barriers to entry

In New York City’s dysfunctional high school admissions system, even ‘unscreened’ schools have tools to sort students

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.

It’s 5 p.m. and the open house for prospective students at Pace High School in Chinatown is just getting underway. As students arrive, they are handed a clipboard with a survey.

They scribble away for the first 20 minutes or so, explaining the struggles they have overcome and which components of Pace they like. They indicate whether Pace is their top-choice school, if academic success is important to them, and whether they want to go to college.

“It is very, very important that we get the surveys back from you, as they are the attendance for this open house this evening,” says Michael Sowiski, an assistant principal at the school. “It does have an impact on the admissions process.”

Yet Pace is what’s known as a “limited unscreened” school, which means its students are selected by random lottery. Even though it has dozens of applicants per seat, it can grant priority status only to those who attend an open house or visit the school’s table at a high school fair.

Sowiski said the students’ answers aren’t used in the admissions process. Yet the very existence of the survey raises questions about whether the city’s rules for admission to limited unscreened schools are vulnerable to abuse.

Several schools, including Pace, seek information about students above and beyond what they actually need — but it’s unclear why. They may want to discern which applicants truly want to attend the school, which can be difficult under the current rules, or to target high-performing students for recruitment. Or maybe they’re just curious to learn more about who’s applying.

But one thing is certain: Collecting extra information gives schools a tool to filter their applicants, and the Department of Education does little to ensure they don’t.

It’s no surprise that the schools would push the boundaries. The entire structure of the high school admissions system, which allows scores of schools to screen applicants and pools most of the lower-performing students in unscreened schools, creates the temptation.

“Every high school figures out some way to limit their population,” said Eric Nadelstern, who worked in the Bloomberg administration when officials created the “limited unscreened” designation and is now a professor at Teachers College.

“I don’t think the solution is, let’s root out corruption where it exists,” he said. “It’s endemic.”

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When the city introduced a universal lottery system in 2004, the idea was to give students access to a wider range of high schools. There are roughly 150 high schools with a “screened” program that weighs applicants’ academic history, and around 230 schools with a “limited unscreened” program that weighs only students’ interest in attending. After students rank their choices, the unscreened schools receive a list of applicants and mark which ones attended an open house or high school fair.

But the system isn’t working. As Chalkbeat has reported, open houses are often poorly advertised, far from families’ homes, and can be held during weekdays — creating a burden for all students, and particularly for many low-income families. And many schools are already not following the rules of granting priority at the citywide high school fair.

Part of the survey handed out to students at Pace High School's open house
Part of the survey handed out to students at Pace High School’s open house

Since schools are the sole keepers of information about which students should get priority, there is nothing to guard against them tinkering with their lists. They could leave off some students who have demonstrated interest, for instance, or grant priority only to those they especially want.

And some say that with the survey that Pace distributed, for example, it’s hard to imagine anything other than that happening.

“They’re really not supposed to be doing that,” said Sean Corcoran, a researcher at NYU who has studied the high school admissions system, regarding Pace’s survey. “There’s no other reason to use that except for screening students.”

Raymond Johnson, the parent coordinator at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn until 2011, said his school also distributed a short survey at open houses. And based on students’ responses, Johnson said, they might be included or excluded from the school’s priority list. Though he was not in the room while those decisions were being made, he said, he was close enough to the process to hear it being discussed.

“It was definitely something that was talked about,” Johnson said. “It was definitely something that many people knew about, and that was the way that they were able to recruit a lot of potential students.”

To his knowledge, the practice was widespread. “That was the norm,” he said. “But it wasn’t something that was promoted. Clearly, it was something that was done behind closed doors.”

The current principal of Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, Suzette Dyer, said the school still collects information about students, but it plays no role in admissions.

“We ask students to provide us information about themselves as well: what middle school they attend, how to reach them, and what they and their parents hope to find in a high school,” Dyer said in an email. “This information does not impact their ranking at all. Instead, it is used for us to begin creating a strong partnership between the school and the students and their families once they’ve been matched to our high school.”

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the brochure handed out last year at the citywide high school fair by Bronx High School for the Visual Arts.
Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the brochure handed out last year at the citywide high school fair by Bronx High School for the Visual Arts. The school no longer uses this brochure.

But even if the surveys are not used in admissions, Corcoran said, just distributing them could discourage families and students from applying to the school.

“You’re there to find out more about the school and then basically they’re putting an assignment in front of you,” Corcoran said. “That can be a real turnoff, and a student may just decide a school is not for them if they didn’t feel confident about crafting an essay.”

Sometimes, the interest form asks a question that city officials said is discouraged: Is this school your top choice? The current lottery algorithm was designed to incentivize students to rank schools in their actual order of preference, rather than limiting their top choices to the schools most likely to accept them. Some schools tell students the system gives preference to applicants who rank them first on their lottery list, even though that is not the case.

Other schools ask students to complete certain activities. At Bronx High School for Visual Arts, ninth- and 10th-grade counselor Sasha Santiago said students are asked to complete an art demonstration, which involves drawing a still-life picture, and answer a couple of questions about themselves at the open house.

