New York

How eight city students are approaching the high school search

Middle school students and parents waited in lines that stretched for blocks to enter the Citywide High School Fair on Saturday afternoon.
On Saturday, middle school students and parents waited in lines that stretched for blocks to enter the city’s annual high school fair inside Brooklyn Technical High School. City students must choose from among nearly 600 options.

Finding a high school in New York City is like searching for an apartment: It’s hard to find a place that’s just right, and students know that even if they find a school that meets all their criteria — academics, sports, location, community, and more — there’s no guarantee that they’ll get in.

So they start early. By 10 a.m. Saturday, the line outside the annual high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High school had wrapped around the building. Over the next two days, middle schoolers streamed through Brooklyn Tech’s seven floors with parents, siblings, and teachers in search of the perfect school. The Department of Education estimated that 36,000 people visited the fair, making it the best-attended high school fair in the past five years.

Inside the building, attendees grabbed telephone-book-sized high school directories, then spread out among floors divided by borough. Students and teachers serving as ambassadors for their schools had spent the morning setting up shop, arranging elaborate displays of posters, pamphlets, and banners. Some of the seventh- and eighth-graders looked pleased with all the attention; others brushed past hundreds of booths vying for their attention and headed straight for the schools they already had in mind.

What students said they look for in schools varied widely, as do the schools themselves.

1. Narrowing the choices

Anthony Ureña
Anthony Ureña on his way into the fair.

Choosing among the 600 choices as part of the high school enrollment process can be overwhelming to many parents and students. But not everyone.

“It’s an easy process when you think about it,” said Anthony Ureña, an eighth grader who attends I.S. 215 in the Bronx. “You just look at the book and find the schools you’re interested in.”

Ureña said he found his top choice, the High School for Arts and Business in Queens, by flipping through the high school directory. He said he looked out for any schools that highlighted their business programs.

“I actually want to start a business when I grow up,” Ureña said Sunday morning outside Brooklyn Tech as he waited for his father before heading inside. “I just want to be in charge of something.”

Once Ureña identified the schools with business programs, he said it was fairly easy to whittle down his choices even more using the city-issued school report cards.

“You just look at the grades and get rid of everything lower than a D average.”

2. Asking questions

Kymora Rogers on the seventh floor.
Kymora Rogers on the seventh floor.

Kymora Rogers, an eighth grader at I.S. 302 in Brooklyn, said her school “has this room for helping children figure out about high school.” Rogers said she goes there after school to flip through books about high school and talk to her guidance counselor. What makes a school a good fit? “It’s based on your academic level and what school will help you go to college,” she said.

In December, eighth graders across the city, as well as ninth graders looking to transfer schools, will submit lists of up to 12 top choices. Then an award-winning algorithm will match students to schools, placing about 90 percent of applicants into one of their choices. (The remaining 10 percent will have to apply again in a second round.)

Rogers said she was supposed to spend the day with her grandmother, but when her school announced a chaperoned trip to the high school fair, she begged her mom to let her go. “When I walked in I was so excited, there were so many questions rumbling in my head.”

Rogers said she had one main question in mind when she approached each school’s booth: “Why do you think I should go to your school?”

3. Listing priorities

Maureen Charles, Joseph Charles, Chyenne Tiller and Tracy Huggins at the fair.
Maureen Charles, Joseph Charles, Chyenne Tiller and Tracy Huggins at the fair.

Though Joseph Charles’s mother said she was overwhelmed by the rush of information that confronted them at the fair, her son retained a laser-like focus on his priorities.

Asked to name the preferences for his future high school, Joseph, an eighth grader at P.S. 235, didn’t hesitate: strong academics, high graduation rates, high college enrollment, and good business and economics programs.

Nearby, his cousin Chyenne Tiller had a broader list: performing arts, engineering and sports.

Joseph said a good sports programs would be nice, but not essential.

“It’s mostly the academics,” he said. “The sports is secondary.”

4. Learning from experience

Kayla Herron with her brother Jami.
Kayla Herron with her brother Jami.

A lot of students came with their parents or teachers to guide them through the first step of their high school selection, but others had help from people with more personal experience.

