barriers to entry

Strong students from weak middle schools often don’t try for New York City’s top high schools, new report shows

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

The city’s high school choice system should allow any student, regardless of where they live, to apply to any high school. While is it true students have that option on paper, a new report from the city’s Independent Budget Office provides yet another illustration of the system’s real-life limits.

The report suggests that students’ backgrounds — including their test scores, middle schools, and where they live — influence the schools they pick as their first choices.

“The idea [behind school choice] was to break the link between where you live and where you go to school,” said Joydeep Roy, a senior economist in the IBO’s office who worked on the report. “What we find is, it’s not that simple.”

The study examines the effect middle schools have on students’ high school choices. It finds, for instance, that students at low-performing middle schools are more likely to apply to less competitive high schools with lower graduation rates than their peers at other schools.

Importantly, that trend holds even if students themselves are high-achieving. Students who scored in the top third on the seventh-grade state math exam but attended low-performing middle schools chose high schools with an average graduation rate of 83 percent. Students in the same achievement category at high-performing middle schools picked schools with an average graduation rate of 90 percent.

Roy considers that an important finding since it bucks the idea that students choose high schools purely on their academic merits.

“Not all high-scoring students are the same, and not all low-scoring students are alike,” Roy said.

The IBO study suggests that soft factors such as the quality of information provided by middle schools and the choices peers make might contribute to this trend. The authors also find that geography influences a student’s high school choices. Students from Staten Island, Brooklyn, and lower-achieving students in the Bronx are less likely than other students to travel long distances to attend school, they found.

These ideas are consistent with a Chalkbeat series highlighting the barriers some students face while going through the high school admissions process. Often, there are informal reasons families have trouble applying to high schools, such as misinformation spread at the citywide high school fair or difficulty attending an open house, both of which can factor into admissions.

The report relies mainly on data from the 2011-12 school year. Since then, the city says it has worked to make the admissions process smoother by sending out translated copies of the High School Directory to middle schools, for instance, and launching an online, interactive version of the directory.

“Since the 2011-12 school year, we’ve taken concrete steps to improve the high school admissions process for students and families,” said Department of Education spokesman Will Mantell.

Still, there is a long way to go before the city overcomes the relationship between where a student lives and where they go to school, Roy said.

“High school choice by itself will not break this link.”

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.”

Opening doors

Bringing open houses in-house: How one middle school took high school admissions into its own hands

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A student signs his name at a high school table during a fair at New Heights Middle School

Jennifer Cuervo, the guidance counselor at New Heights Middle School in Brooklyn, noticed a glaring problem for her eighth-grade students applying to high school.

When she asked them if they attended high school open houses — a crucial step in gaining priority status at many schools — the answer was too often, “Oh no, Miss, I didn’t have a way to get there,” she said.

Sometimes they didn’t have a ride, she said, or the MTA fare was too steep. And the open houses and high school fairs often took place outside of school hours, so if families were unavailable, Cuervo had no way to help her students.

So she brought these problems to her staff, and together they came up with an idea.

A middle school student talks to a high school counselor at New Heights middle school.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
A middle school student talks to a high school counselor at New Heights Middle School.

For the first time this year, Cuervo’s school hosted a high school fair for students in her district, held during the school day. She invited more than 20 high schools, most of which are “limited unscreened,” meaning they do not look at test scores, grades or attendance, but do give students a leg up for signing in at an open house or a high school fair.

The New Heights fair, attended by students from that school and six others, allowed students to sign in at tables belonging to a wide array of high schools, earning the admissions benefit without the complications of cost and travel.

The bottom line for Cuervo was, “Our kids aren’t going to these [citywide] fairs, so why not bring it in-house?” she said.

Kyle Pierre, an eighth-grader at New Heights, missed the citywide fair and said he has not attended any open houses. Pierre likes technology and is interested in P-TECH, a popular school that allows students to earn college credit and has a partnership with IBM.

A high school representative talks about his school to prospective students.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high school representative talks about his school to prospective students.

Since 95 percent of students admitted to P-TECH last year received priority by attending a fair or open house, missing them meant Pierre could have been out of luck. Instead, this middle school fair gave him a second chance.

Many students encounter problems when trying to attend open houses at high schools, Chalkbeat has reported. Often the open house dates are hard to find or at inconvenient times, forcing students to miss school and parents to take time off work. It’s also difficult to know if schools are giving students priority for signing in the high school fair. Some schools don’t know or follow the rules, and the education department does little to police them. (All schools interviewed by Chalkbeat at the New Heights fair said they were giving students priority.)

Creating a fair at New Heights Middle School helps students in the district, but students citywide don’t have that support. The school’s principal, Ativia Sandusky, said the system has pushed the burden of helping students toward school officials like her and her staff.

“It has to be on the individual middle schools,” she said.