barriers to entry

Open houses and closed doors: How the first step toward high school can become a stumbling block

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Ruby Bromberg stares at her computer at her home in the West Village.

One day last fall, Ruby Bromberg rushed to her computer and frantically began refreshing the page to see when Bard High School Early College — a high-performing public school in Manhattan — would post its open house registration. When the site went live, she clicked through as fast as she could and snagged a coveted seat.

It’s a good thing she moved so quickly.

When she arrived at the school’s open house, she learned the slots had filled up in less than 15 minutes — and the principal welcomed students by cracking a joke about it.

“Congrats, this open house is harder to get into than ‘Hamilton,’” the principal quipped to the room, recalled Ruby, now a rising ninth-grader at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College. Everyone laughed, she said.

Ruby knew to be at her computer to sign up at precisely the right time because her family paid $150 for a service called High School 411. The service sends email updates with information and reminders about coveted open house slots. Without it, the website says, “families are left in the dark and on their own.”

That’s exactly how many city students feel when they’re applying to high school, a process that starts with attending open houses, a crucial first step. In some cases, the information sessions count toward admission. In others, they provide key information about a competitive school. But getting to them requires time, resources and flexibility many families don’t have.

Students like Ruby, who can supplement the city’s confusing system with a private service like High School 411 and ample family support, are in the best position. Those without such help face a much greater challenge.

“This is a very opaque process,” said Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York, a program that helps low-income students through the high school admissions process. “Though there’s this illusion of meritocracy, it certainly advantages those who know how to work the system.”

WHY DO OPEN HOUSES MATTER?

At many city schools, attending information sessions helps determine whether you get admitted. The roughly 231 high schools with what are known as “limited unscreened” programs cannot, under Department of Education rules, consider factors like a student’s grades, state test scores, or attendance record. But they can take into account whether he or she “demonstrated interest” by attending an information session or signing in at a high school fair.

There is a weekend-long citywide high school fair held in late September in Brooklyn, and individual borough fairs during one weekend in October. Students are supposed to be allowed to sign in at these fairs and have that counted as “demonstrated interest,” but critics say that not all schools attend the fairs, and there is no way to track whether those sign-ups count.

A Department of Education spokesman said limited unscreened schools input their own list of students who have signed in at both high school fairs and information sessions. He also said high schools are “encouraged” to present at the fairs, but did not say they are required to do so.

A high school fair at Brooklyn Technical HIgh School.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
A high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

At the most competitive of the limited unscreened schools, getting priority is virtually essential. At Pace High School in Manhattan, for example, where there are 36 applicants per seat, 100% of admitted students attended an open house or school fair. The same is true for New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, which has about 20 students vying for each seat in its law and government program.

At the 157 city schools with “screened” programs, the process is murkier. These schools can judge admissions based on a number of factors, including test scores, interviews and writing samples. Some screened schools do not weigh open-house attendance in admissions decisions, but others, including Manhattan Village Academy, which has 40 students vying for each seat, do include “demonstrated interest” in their selection criteria.

Even for those that don’t officially count student visits, a highly competitive open house process means some prospective students never get a chance to see the school.

“It’s a very disconcerting system. We are stretched to our limits. We can’t do more open houses than we are doing,” said the principal of Bard Manhattan, Michael Lerner, who said his schools host several packed open houses, but can’t accommodate all the students who are interested in attending. “We do the best we can, but it pains me every year.”

Parents who have attended information sessions describe them as extremely helpful. The tours give attendees a feel for the school and school staff are on hand to explain and clarify how to apply, said Meeta Gandhi, the mother of a rising eighth-grader who attended some open houses last spring.

She is also skeptical that schools claiming they don’t track open-house attendance fully ignore it. In fact, Gandhi said she got the opposite message at her screened school tours last spring.

“They would say, ‘Be sure to sign in. It helps us know that you were here,’” she said.

NAVIGATING THE MAZE

Going to open houses requires figuring out when and where they are — which can be a complicated and time-consuming task.

Details about information sessions are supposed to be compiled on the Department of Education’s online “Admissions Events Calendar,” introduced in 2015. But so far this year, the calendar is incomplete.

A Chalkbeat survey of 50 high schools spread over the five boroughs found that only 26 of the schools had listed information sessions on the calendar this year, despite the fact that schools were asked to submit the dates by July 14. A review of 50 “limited unscreened” schools, all of which consider open-house attendance in admissions, yielded only 19 information sessions.

The city recently extended the deadline for schools to submit their open-house dates until Sept. 9. That means more dates will be added throughout the fall, but that does not help families who want to plan ahead, or those without a computer at home. And the process is underway: Some of the information sessions are in early September or have already passed.

