barriers to entry

New York City’s high school fair could help simplify the admissions process. Instead, it adds to the confusion.

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

At 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the line to enter the citywide high school fair snaked around the corner. Parents waiting with their eighth-graders outside Brooklyn Technical High School, where it was held, joked that it was like waiting in line at a Taylor Swift concert.

“I’m ready to do battle,” said Brenda Wilson, the mother of an eighth-grader from Queens, as she and her son inched toward the door.

Spread over seven floors, the massive annual fair is supposed to offer students applying for a high school a glimpse of their options, a crucial opportunity since the city’s choice system means any eighth-grader can apply to any high school.

Every year, families attend in droves to learn about schools — and because the fair can improve their odds of getting in. Hundreds of high schools grant priority to students who demonstrate their interest, and visiting a school’s table at the fair is one way to do so, according to the Department of Education.

There’s just one problem: Many of the schools don’t seem to know the policy — or to follow it.

An Origins High School flyer passed out at last weekend's high school fair
A high school flyer passed out at last weekend’s high school fair.

Chalkbeat spent two days at the fair this September and found school representatives who were unaware of the fair’s intended role in admissions and were, in turn, misinforming families. And the Department of Education does little to monitor whether schools are following the rules.

“I think it’s becoming, unfortunately, more of the norm,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. “It’s very disappointing and, I think, unfair.”

This type of confusion helps perpetuate inequities that plague the entire high school admissions process. Families with the savvy to navigate a hazy system, and the time to advocate in multiple ways for their child, have an advantage. Families without that savvy — even those following the city’s stated policies — are often at a big disadvantage.

Showing your interest

Yvonne Williams, the school business manager at Academy for Software Engineering, hands out information at the citywide high school fair.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Yvonne Williams (r), the school business manager at Academy for Software Engineering, at the citywide high school fair.

Just over half of the city’s roughly 440 high schools have what are called “limited unscreened” programs, which are not allowed to admit students based on factors like their middle-school grades or attendance. There’s only one way students can increase their chances: Demonstrating interest in the school.

One way to do that is by attending an open house at the school itself. But attending open houses can be burdensome for families. Some take place during weekdays, for instance, forcing students to miss school or parents to miss work.

With that in mind, the Department of Education offers an alternative: Students can gain the same leg up by signing in at a school’s table at the citywide fair.

But many schools are not following that rule. Chalkbeat talked to eight school representatives at the fair — including guidance counselors, teachers, and school administrators — who said students who attended open houses at their schools were given preference for admission over those who attended the high school fair.

Some said signing in at a high school fair did not count toward admission at all. Others, when pressed, said their schools give priority status to open-house attendees first, then backfill with students on the high school fair list if there is extra room. (Chalkbeat checked with some of these schools after the fair, and they again confirmed that only students who attend open houses get top priority.)

On one corner of the floor for Brooklyn schools, social worker Debby Wallace said it “does not make any sense” to give preference to students who sign in at Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice’s table. So many students sign in, she said, it might not be a real gauge of enthusiasm. “You could come here and sign in and not be that interested,” Wallace said.

Instead, students should attend an open house to show interest, according to a school brochure, and fill out a “declaration of interest” while there.

An Urban Assembly School for Law & Justice flyer passed out at last weekend's high school fair
The flyer Urban Assembly School for Law & Justice passed out at last weekend’s high school fair.

Wallace is articulating a paradox for schools. Students signing in at the fair may be genuinely interested in a school and unable to attend an open house, or they might be passing by with no real interest at all.

If limited unscreened schools stick to the rules, there is no way to judge which is which. Asking students to attend an open house helps them winnow down their applicants. And it’s understandable that these schools want to find a class of engaged students. They are already, in many cases, taking students who do not have the grades, attendance records, or test scores to get into one of the city’s top high schools.

“From the school’s standpoint, I understand where they’re coming from,” Frumkin said. “I suspect some schools feel that the fair is a waste of time, and other schools feel like even if we get signature at the fair, that’s not truly representative of student interest.”

Still, it’s kids without the extra support, or ability to navigate a system of confusing criteria, who will lose out. “I do think it’s disappointing,” he said, “regardless of the motives.”

Many schools emphasize attending an open house in the brochures they hand to students and families.

