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.

democrats for school integration

Want to reduce racial segregation? Elect a Democrat to school board, study says

PHOTO: Matt Detrich

When Republicans won control of the Wake County, North Carolina school board in 2009, they promised to eliminate the district’s racial integration program in favor of “community schools” closer to students’ homes — and they did. By 2012, Democrats had retaken control and were trying to change course.

The shifts caught the attention of Duke professor Hugh Macartney, who wondered whether party labels predict how school boards will address — or fail to address — school segregation.

Now, a new study released by Macartney and John Singleton of the University of Rochester suggests that Wake County was not unique. Electing Democratic school board members, they found, leads to less-segregated schools.

The results are substantial: Electing at least one Democrat leads to students being “reassigned in such a way that the school board is now 18 percent closer to achieving the district [average racial breakdown] for each school,” said Macartney.

The first-of-its-kind paper, which is set to be released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines hundreds of school board elections in North Carolina between 2008 and 2012. The researchers compared districts that narrowly elected Democrats to those that narrowly elected non-Democrats — largely Republicans, but including independents. (Like most school board races, the North Carolina elections were technically nonpartisan; the researchers later matched school board candidates to the party they were registered with.)

Racial segregation was likely reduced, Macartney and Singleton show, by changes to school attendance zones. Non-Democrats made fewer changes, “potentially allowing residential sorting to increase segregation without substantial intervention,” the paper says.  

“The reductions in segregation with the change of the school board are really interesting and line up with, anecdotally, what we’ve seen in some school districts that have made strong moves on this front,” said Halley Potter a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think that that backs school integration.

Democratic efforts to reduce segregation may have caused one unintended — albeit unsurprising — consequence: “white flight,” the migration of white families out of a district in order to avoid integration efforts.

The study shows that electing a Democrat leads to a reduction in the share of white students attending the public school district, though the research can’t definitely identify the cause. This effect does not wipe out the integration gains, though.

Potter notes that some of the departing families may have left heavily white districts, which would not hamper integration efforts. She also points out that the effect may have been caused by families of color entering the district as opposed to white families leaving.

The paper has not been formally peer-reviewed. But David Deming, a Harvard economist who has examined segregation in North Carolina and briefly reviewed the study, said the authors used a well-established research approach.

The study highlights the importance of school board elections, given the ability of one policymaker to ameliorate segregation — as well as the diverging education agendas of different parties.

“Policymaking is all about trade-offs, and we should expect Republicans to prioritize different things than Democrats do. Like achievement and choice, for example,” said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

But a number of studies have shown that more integrated schools improve the achievement of low-income and black students. Deming’s research found that the end of busing-based integration efforts in Charlotte led to higher crime rates and lower achievement among students of color.

Macartney’s study doesn’t look at the effect of a board’s partisan makeup on student outcomes. He also found no link between changes in economic — as opposed to racial — segregation in schools and a board’s political leanings.

In addition to the changes in enrollment zones, one possible explanation for the results is Republican support for school choice policies. Other research has found that North Carolina’s charter schools have increased segregation.

However, Potter says one way to make integration more politically tenable is to include some parent choice in assignment systems designed to prioritize diversity.

Wake County, she said, is one example of the power of school board elections to derail such integration plans. The study, Potter said, “reveals some precariousness that we want to think about — how to set up enrollment plans and priorities that can’t be unwound with one election.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”