"Congrats, this open house is harder to get into than 'Hamilton.'"Bard Manhattan Principal Michael Lerner

“We encourage students and families to visit citywide and borough-wide high school fairs, where they can learn more about hundreds of high school choices and receive priority in admissions by signing a particular school’s list,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell. “We’ll continue to work with families and educators to make the high school admissions process easier and more equitable.”

He added that the city will continue to work with schools to post and update their information. The Department of Education has also launched an email service to inform parents of key deadlines and resources. Plus, parents and students can sync their Google calendars to the DOE’s list of open houses.

But online innovations bypass a more basic tool still used by families: the New York City High School Directory, said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. He pointed out that few if any open houses are listed in this year’s printed directory, though there have been far more in the past.

“In certain parts of the city, they have no idea [about open houses]. What they do know is they were given a directory to take home over the summer and that’s your bible,” Frumkin said. “That’s the true equalizer. Beyond that, a lot of it depends on how savvy your counselors are, how engaged your parents are, word of mouth.”

Even if the online calendar did contain all open house dates, it has another problem: Many people don’t know that it exists or question whether it is reliable.

"Though there’s this illusion of meritocracy, it certainly advantages those who know how to work the system."Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York

Wong of Breakthrough New York, whose job it is to help students through the process, had not heard of the tool. Elissa Stein, who runs the 411 service, sent the calendar to her listserv with a warning.

“It’s a lovely start, except that it’s incomplete,” she wrote. “So, I suggest taking this with a grain of salt and always double-check on things.”

In reality, finding out about open houses requires visiting a variety of individual school websites. Some of them aren’t posted in a timely fashion and require a call to the school. That leaves groups scrambling over the summer to put together makeshift calendars.

Wong said she put her interns to work compiling a calendar. The process took a “solid week of full-time work.” At the school’s suggestion, Gandhi and a group of parents at her middle school divided up the duties amongst themselves, with each parent taking responsibility for six schools.

The whole process is more challenging for those who don’t speak English fluently or who don’t have access to a computer, Wong said.

“Primarily, it’s really just a question of time and navigation,” she said. “If I am a family who may not necessarily have access to information, or have the skill set to do research or even the time to do research, that’s going to be a disadvantage for me.”

THE SIGN-UP RACE

Bard is not the only screened school with a competitive open house sign-up process. Other elite public schools, like Eleanor Roosevelt on the Upper East Side, also use an online registration system for school visits. That one went live in the middle of Labor Day weekend.

At Beacon, another selective public school in Manhattan, there is no registration before the actual day of the open house. For Ruby, that meant knowing to show up hours early to get a spot in line with a blanket and snacks.

In middle- and upper middle-class circles, these open house tricks and rules are well-known. Jo Goldfarb, whose daughter is a fifth-grade student from Park Slope, attended a high school information session at NYU this summer. She said she remembers the fall when some of her friends were going through the process.

“All my mom friends, I asked them out for drinks,” she said. “And they said no, they had to be online. They were all tied to their computers.”

Being on top of this information quickly, like Goldfarb’s friends, is essential. High School 411 founder Stein said that almost all of these online registrations will “sell out.” Even starting in eighth grade can be too late. At the recent information session at NYU, the majority of parents who came to learn about the process had children in seventh grade. Two had children in fifth grade.

To get a jump-start on the process — and to allow enough time to make it through a long list of schools — many parents start touring schools in the spring of their child’s seventh-grade year.

For some lower-income students, the process couldn’t be more different. Yahayra Colon, a current college freshman from Washington Heights, said she did not realize the importance of the process while she was going through it. She didn’t go to any open houses — let alone participate in the sign-up race at the more competitive schools.

Yahayra Colon standing with her AP Literature teacher Peter Lopez, at her graduation from Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem.

Even though she was one of her middle school’s top students academically, she said, she didn’t pay much attention to the process.

“I was not super engaged,” Colon said. “I didn’t have the support to go visit these schools, to sit in at these schools.”

She ended up getting into the Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan, which she had no interest in attending. So, she entered the second round of high school admissions and was accepted at the High School for Media and Communications, a relatively low-performing school that had a 56 percent graduation rate in 2015.

The school was so scary and disappointing to her that she left after less than three weeks and went to a Catholic school instead. Her mom, a single mother and social worker, started working a second job to pay for it. The process “broke my heart,” Colon said. She ultimately transferred again, and again, before graduating from Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem and starting at SUNY Oneonta this fall.

ARE WE THERE YET?

