frontiers of choice

At AMS, easing the stressful high school search by staying put

The Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science is housed within the Bathgate Educational Complex, seen here. It shares the building with Validus Preparatory Academy and Mott Hall Bronx High School. (Photo by Andrew Wiktor)

Stephanie Dejesus spent an invigorating three weeks last summer in the dormitories in upstate New York’s Bard College studying mathematical problem solving with the faculty. When she returned in the fall, she set to work applying for Bard, studying for and passing its entry exam. The school would be a tough commute from her Bronx home in Tremont, but she was enticed by its excellent academic reputation.

Stephanie wasn’t applying for college. Stephanie is an eighth-grade student at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the Bronx, or AMS for short. She was considering applying for Bard High School Early College, a Lower East Side high school affiliated with Bard College. And Bard is just one of many New York City schools that require prospective students to test, interview, write an essay, and submit test scores for admission. It’s all part of a labyrinthine citywide system in which students must choose from over 500 high schools.

Today, eighth-graders across the city will find out which of their choices has accepted them.

For Stephanie, the news won’t come as a surprise. She ended up declining to go through the interview for Bard and chose instead to stay at AMS, which enrolls students from grades six through 12. Stephanie says she’s glad she had the opportunity to choose from different schools and find different programs that might suit her, but she’s also happy to avoid the anxious wait for a school assignment. Plus, AMS is familiar, and it’s close to home.

“They’ll make you feel welcome,” she said of the teachers, who will already know her when she arrives for ninth grade next year.

Stephanie’s experience is one example of why AMS encourages its eighth graders to stay for high school, easing the stress of the application process for those children and allowing teachers more time to prepare them for college.

“Any school that cuts down on the number of transitions that a student has to make is going to do kids a service because it’s during the transitions that kids get wiped out,” said Eric Nadelstern, a visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former deputy chancellor at the Department of Education.

Before 2002, when the Bloomberg administration began a decade of reforming the city’s schools, many students attended their neighborhood schools under a zoning system — the way it works in much of the United States. Only a few, like the ultra-elite specialized high schools, screened applicants with a battery of tests and interviews. But in 2003, the city began requiring all students to rank their top 12 choices, many of which have different admissions requirements. A complex algorithm, similar to the one used to match medical school students with residency programs, then assigns schools to students.

AMS, a relatively well-performing small school on Bathgate Avenue in the South Bronx, was founded in 2004 by the Urban Assembly network with a mission to cultivate students’ math and science skills. There are 606 students total, and 80 percent qualify for free lunch. Most are from the local neighborhood. AMS usually retains about 85 percent of its eighth graders for high school, according to first-year principal David Krulwich.

If an AMS student selects AMS as one of his or her 12 high-school choices during the high-school selection process in the fall, he or she is automatically accepted, Krulwich said. This year, there are 86 eighth-graders at the school, and 68 of them selected AMS as their top choice, guaranteeing that they will return.

“It’s a good thing for us that they want to,” Krulwich said of the majority of his students who choose to stay.

The remaining 18 students put other schools first on their lists, but many selected extremely competitive schools such as the Bronx High School of Science and placed AMS further down the list. Of those, many will not get into the borough’s only elite high school and will likely also return to AMS.

Krulwich said the 6-12 model allows instructors to take a more holistic approach to the curriculum rather than strictly teaching to standardized tests. Seventy-two schools in New York combine high school and middle schools, according to Insideschools, a website run by The New School.

“It gives you a chance to work with middle-school kids not just because you want them to do well on a test in seventh or eighth grade and then leave, but it gives us a real need to work with kids on things that are going to get them ready for college,” Krulwich said.

Not every student who decides to leave AMS is pursuing admission at a selective school such as Bronx Science or Stuyvesant High School. The small percentage of kids who choose somewhere else do so for a multitude of reasons.

Some want to join a sibling in another building. Some, like AMS eighth-grader Nicole Lara, simply want to try something different. Children with long commutes to AMS sometimes opt for schools closer to their homes. Still others, like AMS eighth grader Martin Espinal, harbor the impression that the schools in Manhattan are better. In all of these cases, AMS guidance counselors research other schools with students and help them through the application process, according to Krulwich.

“We know there are certainly some kids who want something different and might be better off going somewhere else,” Krulwich said.

Kimberly Melgar, who teaches eighth-grade math and helps her students through the high-school selection process, said the top three things she looks at in a prospective school are graduation rate, extracurricular activities, and attendance.

The gap left by the students who do leave is filled by incoming ninth graders from other middle schools. There are usually 15 to 17 such students each year.

The transfer ninth graders are sometimes at a disadvantage compared to those who have been at AMS since sixth grade. Freshmen often have emotional and social problems, Melgar said, and it is often easier for teachers to more quickly spot and resolve issues facing students they already know. She added that teachers also identify students who they think will struggle with changing to a high-school curriculum and come in with a plan to keep those students from falling behind.

AMS eighth grader Sar Mnahsheh, who is coming back next year, said he’d be lost if he had to switch to a strange new school for his freshman year.

“You don’t have to make the teachers know your name – again,” Sar said of returning to AMS. Melgar added, “They struggle with not wanting change.”

Krulwich said the 6-12 system is essential to the school’s success as a non-screened, take-all-comers institution.

“We have kids from all elementary schools coming to us in sixth grade,” he said. “They come to us, honors kids and remedial level, from the highest possible test scores to the lowest. And when kids come to you with that wide a range in ninth grade, it’s very, very difficult.”

That gap is easier to close when the students arrive earlier and when the teachers get more time with students, Krulwich added. Indeed, the school received “A” grades in the Department of Education’s student performance and college and career readiness categories in its 2011-12 progress report, while Validus Preparatory Academy, a high school that shares a building with AMS, scored “B” and “D” in the same categories. The third school in the building, Mott Hall Bronx High School, posted an “A” in student performance but only a “C” in college and career readiness.

“Our school mission [is] that we can be a non-screened school giving any student a real chance at a good college-preparatory education,” Krulwich said. “And I think that would be much more difficult to do with only four years to work with kids.”

Luke Hammill is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.

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.”