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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.