In the event that parents manage to figure out when information sessions are, snag a seat at the competitive ones, and map out a jam-packed fall schedule, there’s one more obstacle standing in their way: Actually getting there.

Many of the school visits are held on weekdays, during the day, so for many parents that means taking substantial time off work. Ruby’s mom took about 10 half-days off to tour open houses with her daughter last fall, she said. And she only has the flexibility to do so because she owns her own company.

Colon said her mother’s job as a social worker was one of the main reasons she never visited schools.

“She couldn’t leave work to take me to a high school to visit. There was no time to kill,” Colon said. “My mom had to support me and my sister. There are bills to pay.” Her father was not in the picture, she said.

To make matters worse for many students, open houses at the city’s most competitive schools that factor open-house attendance into admissions are mainly in Manhattan and the Bronx — a far distance to travel from outer boroughs like Queens and Staten Island.

An analysis by Insideschools found that it could take a student leaving his or her middle school as long as 20 hours to reach the open houses at these competitive schools. Below you’ll find a breakdown of the average travel time by borough.

Average commute time to the most competitive high schools houses that consider open houses in admissions. Data and analysis provided by Nicole Mader at Insideschools, a project of the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School
Average commute time to the most competitive high schools that consider open houses in admissions. Data and analysis provided by Nicole Mader at Insideschools, a project of the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School.

The most competitive limited unscreened school, Pace High School, is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so it takes at least an hour to travel there from East New York or the Bronx, but less time from anywhere in Manhattan.

The most competitive screened school that considers open-house attendance in admissions, Manhattan Village Academy, is located in Midtown. As of last year, it required students to come with an an adult — an added hardship for students whose parents work.

The combination of hurdles limits the choices of some students and makes life difficult for others. That’s why Stein decided to help some parents through the process by starting her business.

“They call it a choice system, but in many ways it’s not,” Stein said. “There’s this illusion as to what this system is, but the reality is very different.”

barriers to entry

Great divide: How extreme academic segregation isolates students in New York City’s high schools

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Every fall, Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Lower Manhattan, faces the same challenge: absorbing a new cohort of students, many of whom didn’t pass the state’s math and reading exams in eighth grade.

Last year, of more than 100 incoming ninth-graders, only six who had taken the eighth-grade math test had passed. Only 15 had passed English.

Less than a mile away, there’s another school where the majority of ninth-graders passed the same exams — often with flying colors. And that school, New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math or NEST+m, is not alone: Dozens of city high schools have large concentrations of students who sailed through middle school.

The difference: New Design has little control over the students it admits, while NEST+m picks students based on test results and previous academic success.

“When the school opened, I don’t think we quite got how the admission policy would define us,” Conti said.

Indeed, high school admissions rules have placed New Design — and its students — in a system of staggering academic segregation. A small percentage of schools drain off the top students, leaving the majority of schools with very few students entering on grade-level.

A Chalkbeat analysis found that over half the students who took and passed the eighth-grade state math exam in 2015 wound up clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. The same was true for those who passed the English exam.

Meanwhile, nearly 165 of the city’s roughly 440 high schools had five or fewer ninth-graders who took and passed the state math test in 2015. (Some students take algebra in eighth grade, so do not have to take the eighth-grade test.)

When it comes to English, the trend is similar, though less severe: There are 79 schools where five or fewer of last year’s ninth-graders had passed the eighth-grade test.

The city is engaged in a robust conversation about racial segregation in elementary school, which is driven largely by housing patterns. Yet high schools — which are open to students from every corner of the city — have maintained a parallel system of privilege by using academic “screens” instead of geography.

“Academic screens are a mechanism for sorting the students who have had educational privilege into places where they continue to get educational privilege,” said Megan Moskop, high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights “And the students who don’t have that privilege continue not to have it.”

***

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A middle school student talks to a high school counselor as he tries to decide where to apply to high school.

The city has long maintained some schools for very high achievers, including Stuyvesant High School, which started admitting students based on a test in the early 1900s. But between 2002 and 2009, there was a dramatic growth in the options available exclusively to high-scoring students.

In 2002, the year Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office embracing a platform of school choice, only 15.8 percent of school programs screened students for academic success, according to numbers provided by Sean Corcoran of NYU Steinhardt. By 2009, that share had increased to 28.4 percent. (Some schools house multiple programs with different admissions methods.)

The era marked an “under-the-radar explosion of screened schools,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

At the same time the city whittled down the number of high schools designed to enroll students with different ability levels. In 2002, 55.4 percent of city high school programs were what’s called educational option,” meaning they are set up to serve specific portions of high-achieving, low-achieving and average students. (In practice, few do.) By 2009, that share had dropped to 27.7 percent, according to Corcoran’s numbers.

