sorting the students

New York City families spend millions of hours choosing high schools, and students from poor neighborhoods finish last: report

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

New York City eighth graders and their families are spending up to 5.7 million hours every year navigating a high school admissions process that was in part designed to break the link between students’ ZIP codes and their academic outcomes — but that link remains strong, according to a new report.

While the city’s overall four-year graduation rate was 70.5 percent last year, it was as high as 95 percent for students from Greenwich Village and SoHo but as low as 60.9 percent for students who lived in the Morris Heights neighborhood of the Bronx.

That’s the takeaway from a report released Wednesday by Measure of America, which is unusual for focusing on where students live, rather than where they go to school. Below are a few key findings:

Disparities in graduation rates are greater between the city’s neighborhoods than they are between its racial and ethnic groups. 

The report attributes this in part to the city’s residential segregation — which affects the schools families choose, too.

“Parents and kids alike canvass friends, relatives, and neighbors for information about which schools would be a good fit. This approach may serve to limit the schools that families investigate and to which they feel comfortable applying to those suggested by people they know and trust. Because New York City is highly segregated by race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and income, this circle of trusted advisors tends to be limited to others who share one’s socioeconomic status. This insularity benefits the privileged, who hear about and apply to the best schools, and harms the disadvantaged, whose social networks tend to be limited to others with fewer resources.”

The high-school choice system can leave average students in low-income neighborhoods out of luck.

Researchers point to what they call “cumulative disadvantage,” starting with the effects of poorer health and economic insecurity that often come with living in poor neighborhoods.

“The best high schools in the city require certain qualifications—a minimum score on a standardized test, strong English essay writing skills, or the ability to play a musical instrument or produce high-quality works of art. As a result, students whose elementary- and middle-school education and family background did not prepare them to score well on entrance exams, perform, or assemble a portfolio—a group that is disproportionately low-income—are at a disadvantage in gaining admission.”

One of their conclusions:

“We often hear about smart, motivated teens from poor pockets of the city who have benefited from leaving underperforming schools behind. But what about those who have not benefited? The data show that far too many young people from low-income black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx and central Brooklyn are winding up in high schools with low graduation rates, going to school mostly with other teens who share their socioeconomic disadvantages.”

Even the process of picking schools is weighted against students in poor neighborhoods.

One factor is what the researchers call “time poverty”:

“The most competitive schools hold few open houses, make a limited number of ‘test tickets’ available in a very short window, and schedule interviews within a several-week period. Competition in this arena is a blood sport, and successful admission to the best selective high schools requires focus, contacts, money, time, flexibility, transportation, extreme attention to detail, and the ability to prioritize the school admissions process over work or family obligations. In all of these areas the privileged have a significant advantage over others, especially poor families and immigrant families.”

Another is geography.

“Although most students leave their immediate neighborhoods to attend high school, their preference tends to be schools that are closer to home … Four of the five poorest community districts in NYC, for instance, are concentrated in the Bronx; attending a school in a more affluent area would require a long trip for someone living in Morrisania or East Tremont.”

The backdrop to this is that New York City’s high school graduation rates have risen sharply over the last 10 years. And, of course, the admissions process isn’t easy for anyone — including middle-class families and people who navigate it for a living.

Here’s what it looks like, how it came to be, and one perspective on what it would take to get more students into schools where they’d be likely to graduate.

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.”