First Person

High School Admissions: An Inside Perspective

If you rolled your eyes after reading the title of this article, you are either an 8th grader, the family of an 8th grader, or a member of a high school admissions committee. While the gut-wrenching process of deciding where to apply will soon be coming to an end for current 8th grade students — at least on the side that you actually have some control over, the process is only intensifying for those of us in high schools.

When 8th graders turn their applications in to their guidance counselors in the next few weeks, it marks the beginning of a process that is as intimidating for the high schools as it is for those students awaiting the results. Over the next several weeks and months, we will continue to host tours and open houses to ensure that families that want to make changes to their applications have the information they need to do so. Simultaneously, we will begin to review applicants’ responses to our online admissions activity and establish the systems and meetings dates for our admissions committee, which will begin its daunting work after the holiday break.

Once middle school counselors have entered students’ choices, we will be able to view the students who “applied” to our school, by listing us anywhere — from first to twelfth choice — on their application. We will never know which students put us first and really want our school, and which put us on the list as a back-up, so our only way to assess students’ true interest in our school is through the online activity that we require. This online admissions activity, posted from mid-October through March when our final (final!) decisions are made, poses a series of questions designed to assess the applicant’s understanding of and interest in our particular model and philosophy. What we look for in the online activity (besides writing skill) is demonstration that the applicant truly understands that the iSchool model is different from traditional high schools and that he or she is attracted to this specific program (or some element of the program).

In January, we will begin to contact students who applied but who did not complete this activity to gently remind them to complete it.  Some students will inevitably skip this requirement, and we will assume that it is because they’re not that interested in the school. Other students will use the online activity as an opportunity to stand out. Those students who reference specific elements of the school and can articulate why those elements are attractive to them demonstrate their interest most clearly and genuinely. While many people ask us what kind of student we are looking for, there is really no particular student profile or trick. We want the students who want us.

In a few short but intense weeks in February, we will read each and every application (which we expect to exceed 2,000 this year), usually several times, and by different members of the committee. It is at this point that applications end up in one of three piles: Definitely, Maybe, and No. We assign points for each of our admissions criteria: course grades, standardized test scores, attendance, and the online admissions activity, enabling students who might be weaker in one area to make it into our “yes” pile if they stand out in another. We prefer to have no set cut-offs — after all, we are largely basing our decisions on the actions of 12-year-olds, who deserved to make and learn from their seventh grade mistakes, not be doomed by them.

We use the online admissions activity to help us think about which students will do well at iSchool. While we know that motivated self-starters will certainly thrive, as they will probably thrive anywhere, we also know that some students really strive to be independent learners. Those are the students who will be happiest at the iSchool because they understand that the school is consciously moving them toward that goal, and appreciate that the reward will be greater independence in determining their academic path. We also know that students who do well here are those who know what they’re getting into — a high school that is offering a different instructional model — and those who acknowledge the potential imperfection of something new and different. A demonstrated understanding of what that is and a genuine interest in being part of it are qualities that reveal to us a good match.

While many schools rank each and every student consecutively (from 1-400 or the like), we assign a “1” to those in the “definitely” pile and a “2” or “3” to those in the “maybe” pile. This means that every student we feel should be accepted to the iSchool has an equal, but random chance of acceptance.

By the end of February, we will have assigned, in the DOE’s computerized system, a number to each applicant who we believe has in some way demonstrated that she or he wants to be at the iSchool. We click “submit” and anxiously await — like thousands of 8th graders — the results of OSEPO’s computerized, algorithm-based system that will match students to their highest ranking school that also ranks them.

The results of this matching system will mark the end — either gleefully or disappointingly — of the high school admissions process for most 8th graders. It marks only a brief moment in the cycle for high schools, as we will just be entering the new schools round, followed by appeals, the tours for seventh graders in late spring, the summer and last-minute August over-the-counter placements, and then the resumption of twice weekly tours in September.

The process is daunting from all perspectives, perhaps flawed in execution at times, and certainly never-ending for us. But it does offer incredible opportunities that make it worthwhile and worth keeping: the freedom we have as educators to design and implement the schools of our dreams — the ones we wish we had attended — and the choice for kids and families to determine where and how best they will learn and accomplish their goals.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.