The perils of screening have long been known. A team of researchers warned the city back in 1986 about some of the problems that remain in place today.

In 1986, then-New York City schools chancellor Nathan Quinones convened a group of researchers to examine high school admissions. The group, tasked with increasing access for students and maintaining school quality, warned explicitly against screened programs.

“As a general principle there should be no screened programs,” the report reads.

"I would hate to have my future determined by how I did in seventh grade."Clara Hemphill

The report also argues against interviews, tests developed by schools, placement based on residence, and admissions credit for those who attend open houses. The goal was to avoid “invalid and/or biased admissions criteria.” Yet all of those admissions practices are commonplace in the high school admissions system today.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has recognized these problems and started chipping away at them. The city is not interested in approving new screened programs, city officials said, and has reduced the number of seats in screened schools by 500 since 2015, a roughly 2.5 percent decrease in the percentage of screened seats. Officials also increased the number of educational option seats by 14 percent since 2015.

Additionally, many of de Blasio’s education initiatives have focused on strengthening high school curriculum and ensuring all students have access to advanced coursework.

“The work of fostering academic diversity goes hand-in-hand with our Equity and Excellence for All agenda to strengthen all our schools,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Still, roughly a third of school programs today are either academically “screened” or require an audition. Floyd Hammack, a retired New York University researcher who worked on the 1986 report, said he sees echoes of the situation his team was trying to address.

For him, today’s high school landscape is like a bad flashback. “All this does, ultimately, is make people think that the system is a game that they’ve got to figure out how to play.”

***

The depth of academic screening in the city is eye-popping. Proficient students are concentrated in screened schools — which admit students based on tests, auditions, or prior academic performance — and at large comprehensive high schools, many of which set aside seats for high-achievers.

But there are fewer large high schools than in the past. Most of today’s schools are smaller, and may have few, if any, ninth-graders reading and performing math on grade-level.

City officials did not dispute Chalkbeat’s findings, but noted that about 18,000 eighth-graders took algebra in 2015 and since some of them skip the math exam, that muddies the statistics. (Those students are missing from the data as eighth-grade test takers, but it stands to reason they are also more likely to be enrolled in selective schools, meaning the general conclusions would likely hold.)

The city also said looking at the schools that enroll the most passers can be misleading, since those schools also enroll a disproportionate share of the city’s total students. Roughly a third of last year’s ninth-graders were in the schools Chalkbeat identified as home to more than half the city’s total English and math passers.

Still, the vast majority of students are not in those top schools.

The city’s intense academic stratification has consequences for student learning, explained Halley Potter, a researcher at the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on reducing inequality. Students in poor-performing schools often contend with ill-prepared teachers, lower expectations, and more behavioral issues, Potter said.

“When you sum up all of those studies, you see a really clear pattern that low-level tracks have harmful effects for students,” Potter said.

On the flip side, a number of studies, though not all, have indicated that mixing academic levels does not harm high-achievers. Potter pointed to a review of 15 studies conducted between 1972 and 2006 that showed that sorting students by ability level had virtually no effect, positive or negative, on average or high-ability students.

Alexander White, principal of Gotham Professional Arts Academy, had fewer than five incoming ninth-graders last year who passed their math or English exams the year before. He said he understands exactly why it’s so important to have a diverse mix of students. Imagine a class conversation about whether to keep the electoral college, White said. Having even a few high-performing students to guide the conversation could make all the difference, he said.

“Peer-to-peer education is like the secret ingredient in raising student achievement,” White said.

The stratification also means that many students are effectively shut out of top-tier schools. Just ask Gloria Carrasquillo, the guidance counselor at J.H.S. 151 Lou Gehrig, a school in the Bronx.

Each year, parents of eighth-grade students come into her office hoping to get their children into schools that send a high percentage of graduates to college. But Carrasquillo often has to break the news that there are few of those schools available to them, usually because their children don’t have the grades to qualify for screened schools.

“They don’t have the opportunity because they are blocked,” Carrasquillo said. “They are not admitted, so they cannot prove they can do better.”

"If we're just thinking about it plainly, screens are a function of exclusion for black and brown and low-income kids."Matt Gonzales

Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools, sees several problems with the current system.

Students in schools with mainly low-achieving peers may find there is no advanced coursework available to them, Hemphill said. Thirty-nine percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, and more than half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math, according to a 2015 study by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

The system also locks individual students into schools based on their seventh-grade grades and test scores, since that year is factored into high school admissions. That means there’s no second chance for a student to blossom academically in high school.

