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.


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.