Brooklyn Preparatory High School’s brochure reads, “We receive over 1,200 applications and have about 120 ninth-grade seats. Preference is given to students who come to one of our open houses” on the high school application.

Gage Kearns, the ninth-grade counselor working the table at Brooklyn Preparatory High School, said the pamphlet means what it says.

A Brooklyn Prep flyer passed out at last weekend's high school fair
A Brooklyn Prep flyer passed out at last weekend’s high school fair.

“The only priority we give is for kids that go to the information session,” Kearns said, adding that the school is overwhelmed with signatures at the high school fair. He estimated that between 300 and 400 students signed up at the school’s table on Saturday.

Often, school representatives like Zoraida Torres-Rodriguez, parent coordinator at the Bronx School for Law and Finance, said the sign-in sheet was there just to collect contact information so schools could send information about upcoming open houses to families.

That attitude was so pervasive, some representatives assumed the practice was universal.

“To enter the lottery system, you have to sign up for an open house,” said Anna Lopez, a history and English teacher at Careers in Sports High School in the Bronx. “If any other school tells you otherwise, they’re lying.”

Policy vs. reality

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

What the schools say they are doing flies directly in the face of what the Department of Education says should be happening. According to the city’s policy, which was disseminated in a memo to schools before the fair, limited unscreened schools are required to offer the same priority to students who attend a citywide fair as to those who attend open houses.

Education department officials say the policy is clearly communicated to the schools and superintendents. But the department does not monitor what the schools actually do. Instead, enforcement happens on an ad hoc basis, when the department learns about a school that isn’t following the rules.

“We’ve taken concrete steps to improve and expand opportunities for schools and families to learn about high schools – including the new NYC School Finder [an interactive database], increasing the availability of translated materials, and ongoing work with schools and superintendents so they can support students and families,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

“We recognize the high school admissions process can be challenging for families, and we’re committed to making continued improvements based on ongoing conversations with students, families, and school staff,” he said. There are also boroughwide fairs one weekend in October where students can sign in and should be able to get the same priority, but the citywide fair is the only weekend all the schools are in one place.

Frumkin said despite the city’s efforts, the problem is a perennial one.

“There’s always been a disconnect from the central DOE and the school level,” he said. “While it’s easy to say every school has to do it this way, the reality on the ground may be different.”

In black and white

Part of the issue may be that the language in the Department of Education’s own high school directory is unclear.

At the beginning of the directory, it says certain schools give priority for students who sign in at high school fairs. Yet on the pages of those individual schools, it lists only the percentage of offers that went to students who attended an information session, without clarifying that “information session” can mean either an open house or attending the high school fair.

The Academy for Software Engineering flyer passed out at last weekend’s high school fair.

Department of Education officials said the full policy is shortened to “information session” on individual schools’ pages, but that it includes students who signed in at a high school fair. But families and school officials Chalkbeat spoke with understandably interpreted the phrase “information session” to mean they needed to attend an open house at a school.

Mary Lamont, the parent of an eighth-grader from Queens, said she did her research and realized some schools require open-house attendance.

“This whole thing is extremely stressful,” Lamont said. “We’ve got to go through this and set up a calendar [for open houses].” When she heard the Department of Education said signing in at a high school fair should offer the same priority, she was confused.

“That’s not what it says in the book,” she said.

She was not the only person who drew that conclusion. Natalie Cazeau, a counselor at the Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice, who worked the high school fair table, said the same thing. Sometimes, they may look at the high school fair list if they need more students, but students who attend an open house get priority over those who sign in at the fair because that’s the official rule, she said.

“If you look in the book, it says you must attend an open house,” Cazeau said.

The city recently made its high school directory interactive for students and families, in an effort to make the search process easier and clearer, officials said. But the language about information sessions didn’t change.

Schools that skip the fair

Schools that didn't show at the citywide fair were replaced with papers that said "This school is unable to attend."
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Schools that didn’t show up at the citywide fair were replaced with papers that said “This school is unable to attend.”

Meanwhile, there’s a more fundamental problem at work: Many high schools don’t even attend the fair. Schools aren’t required to attend, and only 62 percent did this year, according to the Department of Education. (That includes limited unscreened schools and those with other admissions methods.)

Even when schools do show up and students manage to sign in, that doesn’t guarantee that their preference gets logged. Angella Grant, a guidance counselor at the Academy for Health Careers in Brooklyn, said she often has trouble reading the names of families who sign in.

