After coronavirus: Admissions for NYC’s ‘screened’ schools could change, possibly spurring more student diversity

Youth activists with Teens Take Charge have staged strikes during the school day to put pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to approve policies to integrate schools. Now, because of COVID-19, admissions policies for competitive middle and high schools could change. (Reema Amin/Chalkbeat)

In Manhattan’s District 2, where getting into a coveted middle or high school is like a competitive sport, hundreds of parents streamed into an emergency virtual meeting last week. 

It was the eve before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced schools would toss out traditional grades for students as part of the city’s response to school buildings being shuttered during the coronavirus crisis. 

Parent after parent lobbied, ultimately unsuccessfully, for keeping traditional grades intact for elementary and middle schoolers. Without those marks, many wondered, how would their children get accepted into the most selective schools next year?

City and education leaders have yet to answer that question. But it’s clear that applying to “screened” middle and high schools next year promises to be unlike any other. That’s because the city’s response to the coronavirus crisis means the main data points that competitive schools use to admit — and stress out — the city’s 10- and 13-year olds are gone: attendance, state tests, and grades. 

What happens next could make the process even more confusing to navigate. Or it could have the surprising consequence of making schools more diverse — if de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza decide to act. 

Integration advocates have long lobbied the mayor to tear down or pare back screens, which contribute to the city’s surprising status as home to one of the most segregated school systems in the county. Now, as buildings are closed for about a third of the academic year and more than 1 million city students are forced to learn from their homes, the coronavirus has exacerbated deep inequities across the system.

Pushback to any possible changes is already beginning to emerge, as families who have managed to navigate the city’s admissions maze deftly are upset about the rules changing in the middle of the game.

City leaders have said that new policy regarding admissions is in the works. Sean Corcoran, who has researched screening and segregation in New York City schools, said parents and schools need clear guidance to follow, but that the education department’s next steps should be taken carefully. 

“We should be cautious moving forward, and major changes in the way admissions are done could have an impact on the way schools operate,” said Corcoran, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University. “Hopefully, they’ll do it sooner rather than later so parents know what to expect. There’s nothing that makes parents in New York City more anxious than knowing where their kid is going to go to school.” 

Next year’s admissions still murky

New York City stands out as having a higher share than anywhere else in the country of schools that use competitive admissions criteria to admit students.

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In a typical year, each school sets its own admissions criteria, creating a patchwork of standards and requirements that families and students often struggle to understand. Some may require a minimum grade point average, others can count a single absence against a student’s chance for admissions. Often, schools do not disclose how they weigh applications, making the odds of getting an offer a mystery. Families have a leg up if they have the time to visit open houses, the savvy to guide their children with their applications, and money to pay private consultants to help them decode the process.

Sorting through students can require an immense investment of school leaders’ time — especially now, without data points like test scores that allow for quick distinctions among students. Next year, some schools might decide it’s too much work to figure out new ways to select students, and drop screens all together. 

There is precedent for such sweeping admissions changes: Brooklyn’s District 15 recently eliminated competitive admissions standards in favor of a lottery system. Other screened schools across the city have dropped some of their admissions screens as the crush of applications became overwhelming. 

On the other hand, schools that are committed to separating students by their academic records could simply double down, creating new entrance criteria. Many of the most coveted schools already use measures beyond attendance, grades, and test scores. Bard High School Early College administers its own entrance tests. Beacon High School requires a portfolio of work. 

It’s also possible schools could pivot to use grades accumulated before the shutdown, if those are made available, or test scores from prior school years. 

Without a citywide policy in place, the admissions process could become even more confusing and less fair to students, said Corcoran, the Vanderbilt professor. 

“If you don’t provide enough structure for screened programs then they will engage in activities that are unequal or perhaps less transparent than what they’ve done in the past — and people have already complained that screens are not transparent,” he said. 

One simple solution the city could consider, he said, is requiring schools to share their rubrics publicly. Chalkbeat submitted a public records request in November for school rubrics, and the education department says it needs until June 30th to respond. 

What it means for integration

Student activists have been organizing school-wide walkouts, occupied City Hall during council hearings, and have hounded the mayor during public appearances to push for change within the admissions system — to little avail. Now, in the span of a few weeks, the pandemic has forced the potential to usher in reforms.

“It is incredibly frustrating that it took a pandemic,” said Emma Rehac, a high school senior with the youth advocacy group IntegrateNYC. “Now people are looking at all these solutions that we’ve been organizing around. They are always urgent, not just now.” 