Kayla Herron, an eighth grader at M.S. 267, brought along her older brother Jani, a junior at Edward R. Murrow High School. Jani learned the hard way what happens when you pick the wrong school.

Murrow was originally Jani’s top choice, but he switched to Freedom Academy “because my friend was going there.” That school shuttered last year due to poor performance and low enrollment, and Jani was transferred to his original top choice, Murrow.

So after hearing Kayla say she wanted to audition for LaGuardia High School for Music and Art & the Performing Arts, the city’s flagship arts school, “because I want to study the arts,” Jani offered some advice.

“She’s into music, but she’s got to be into more stuff,” he said.

5. Taking stock

Jonathan Cromartie with his mom, Virginia Cromartie.
Jonathan Cromartie with his mom, Virginia Cromartie.

Jonathan Cromartie goes to St. Paul’s school, a Catholic school on 118th Street — and his mother, Virginia Cromartie, hasn’t been convinced yet to send him to public school, even after the fair. But they took lots of brochures anyway, and they’re working planning to make a final decision with help from the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit that works with families living in a 60-block area of Harlem. They traveled to the fair with other families participating in a weekend program at the Children’s Zone.

Jonathan and Virginia both said they were looking for a school with a sports program and high graduation rates. Jonathan said he can’t imagine four years without baseball and basketball.

6. Fitting in

Divine Jones with her mom, Danimaris Fonseca.
Divine Jones with her mom, Danimaris Fonseca.

Divine Jones wants to be an archeologist, mineralogist, or a veterinarian, and she said she’s looking for the most academically challenging school to help her get there. She’s been at Leadership Prep Charter School since first grade, but the school only goes through eighth grade. A former Leadership Prep staff member has stayed in touch with families at the school and gave them a short list of high schools to consider, which they checked out at the fair on Saturday.

“In the beginning, it was hard,” Danimaris Fonseca said of her daughter’s first years at Leadership Prep, which is part of the Uncommon Schools network. “It was very strict, and there was a lot of turnover. But lately teachers have been sticking around.” The school prepared Divine to say hello to representatives of the Brooklyn Latin School, one of the city’s eight specialized high schools, in Latin. “You’ll fit right in,” they told her.

7. Trying again

Sharae Corbin (right) with her sister Shakira.
Sharae Corbin (right) with her sister Shakira.

Sharae Corbin is currently in ninth grade at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, but she’s now looking to transfer to a new school. Green Careers wasn’t expansive enough for what she wanted for high school — especially after moving from Texas, where she was involved in track, cheerleading, yearbook, and art.

Corbin came to the fair on Saturday looking for a school where she could get involved in performing arts again. On her short list: ultra-selective schools including LaGuardia, Bard High School Early College, and Beacon High School, as well as two highly regarded small schools in Manhattan, East Side Community High School and Pace High School, which she was excited to hear lets students start their own clubs. “I want a high school where they help you graduate — and I want to graduate with top honors,” she said.

Her sister Shakira said the two of them would make the final decision about where to apply together after attending open houses. “I have to make sure she enjoys herself. It’s her decision, but I have some influence,” she said.

8. Looking ahead

Angela Gonzalez, Tiffany Mejara, Angely Ogando, and  Jessica Escolah discuss their high school choices.
Angela Gonzalez, Tiffany Mejara, Angely Ogando, and Jessica Escolah discuss their high school choices.

Ray Nazario teaches social studies at J.H.S. 145, a neighborhood middle school in the Bronx, and accompanied students to the fair. “The kids are inspired just by doing this,” he said. “Their world is opening. Just the fact that they have the freedom to choose where they can go.”

Eighth graders Angela Gonzalez, Tiffany Mejara, and Angely Ogando all want to attend Food and Finance High School in Manhattan because they’re interested in food. “I want to learn to be a chef,” Gonzalez said. “I want to graduate, get that diploma, and get a good job.”

Their classmate Jessica Escolah said she’s looking for a school focused on theater and music. But, she said, she can’t know for sure that she’ll be happy with that decision for the next four years.

“It’s really hard [to choose] because you might change what you want to be,” she said.  

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.