“Sometimes it’s not legible when the kids write it,” Grant said. “This is like a madhouse.”

The principal of Urban Assembly Maker Academy, Luke Bauer, said he “could never read anyone’s handwriting,” so he switched to letting students sign in on an iPad.

Department of Education officials said schools are responsible for running their own sign-ins at the high school fair, and that they will continue to look for ways to make the process easier for families.

Yet beyond the letter reminding schools to count sign-ins at high school fairs as demonstrated interest, the DOE does little to enforce its policy. Schools are trusted to input the students’ names. That lack of oversight gives them little incentive to follow the rules.

Sharice Joseph, who has an eighth-grade son and lives in Flatbush, said she noticed a greater emphasis on attending information sessions at this fair than when she went through the process with her older son years ago.

As a result, she planned to make sure her younger son attends open houses at any school that caught his eye.

“We don’t want to take any chances,” Joseph said.

 

A better way

Parents and city officials hope to tackle inequity in gifted education, specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

District 9 in the Bronx is home to almost 18,000 elementary school students. Only about 55 of them were enrolled in gifted and talented programs last year.

A new task force launched by the Brooklyn and Bronx borough presidents wants to dig into why that is — and what should be done about it.

New York City’s gifted programs are starkly segregated by race and class. A majority of city students are black or Hispanic. But those students make up only 27 percent of gifted enrollment. And while 77 percent of students citywide are poor, the poverty rate in gifted programs is about 43 percent.

With limited access to gifted programs, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. said it’s no wonder minority students are also woefully underrepresented in the city’s elite specialized high schools — another issue the task force will address.

The latest round of acceptance data for specialized high schools, released last week, shows that the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to those schools hasn’t budged past 10 percent.

“If they’re not in gifted and talented, then they’re not prepared to pass the exams that place you in specialized high schools,” Diaz said.

Admission to specialized high schools hinges on the results of a single exam — as does entry into gifted programs starting in kindergarten.

The city has tried to boost diversity in both areas, offering test prep for the specialized high school exam, and administering the test during the school day at a handful of middle schools in underrepresented communities. The department also recently opened new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without any: Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Brooklyn.

But Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams called the department’s diversity moves “a new coat of paint” that fails to address bigger problems.

“We have to dig deeper,” he said. “Lack of diversity is not going to produce the leaders we want.”

The borough presidents hope the task force will come up with recommendations beyond traditional solutions like offering test prep, and suggest ways to address systemic issues, such as offering gifted testing to all students in universal pre-K programs and helping parents better prepare their children for success in school.

Adams also said the department needs to figure out how to make sure all parents have access to information on how to enroll in the sought-after programs, especially in communities with large immigrant populations or where parents don’t have experience dealing with big bureaucracies like the Department of Education.

“They think, ‘Well this information is out there. Everyone has access to it,’” he said. “That is not true. Government is frightening for those who aren’t used accessing it.”

Not everyone is convinced gifted and talented programs will help address inequity. In an editorial in Quartz last year, researchers Halley Potter and Allison Roda, who have both studied equity issues in New York City schools, said the solution will require “radically reimagining gifted education, and eliminating separate G&T programs altogether.”

“New York City’s current approach to gifted education is founded on separation,” they wrote.

Yet despite the lingering disparities, Diaz said all children deserve access to programs like gifted and talented.

“Some of them are [English Language Learners], some of them have special needs. But some of them need to be challenged intellectually,” he said. “We need to do the best we can for every single one of our students.”

The first task force meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on March 20 at Bronx High School of Science, located at 75 West 205th St. The Brooklyn meeting has been rescheduled due to snow, and will be held at 6 p.m. on March 28 at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, located at 1368 Fulton Street.

the right mix

How two Manhattan moms are trying to convince their peers that integration is good for everyone

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Shino Tanikawa, left, and Robin Broshi, right, say academic integration is a key to creating diverse schools.

As support among local advocates and officials builds for policies to help desegregate New York City schools, two Manhattan moms say mixing students of different ability levels is a key part of the equation.

Robin Broshi and Shino Tanikawa, both members of the District 2 Community Education Council, point to the middle schools in their district, which includes lower Manhattan, Chinatown and the Upper East Side. Most middle schools there are unzoned and supposed to be open to everyone. But with a highly selective application process, many of the schools end up divided academically — and by race and class.

