High-tech tool

Exclusive: Education department launches interactive high school directory

"School Finder" is the Department of Education's new, interactive high school directory.

The bulky, paperback high school directory that New York City students have carried home for years is now accessible on a smartphone. The city’s Department of Education just launched a new, interactive directory called “School Finder” for the 2017-18 school year.

Traditionally, the printed directory has been a key tool for students sorting through the more than 400 public high schools across New York City. It allows students to learn which programs each school offers, check metrics like student attendance, and figure out how to apply.

While the old directory was online as a PDF, the new site, which you can view here, has a search bar where students can input a school name or borough. They can break down their results by distance, admissions method, school size or eligibility rules (such as whether a school is only for males or females). Students can also “favorite” schools of interest, which saves the school name at the bottom of the website.

“It’s a priority for us at the Department of Education to make the enrollment process easier for families,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. “That’s really a part of Equity and Excellence [the mayor’s education agenda], ensuring that families have access to quality information in as easy a way as possible so they can make the best choices for their kids.”

Aside from the basics, the site also allows students to drill down into more specific interests, by searching words like “soccer,” for example, or “advanced placement” to find the school descriptions that reference them. But it does not enable students to sort by performance indicators like high graduation rates or test scores, or to look for schools that accept students with particular academic credentials.

What a search looks like under "School Finder," the department of education's new, interactive high school directory.
What a search looks like under “School Finder,” the Department of Education’s new, interactive high school directory.

Ultimately, the tool is a sleek and easily navigable version of the current high school directory, said Clara Hemphill, founder of the school-review website Insideschools, whose team offered the department feedback on the site. (The final version also provides links to Insideschools reviews.) Yet, School Finder does little to solve the myriad problems created by the complicated high school admissions process.

“Essentially, what you’re doing here is putting the high school directory on a phone. If that’s what you’re trying to do, I think they did a good job with it,” Hemphill said. “If you’re trying to make an extremely complex high school admissions process easier, that’s another job for another day.”

School Finder has some of the same problems as the old directory, such as high schools submitting incomplete information. For instance, Manhattan Hunter Science requires a personal essay for admission, but that is not listed in either the PDF or interactive directory.

The new tool also has little if any information about high school open houses, though it includes a link to an admissions events calendar on the bottom of the home screen. As Chalkbeat reported last week, attendance at open houses is sometimes factored into admissions decisions by schools, and other times provides key information about a competitive school.

The site is still being tested, and the Department of Education welcomes feedback on how to improve it, Wallack said, including being notified of any missing details. One of the department’s first tasks is to make the tool available in more languages. Currently, it’s only in English and Spanish.

While the School Finder requires a smartphone or computer, Wallack said that students without internet access at home will be able to access it at their schools. It will also make life easier for the guidance counselors who advise them, he noted.

“It’s a beta,” Wallack said. “It will continue to evolve and we’re continuing to raise funds to develop it further.”

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.”

barriers to entry

Chancellor: ‘We’re reconsidering how some enrollment is done’ in high schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn. The fair was organized by their school to help them overcome some of the barriers in the high school admissions process.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña hinted during a City Council hearing Tuesday that changes to the high school admissions process might be in the works.

“In the future, we’re reconsidering how some enrollment is done on the high school levels,” Fariña said, in response to a coucilman’s question about whether individual schools make enrollment decisions.

She also suggested that the education department would take a more active role in overseeing high school admissions.

“I think our enrollment office is going to be more closely monitoring those enrollment processes for high schools,” Fariña said. “To be continued.”

The chancellor was responding to a series of questions about how students are admitted to Townsend Harris High School, an elite Queens school that screens applicants based on factors such as test scores and attendance.

Chalkbeat has reported extensively on how the current choice-based system contributes to extreme academic sorting. Over half of the students who took and passed state exams in 2015 are concentrated in fewer than 8 percent of city high schools, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

By June, the city is expected to release a plan to tackle school diversity. New York City is among the most segregated school systems in the country, with students starkly separated not just by race and class, but also by academic achievement.

As Chalkbeat reported this fall, academic screens, which require students to submit test scores, grades and other markers of school achievement, contribute to the divide. Hazy rules and a lack of enforcement around admissions have also become obstacles for students — providing an advantage to families with the time and savvy to work the system.

Recently, the New York Times published a lengthy look at the high school admissions process. After the mayor seemed to temper expectations about his ability to address segregation, the Times also ran an editorial urging him to take a more aggressive stance. “Segregation in the city’s schools cannot be dismissed as an unsolvable problem,” it said.

Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said he expects the city’s diversity plan to include changes to high school admissions but he does not yet know the details.

“I’m pretty confident that something related to high school enrollment would be involved,” Gonzales said.

Correction: This story has been updated to state that over half the students who took and passed the state exams are concentrated in fewer than 8 percent of city high schools.