study says...

Study looks at what influences students' high school choices

When black and Hispanic students sit down to fill out their high school application forms, they tend to prioritize schools that are better performing and more racially diverse than their middle schools, which are on average, lower-performing and more racially isolated. But a study shows that the schools that actually accept them are more like the middle schools they come from.

That’s one of the findings in a study that tries to begin to understand the mysteries behind the city’s enormously complex high school selection process. Completed by New York University Assistant Professor Sean Corcoran and Teachers College Professor Henry Levin, the study was presented at a forum on high school choice at the New School today and also appears in the book Education Reform in New York City that was published this month.

Corcoran and Levin’s findings are interesting not only as an insight into why some students make the choices they do. They also add depth to the core claim of Mayor Bloomberg’s reforms: that by expanding students’ options for where they go to school, the quality of their education will improve.

Among the study’s other findings are:

  • The average number of programs that students list — they can name up to 12 — has fallen between 2004 when the new high school admissions policy began and 2008, when the study’s most recent data was gathered. Still, about 21 percent of eighth graders list the maximum of 12 schools. About seven percent of students only write one school on their list, but 82 percent of them were matched to this choice. There are a handful of explanations for this high matching rate. One is that these students applied only to their zoned school, or a guidance counselor applied for them. Another is that they applied to continue on into ninth grade at their current school.
  • A student’s socioeconomic background, academic strength, and neighborhood all have a hand in influencing how many programs they list. Students in the Bronx and Manhattan listed more choices than their peers in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn. Students who were economically and academically disadvantaged were more likely to rank more choices than their advantaged peers.
  • A student’s middle school guidance counselor also matters. Controlling for other predictive factors, Corcoran and Levin found that students submit shorter or longer lists depending on their middle school. The study says: “Counselors are ultimately responsible for submitting applications, and thus may have a high degree of influence on the number of choices.”
  • Low achieving students were more likely to rank schools with low graduation rates and largely low-income student bodies as their first choice. Students who were in the bottom third in math picked schools with an average four-year graduation rate of 66 percent and schools that were unlikely to have an A on their most recent report card.
  • White students, students from Staten Island, and students who aren’t fluent in English were more likely to rank the school closest to their home as their first choice than were black students. Only 8 percent of black students did so, whereas the citywide average was 14 percent.

Members of a panel moderated by New School Center for NYC Affairs senior editor Clara Hemphill discussed how guidance counselors and enrollment centers can affect where students apply to high school.

A doctoral candidate at New York University, Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj said that at one of the middle schools she’s spent time in, where many students come from low-income, immigrant families, guidance counselors filled out high school admission rankings for about 20 students without the students’ input. She said that using the percentage of students who get their first choice school as an indication of how well the system is working could be misleading.

“Getting your first ranked school doesn’t necessarily mean that a kid did a lot of research,” she said. “The kids didn’t turn in their applications so the guidance counselor put down their zoned school as their first choice and they got it.”

Carol Boyd, a member of the New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee, said she re-wrote the city’s guide to high schools to make it more accessible to parents in her Bronx neighborhood. On their own, the schools’ guidance counselors couldn’t make the process clear to students and parents, she said.

Recently named CEO of the Department of Education’s Enrollment Office Robert Sanft said that the DOE had improved communication with parents about the process. This year, it added schools’ graduation rates to the high school directory, which caused more students to apply to high performing schools. Sanft said that supply and demand remains a problem for the DOE — the isn’t creating good schools fast enough, he said.

Corcoran and Levin’s study does not include two groups of high school students: those coming from private schools and those who move to the city after the application process is over and are known as “over the counter” students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”