barriers to entry

How can New York City fix its high school admissions system? Experts weigh in

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A panel of experts discusses how to improve the high school admissions process.

The city’s choice-based high school admissions system should, in theory, allow students to apply to any school in New York City and then deliver each a good match. But as any city eighth-grader can attest, the reality on the ground is far more complicated.

There are over different 400 high schools, with admissions governed by a confusing set of policies. It’s difficult for any student to navigate the system, but even harder for those without well-informed guidance counselors, savvy families, or English language skills.

With that in mind, panels of experts, put together by the Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, gathered Tuesday to talk about what can be done. The following are some of their suggestions.

Idea #1: Reduce screened programs, add more educational option schools

A number of panelists argued that the high school system is unbalanced and needs a serious shake-up.

Some said the city should reduce the number of screened programs, which can choose students based on factors including grades, attendance, interviews or portfolios. Screened programs currently comprise about a third of high school programs in the city, while lower-performing students are clustered in the remaining schools.

“One of the biggest issues with this process is the screened programs,” said Shalema Henderson, assistant director of youth initiatives at College Access: Research and Action, a local nonprofit. “It just has kind of perpetuated the inequity that exists in the schools.”

In place of screened programs, panelists suggested the city create more “educational option” programs, which are designed to enroll students at different academic levels. They currently make up about 23 percent of school programs.

City officials at the conference appeared open to this idea. Representatives from the Department of Education said they have not created any screened programs since 2014, and they have been looking for ways to add educational option programs.

Idea #2: Get rid of priority groups

Some schools give admissions priority for certain subgroups of students, such as those who live within geographic areas or attend open houses. But earning priority can present challenges for low-income families, panelists said.

Chalkbeat has reported that attending an open house, for example, takes time, job flexibility and English skills that many disadvantaged families don’t have.

Another contentious priority group is comprised of students who live in District 2 in Manhattan, a relatively wealthy district that includes most of Manhattan and has some of the most sought-after schools in the city. Since many of the slots at its top schools go to District 2 residents, students from other, less wealthy areas of the city are effectively shut out, critics argue.

The Department of Education indicated that getting rid of District 2 priority would take more time and discussion.

“All of these things that represent historical practice … are going to take a long time to move,” said Amy Basile, director of high school admissions for the department. “And it’s going to take a lot of community involvement.”

Idea #3: Support for middle schools, parents

Middle schools are key to helping students navigate the high school admissions process, but often school staff — particularly guidance counselors — do not have the support, knowledge or time they need to fully help students through the process, panelists said.

Basile sees potential to utilize “College Access for All,” a new initiative started under Mayor Bill de Blasio, to galvanize resources and make admissions a more structured part of the school curriculum.

The city is also trying to increase transparency for families. For the first time this year, the High School Directory includes the percentage of students who received priority at each school and the actual GPA ranges of students who were admitted to the schools. The city also started a new website where students can search for information about schools.

Megan Moskop, a teacher and high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Manhattan, is running a class for her eighth-grade students on high school admissions.

Moskop praised the DOE for helping to craft the curriculum, but she said there is a limit to its potential success. While some students have supportive families, who keep spreadsheets of schools and visit as many as 10 open houses, others are new arrivals to the country barely managing to navigate the shelter system, she said. One class alone is not enough to level the playing field, she added.

“What I’m finding is, even with all those resources and guidelines and set structures, the process is too much to navigate for many of my eighth-graders,” Moskop said.

pipeline problems

City pols’ report questions the fairness of starting new gifted classes in third grade

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, left, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, right, hosted a task force to discuss issues in gifted education and specialized high schools.

When the New York City education department recently opened new gifted classes in historically underrepresented neighborhoods, it altered its approach to admissions.

By starting the programs in third grade rather than kindergarten and changing how students got in, experts said enrollment would be more fair. Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

But a report released Wednesday by the Bronx and Brooklyn borough presidents questions that approach, suggesting that starting in third grade is too late.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” the report asks. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

Most gifted programs start in kindergarten, with admission based on the results of formal tests. Historically, students in poorer neighborhoods take and pass the tests in much lower numbers than those in wealthier school districts.

In spring 2016, the education department opened new gifted classes in four districts that had gone years without — districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx and 16 and 23 in Brooklyn. Those programs admit students in third grade based on their classroom grades and teacher recommendations.

Using multiple measures instead of a single test score and starting the process later could make it less likely that students are admitted based on solely on the advantages they bring from home — such as the ability to prep for a test.

“This is good news that they’re using multiple measures and they’re opening up access to these programs,” researcher Allison Roda said at the time, though she added that she has reservations about separating students into gifted classrooms in the first place.

But the new report on gifted education from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. raises questions about whether the changes are truly fair. Basing admissions on teacher recommendations may be problematic, the report argues, because bias could play a role in classifying students as gifted or disabled. And, most New York City students still enter gifted from a very early age.

“The DOE is adding third- and fourth-grade classes, but has still not committed to kindergarten, first, and second grade programs in all districts,” the report notes. “We demand this commitment to programs from the earliest ages equally throughout the city.”

Among the report’s other recommendations:

  • Universal gifted testing for pre-K students, unless parents choose to opt out.
  • Creating access to gifted classrooms in every community.
  • Expanding gifted options in middle school at either the district or citywide level. Research has found that just a handful of middle schools are major feeders for students who go on to specialized high schools, which are themselves starkly segregated.

In an emailed statement, an education department spokesman wrote: “We’ll review the recommendations in the report, and look forward to working with the borough presidents to increase access to high-quality schools.”

one barrier down

City to eliminate high school admissions method that favored families with time and resources

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

New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.

“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.

The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.

City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.

“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”

There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.

Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)

As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.

The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.

But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.

“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”

Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.

Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.

While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.

Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.

“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.

In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”

“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.

In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.

Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.

But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.

“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”