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.

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.