Santiago said the quality of the artwork and the students’ answers on the questionnaire are not used in admissions.

“We’re a limited unscreened school, point blank, period. Nothing has changed,” Santiago said.

According to the Department of Education, schools are allowed to collect surveys or ask students to complete activities, as long as they don’t factor those responses into admissions decisions. But it is nearly impossible to know whether schools are following those rules, since the DOE allows them to operate on the honor system — allowing the schools themselves to mark who gets priority.

“We’ve taken concrete steps to improve the high school admissions process and we recognize it can be challenging for families,” said education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “We continue to review this process in our work to ensure all students and families have access to a high-quality school.”

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Limited unscreened schools are permitted to recruit students, but they are barred from considering students’ grades, test scores, or attendance records in admissions. But there’s still plenty of gray area in the rules — and schools may not abide by them in the first place.

At the citywide high school fair, Cecily Zayas, parent coordinator at the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art said her school does “not only look at who comes to an open house.” The school examines three years’ worth of attendance and looks at student grades, she said, though it does not make “harsh” decisions based on a student’s GPA. Her principal, she explained, wants to make sure students are a good match for the school.

“A lot of schools tend not to [consider attendance and grades], but my principal does to figure out who would be a good fit for our school,” Zayas said.

That school’s principal, Paul Thompson, said Zayas “misspoke and does not have access to any student information around admissions and has a misunderstanding of the process.” Afterwards, Zayas herself also sent an email saying she “unintentionally misrepresented” her school’s enrollment policies at the fair. But it’s worth noting that information was disseminated to parents and students, since she was the one manning the school’s table for at least a portion of the day.

Also at the fair, representatives from George Washington Carver High School for the Sciences, a school in Queens, handed out a brochure with an “eligibility” section, stating that the school is looking for students with “excellent” attendance and passing grades.

Again, it’s hard to know if the schools are actually screening — and to what extent. Principal Janice Sutton said they only look at the “eligibility” requirements listed in the brochure after students have been admitted.

The brochure that representatives of George Washington Carver High School for the Sciences handed out at the high school fair.
The brochure that representatives of George Washington Carver High School for the Sciences handed out at the high school fair.

But students working the table at the high school fair thought the opposite. Chyanne Blakey and Darshan Boyce, both 11th-graders at G.W. Carver, said they thought students had to have a 75 average to be accepted at the school, and that students had a better chance of getting in if they had good attendance and participated in science clubs.

A counselor at a high school in the Bronx, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while schools can’t explicitly collect information on students, middle school and high school guidance counselors talk all the time and may informally share information about students’ grades or disciplinary history.

“If you have a source, they can kind of give you some information,” he said.

Several schools at the citywide fair peppered their sign-in sheets with stars next to certain students’ names to indicate an applicant very interested in the school, for instance, or one with a relative at the school.

It’s unclear how schools use those stars to recruit students, but Zoraida Torres-Rodriguez, the parent coordinator at Bronx School of Law and Finance, said she will do “anything” to convince one of those students to come to the school, including knocking on his or her door.

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It’s no wonder that “limited unscreened” schools feel pressure to attract the students most likely to succeed. The structure of New York City’s high school admissions system means that most of the highest-performing students are funneled into “screened” and specialized schools, which can select students based on grades, attendance, interviews or tests.

A new report from the Independent Budget Office found that only about 3,000 students who scored in the top third of the city on state math exams picked a limited unscreened school as their first-choice high school, while roughly 14,000 of them chose a screened program.

Kathryn Malloy, the principal at Mott Hall Bronx High School, said the stratification makes it nearly impossible for schools like hers to compete with schools that use different admissions methods. “You’re being compared on an unlevel playing field when they serve completely different populations,” she said.

The temptation to cherry-pick grows when funding is on the line, said Amy Brown, a former city teacher who wrote a book about philanthropy and public schools. Many of the small high schools opened under Bloomberg boasted support from nonprofit groups. Those groups had a lot riding on the schools’ success, even as they agreed to support schools that couldn’t screen students.

“It looks really good to be unscreened, and have that door open to anybody,” Brown said. “But at the same time, what [private] funders want to see, they want to see numbers.”

Despite these incentives, the Department of Education does not have a comprehensive way to monitor how limited unscreened schools conduct admissions. The city has increased training and resources for schools and guidance counselors, and is having ongoing conversations with school administrators, education department officials said.

But that’s little help for Michael Zink, education director for the New York Foundling, a nonprofit that supports city children in foster care. He said he considers himself lucky if a handful of the roughly 30 students he oversees end up in schools with graduation rates over 80 percent. With these unwritten rules of high school admissions in effect, they almost always end up at extremely low-performing high schools, he said.

“When you look at certain high schools throughout New York City that generally have the worst student outcomes, you often wonder why anyone goes to those schools at all,” Zink said. “And the answer is, for the most part, it’s New York City’s most vulnerable young people.”

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.”

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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.

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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.”