“I would hate to have my future determined by how I did in seventh grade,” Hemphill said.

***

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair already snaked around the corner.

While the city is trying to expand course offerings, including by allowing students on certain shared campuses to merge for Advanced Placement classes, other problems are more deeply entrenched.

At the top of the list: School screening has a long history of segregating students by race and income. Higher-income, Asian and white students are more likely to pass standardized exams than their low-income black and Hispanic peers.

While 25 percent of all city eighth-graders passed the state math exam in 2016, for instance, only 13.2 percent of black students and 15.9 percent of Hispanic students did. In English, 40.5 percent of all city eighth-graders passed the test, but only 29.2 percent of black students and 30.7 of Hispanic students passed.

The city’s most elite schools — the specialized high schools where admission is based on a single test — have come under fire for having few students of color. Only 4 percent of specialized school offers went to black students this year and just over 6 percent went to Hispanic students, though roughly 70 percent of the city’s student body is black and Hispanic.

But other screened schools reflect similar inequities, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed and an advocate for school integration. Any type of screen, whether it is a test, audition, or a look at previous academic history, will end up disadvantaging low-income students and students of color, he said.

Gonzales said high schools should be part of the citywide conversation about diversity, and that he hopes when the city unveils a large-scale plan to promote desegregation — which officials said they plan to do by June — it will include some measures geared toward integrating high schools. One of those measures, he said, could be further reducing the number of screened schools.

Screens “are designed to privilege and preference white and middle-class students,” Gonzales said. “If we’re just thinking about it plainly, screens are a function of exclusion for black and brown and low-income kids.”

Conti, the principal of New Design High School, knows firsthand that clustering higher- and lower-achieving students makes it harder for schools like his to succeed. He loves working with his students, but gets no extra support with the near-Herculean task of helping so many students entering the school below grade-level graduate on time.

Conti knows there are no easy answers. “It’s horribly complex,” he said. “It’s a knot right now that’s going to be very hard to untie.”

Barriers to entry

For many students meeting New York City’s high school application deadline, it’s already too late

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

The day before the city’s high school application deadline, Megan Moskop, high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, encountered a parent whose child wanted to apply to Baruch College Campus High School, a highly sought-after school in Manhattan with a 100 percent graduation rate.

Moskop had to explain to the family that the school is essentially off-limits to them, she said. It’s not that the student is low-achieving, Moskop said, but the family does not live in District 2 — and 99 percent of last year’s incoming class at Baruch came from that district.

The fact that students who live in certain geographic areas have “priority status” is just one way in which a system with over 400 high schools is, in practice, narrowed for students and families. By Thursday, when high school applications were due, Moskop said, many New York City students had likely abandoned their favorite schools.

“It’s almost, how quickly are the kids willing to give up on their dreams?” she said.

New York City’s high school choice process, which allows students to rank their top 12 schools, should make all schools available to any student regardless of where they live. But many roadblocks complicate that ideal.

By the time the deadline approaches, students at low-performing middle schools tend not apply to high-performing high schools, even if they have high test scores, according to a recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The system is notoriously difficult to navigate, particularly for students who live in low-income areas and have less help moving through the process. Some schools have geographic priority, some have academic requirements, and others ask students to provide information beyond what is actually needed.

Many families also hit snags when it comes to attending open houses or a high school fair. These can give students a leg up in admissions, but families often do not realize their importance until it’s too late, teachers and counselors said.

“They don’t go to the open houses,” said Gloria Carrasquillo, a guidance counselor at J.H.S. 151 in the Bronx. “They just have that application in a drawer or something.”

Another set of students may see options vanish because of their academic records. Many schools are “screened,” which means they accept students based on factors like grades, test scores and attendance. Families often have unrealistic expectations about whether their children will be competitive, said Elaine Espiritu, family impact coordinator at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School.

Department of Education officials said they are working with middle schools and families to ease the process. This year, they added more information about the application process to the High School Directory, and launched a new website called SchoolFinder, which allows students to search for schools that match their interests.

“We’re committed to making the admissions process to New York City’s high schools easier for students and families and we are listening to the feedback of students, families, and guidance counselors,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

At Brooklyn Laboratory, Espiritu said families appreciated the new SchoolFinder app, and the school organized more than a dozen meetings to make sure families had as much information as possible. Still, the process can be tough, said Eric Tucker, co-founder and executive director of the school.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure that families have the tools to quickly get a kind of snapshot view of the kind of the data that matters most,” Tucker said. “But even then, this is an imperfect process because that amount of choice is overwhelming.”