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Diverse schools can boost outcomes for low-income students and those of color — and their white and more affluent peers. Integration efforts have led to lower drop out rates, higher college enrollment, and reduced racial prejudice.

But screened schools tend to enroll disproportionately fewer economically disadvantaged students, or those who are black and Hispanic. Using attendance measures has been shown to screen out those students, who are more likely to suffer from health complications like asthma, or lack permanent housing, and therefore find it hard to be present in school every day. Grades and test scores can reflect that children in segregated schools often don’t have the same opportunities to learn — for example, schools serving mostly low-income students tend to have higher teacher turnover.

The coronavirus has made it more clear than ever what some students are up against: Hundreds of thousands began remote learning without computers or WiFi that would allow them to tune into online classes. Schools had been closed for about seven weeks by the time the city was able to deliver a device to the more than 300,000 students who needed one.

“If they decide to use screens, then they’re not being fair to anyone,” said Lennox Thomas, a high school senior in Brooklyn and member of Teens Take Charge, a youth advocacy group that has pressured the mayor to change admissions standards. “They’re just going to be assessing a students’ access to internet, and that’s obviously not fair because some students can’t afford a computer. Some students don’t have access to WiFi.”

Pushback mounting

Even during a pandemic, the mayor is likely to face pushback if the city radically changes screening practices — especially from middle-class and white parents who often manage to navigate the system well. 

Opposition has already bubbled up. A seventh-grader at a competitive school recently launched a petition with more than 1,400 people supporting his call for the city to preserve students’ grades from before schools shut down so they can be used in high school admissions. 

“I sacrificed participating in sports at my school in order to do my best in an important year,” he wrote. “This grading policy change will make not [only] me but all of my classmates feel that the effort we put in our first 7 months of school was for nothing.”

Jodie Loverro, a mother of three children in District 2, has one child in fourth-grade and another is in seventh — critical years for admissions. Since applications are due early in fifth- and eighth-grade, schools typically consider the academic records of students from their previous full year in school. 

Loverro, who works as a substitute teacher in the district, decided to work part-time this year so she could ensure her fourth-grader made it to school on time everyday — knowing that attendance would play a big role in where she would get accepted to middle school. Her seventh-grade son, meanwhile, put in extra effort this semester to boost his grades above 90%, hoping it would improve his chances for a top high school. 

Without knowing what will happen for next year’s admissions, Loverro is thinking about private schools and considering homeschooling. Most of all, she just wants clarity from the education department about what admissions will look like next year. 

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“It’s confusing. I honestly just feel like this was a lot to throw at people, and they’re already dealing with a lot,” she told Chalkbeat. “You’re putting this in place in an attempt to even the playing field, but you are also hurting the kids that are trying to excel.”

Parents who want to preserve screening often wonder whether schools can serve a broad range of students well and argue that students with top grades should be rewarded with a placement in a coveted school. 

“The kids who are high achievers should have a chance to be high achievers. It’s not the most politically correct thing to say, but it’s also true,” said Elissa Stein, a consultant who helps families navigate the application process. “If next year is a lottery and kids end up in schools where they’re not academically prepared, it could make for a very challenging experience.”

It’s up to de Blasio

Whatever happens next year may ultimately be an anomaly rather than result in any structural change, integration advocates believe.

Though the schools chancellor has forcefully questioned the widespread use of screens and heralded the importance of diverse schools, the mayor is ultimately in charge of education department policy. Throughout his tenure, de Blasio has preferred to let individual schools or districts take on their own diversity efforts, avoiding any citywide policy. 

The mayor appointed an advisory group that recommended ways to better integrate schools, but he has not acted for eight months on the most controversial proposals — to overhaul gifted programs and eliminate some specific screens.

That was before the coronavirus brought New York City to its knees. Today, schools are meal hubs serving hundreds of thousands of meals to hungry students and their families, as unemployment reaches historic levels. Teachers, while pivoting to online instruction on a dime, have also taken on the roles of social workers and counselors — raising money for their students’ families to help keep roofs over their heads, and attending virtual funerals for those who have lost family members. 

All of that could make it hard to argue that now is the time to focus on diversity in schools. 

“If there’s any sense that any issue is going to be politically different, I don’t see the desire or the courage from City Hall to really take on those issues,” said Matt Gonzales, who advocates for integration policies at the New York University Metro Center. “I feel pessimistic about what could happen under this administration, but I also know this moment itself calls for decisive and real action.”

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