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. 

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.