I navigate high school admissions for my job, and it’s still confusing

Nearly 75 percent of our city’s eighth graders were placed in one of their top three choices for high school this year, which seems like something to celebrate. But when we cite this as a positive figure, we’re forgetting that many families in underserved communities are selecting schools without adequate guidance from dedicated professionals.

Some students apply to schools they’ve never visited, or make decisions about a high school based on the preferences of friends. When I look at the city’s results through this lens, they no longer seem so positive.

We need to look at how students are deciding which high schools to apply to, not just how many of them get one of the schools they write down. While the high school application process has the potential to break the relationship between where a student lives and the quality of education they receive, all too often the system reinforces these ties.

As the high school placement coordinator at Explore Charter School, my primary responsibility is to help the 54 eighth graders I work with find placements at schools that are good fits for them.

I can’t imagine the difficulties other guidance counselors face, with cohorts of hundreds of students and conflicting priorities. And in under-resourced schools, many families are left to navigate this unique, yet confusing placement process entirely alone.

In August, I met with every eighth-grade family to discuss their options and share my recommendations. Starting early ensures that families truly understand the process and the varying, intricate admission requirements for high schools.

Still, I can’t help but feel we are playing a game in which the odds are stacked against us. While the directory available to every family is helpful in providing an overview of schools and programs, it rarely provides information on how to register for a school’s required interview, for example, or guidance on how to create the portfolio you will need to mail to the school in advance of your scheduled interview.

To prepare students for the schools that require interviews, we provide interview workshops and a mock interview day to students at Explore. But learning how to develop such skills and “sell yourself” as an eighth grader can be challenging without proper resources and support.

For some schools, students can’t even control those factors. One of my first school visits was to Stuyvesant High School for an open house sponsored by the school’s Black Alumni Diversity Initiative. I was blown away by the breadth of courses at Stuyvesant and the panoramic views of the Hudson from the cafeteria. Yet I left utterly confused. Stuyvesant had organized a special open house for African-American applicants, yet its efforts to recruit a diverse student body seemed contradictory in light of the school’s admissions method, which hinges on a single exam score.

Unlike many other school districts, New York City offers family the opportunity to choose. We know that the benefits to “winning” at the game of high school choice are immense. With 10 percent of the city’s high schools producing more than half of the city’s college-ready students, the high school placement process, along with the caliber of one’s elementary school, holds incredible weight.

But many families don’t have the tools they need to navigate this process effectively or truly understand the breadth of options available to them. Those gaps in understanding and resources diminish the power behind the process.

The city contains a plethora of academic opportunity, but it’s still the case that only those with the social capital and resources to navigate such a complex system can truly reap the benefits.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.