched last year into how the district treats English learners and communicates with their parents. The Associated Press reported that Shelby County Schools was among several districts nationwide that discouraged unaccompanied minors from Central America from enrolling in its schools and encouraged them instead to attend an adult learning center.

“We’ve seen kids get turned away from schools when they try to go register without any real explanation,” said Casey Bryant, legal director for Latino Memphis, a nonprofit organization serving the city’s Spanish-speaking population. “The closure of Messick meant that those high school-aged kids who were being turned away didn’t have any place to attend school.”

The federal investigation is ongoing and, if the district is found in violation, Shelby County Schools would have to negotiate a resolution with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights — or face a lawsuit.

Duck said the investigation offered “a kick in the pants” for launching the newcomers program — but that the influx of students from Central America is the bigger motivator. “… We had actually been working on this off and on since 2007 in the Memphis City Schools system,” he said.

And Tennessee’s new schools plan, submitted under the new federal education law, places a higher emphasis on how schools serve English learners, giving Memphis leaders more reason to step up services for those students.

Officials say Wooddale High School was chosen as the program’s first site because of available space there and its proximity to Hickory Ridge, an area with one of the city’s largest populations of English learner students. The school is now at 70 percent capacity.

Achieving Diversity

Does gifted education help pave the way to specialized high schools? Here’s what we know

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of the city's specialized high schools.

The way Sam Adewumi sees it, the lack of diversity in New York City’s elite specialized high schools is largely a pipeline problem. And it starts with gifted education.

It worked for Adewumi, a black alum of Brooklyn Technical High School (class of ’84) and now a teacher there. Growing up in the Bronx, he attended gifted programs through middle school, which paved the way for his admission to one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, and later, to Cornell University.

“This is the legacy, to me, of the gifted and talented program,” said Adewumi, who also runs a test prep program to help students prepare for the specialized high schools test. “There’s not another generation of us coming forward. So right now, we lost a generation.”

While 70 percent of New York City students are black or Hispanic, they comprise less than 30 percent of the city’s gifted students. And black and Hispanic students received only 10 percent of offers to specialized high schools in the latest admissions round.

A new task force is attempting to address both deficits, but that raises a question not fully answered by Adewumi’s anecdote: Is gifted education really a pipeline for specialized high schools?

Based on a small analysis, the answer seems to be yes — and no.

Of the 357 fifth-graders in citywide gifted schools in 2011-12, about 33 percent ended up attending a specialized high school last year. That’s according to numbers crunched for Chalkbeat by Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

But the numbers don’t break down evenly: Of the white and Asian students, 40 percent went on to specialized high schools. Of the black and Hispanic students, only 14 percent did.

Another 14 percent of the black students ended up at other highly-selective high schools, as did 8 percent of the Hispanic students.

Mader only analyzed students in citywide programs for this project, a fact that could skew the numbers since admission to citywide gifted programs is more competitive, requiring a near-perfect test score. Seats in citywide gifted schools, which only enroll students who are gifted, represent about 13 percent of the total fifth-grade seats in all gifted programs, according to data from the city.

Although limited, the data is in line with previous findings that black and Hispanic students — even those who are high achieving — are less likely to attend competitive high schools.

To Adewumi, the results of Mader’s analysis are not surprising. Rather, they point to a bottleneck that begins with a lack of options for high-achieving students once they reach middle school.

“The pipeline breaks in the whole middle school process,” he said, rattling off middle schools in Brooklyn that once had gifted programs, but no longer do. “How do you create access?”

His hunch is confirmed by research. A cadre of elite middle schools send an outsized number of students to specialized high schools, according to a separate report co-authored by Mader.  That report found that about 60 percent of seventh-grade students who went on to specialized high schools came from only 45 middle schools — out of more than 530 total in the city.

That echoed the findings of a study by researchers at New York University, which found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just 5 percent of the city’s public middle schools.”

Of the students in those top “feeder” schools, 58 percent were in programs, including gifted programs, that required tests for admission.

However, Sean Corcoran, who co-authored the NYU report, says the role of gifted education in preparing kids for specialized high school is unclear. Corcoran and co-author Christine Baker-Smith did not study whether there’s any consistent difference in gifted programs that gives students a leg up. Those feeder schools may just sort out students who are already high-achieving, he said.

“The kinds of kids who do well on the admissions tests, in general, are kids who would do well at other schools,” Corcoran said. “So it’s not like starting another gifted program will all of a sudden make a lot more kids more competitive.”

There are a number of factors that contribute to low representation of black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools, said Clara Hemphill, editor at the school review website InsideSchools. Although she has qualms about New York City’s gifted programs starting in kindergarten and basing admission on a standardized test score, she doesn’t necessarily oppose the creation more gifted programs.

“Anything that would increase the academic rigor for talented black and Latino kids is a good thing,” she said

“What you need is exposure to a demanding curriculum and a peer group of academically successful kids,” Hemphill added. “In the middle class neighborhoods, most of the ordinary zoned elementary schools have that. In poor and working class neighborhoods, not many do.”