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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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