Broshi and Tanikawa are determined to change that, but first they’ll have to convince their peers that academically integrated schools work for everyone — even students who are already high-achievers.

“My feeling is most parents will support a racially diverse school and they might even support a socioeconomically diverse school, but they still might have a problem understanding that an academically diverse school is also good for their kids,” Tanikawa said.

Their effort is rooted in an understanding of how race and class impact student achievement, and how using test scores and report cards in admissions decisions can shut vulnerable students out.

“If you look at test scores and you say, ‘We want to create academically screened schools that also reflect all the other diversities,’ you’re not really going to be able to do that,” Broshi said. “The whole reason we’re in this situation is because there’s an academic component.”

***

The kind of academic mixing that Broshi and Tanikawa propose is something similar to the city’s “educational option” high schools. Also known as “ed-opt,” these schools were designed to enroll students from across the educational spectrum. The city Department of Education has said it’s not interested in adding screened programs at the high school level, and has increased the number of ed-opt seats by 14 percent since 2015.

Broshi and Tanikawa aren’t yet advocating for specific changes to the middle school admissions process; they hope those details will grow out of community conversations that are just getting started. One forum the educational council organized last spring, which featured researchers talking about their work on integration, attracted a crowd of parents.

Still, Tanikawa knows it will take more than that to convince wary peers. If necessary, she’s ready to visit every PTA in the sprawling district to make her case.

“The only way to do it is to go to where the parents are, not to ask them to come to where we are,” Tanikawa said.

She is likely to face fierce resistance.

In 2013, when the city Department of Education opened a new middle school on the Upper East Side and proposed that only half the student body be screened, about 500 people wrote to the department calling for full academic screening instead.

“Without a screen … there is no ability to control what kind of kids will enroll,” one commenter wrote. “Half of the students will get in purely on luck, and these students will impede the success of the school.”

***

The question of how mixing students affects an overall student body has yielded a significant amount of research, much of which supports a different conclusion: As with integrating students of different races and economic backgrounds, mixing students with different academic abilities can benefit all.

One meta-analysis of four decades of research showed that academic mixing had positive effects for struggling students — and no effect, positive or negative, for average and high-achieving students.

Other studies have found more advantages.

One study of a Long Island high school found that graduation rates among all students shot up when the district stopped using different academic “tracks” with separate curricula for high- and low-performing students. Instead, all students were taught under a program that was previously only taught to top students.

Certain mixed-class models are especially promising, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that studies inequality.

He recommends approaches such as “embedded honors,” where students are taught the same lessons in the same classroom, but assigned varying levels of work. Cooperative learning, where small groups of students at different achievement levels help each other, can also work, he said. A review of almost 400 studies found that cooperative learning can boost higher-level thinking and promote the generation of new ideas, Kahlenberg writes in his book “All Together Now.”

But de-tracking is not easy to get right. In cases where the gap between top-performers and struggling students is too big, there may be no benefits for either.

Other research has shown that struggling students can, in fact, have a negative effect on peers. In one study, economists looked at the impact of the arrival of hurricane evacuees on Houston schools. The result: low-achieving evacuees brought down the average performance of high-achieving Houston students. On the other hand, the arrival of high-performing evacuees had a positive effect.

***

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and author of “The Diverse Schools Dilemma,” said it’s “reasonable” for parents to ask how their children will do in an academically mixed classroom.

Regardless of a school’s student body, he says, educational success depends largely on the quality of teaching and leadership.

“If the school can do a reasonable job to provide some accommodations for your child, and you get to have this experience of integration, then that’s great,” Petrilli said. “But there are tradeoffs. And I guess in the best case scenario, parents should be able to make a decision about those tradeoffs.”

For Tanikawa, the tradeoffs, if there are any, are well worth it if academic mixing leads to greater integration by race and class. The benefits of diverse schools — better graduation rates in high school and college, and even higher incomes later in life — have been thoroughly documented.

In the classroom, students from different backgrounds bring new experiences and ideas, which stimulates more engaging classroom discussions, improves critical thinking and may even boost creativity, according to one 2016 report from the Century Foundation. It prepares students to work in multicultural environments and can lead to more civic participation later in life.

“I know there’s a lot more to schools than academic achievement,” Tanikawa said. “I want parents to start thinking about what else makes a good education.”