seeking a match

Across one city, many voices from the 2013 high school search

Students from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism visited high school fairs across the city last weekend. Click on the markers on the map to learn more about some of the students they met.

 

Middle-schoolers and their parents packed five New York City high school fairs last weekend to find a high school they could call home for the next four years.

Each borough hosted a fair filled with high school teachers and counselors eager to answer questions, ease fears, and sell their schools to eighth-graders who sometimes seemed dazed at the range of choices.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Jonathan Aguilar, 13, from the fair in Queens. “I’ve been walking through the school booths just taking papers from all of them.”

“Parents always have the same question, every time,” said Ken Irabor, 48, a teacher from Park Slope Collegiate in Brooklyn. “They want to know if the schools are safe, if there’s bullying. That’s a big concern these days.”

Some schools said they emphasize that their safety concerns are not limited to physical bullying. “We teach kids the importance of being careful what they put on the Internet,” said Donald Amsterdam, 32, from Kingsborough Early College School. “If there’s less things online for bullies to use, they won’t have that material.”

All eighth-graders in New York City must apply to high school, even if they live in the few areas of Staten Island and Queens that still offer “zoned” schools guaranteeing enrollment for local students. Students rank up to 12 schools that they want to attend and schools rank the students who apply using a wide range of criteria. Then an algorithm matches schools and students, typically placing about half of students in their first-choice schools and 90 percent in schools that they ranked.

Because students can pick schools in any borough, many parents said they were worried about how long their children would commute to high school.

“We hope to find a school that’s good and close to my home,” said Amani Al Aksry, 46, who took her daughter Usra Al Yafai, 14, to the Bronx fair at the Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus. The two prepped for the fair a few days earlier by mapping several schools.

Al Yafai is also preparing for her high school selection by taking the Specialized High School Admissions Test Oct. 26.

Tests weighed heavily on some parents minds this year. Damian Smith said he hopes schools consider the citywide drop in scores when students took the Common Core exam for the first time last spring, which resulted in lower test scores citywide. The city is telling screened schools to look at students with lower scores than they might have considered in the past, but Smith thinks schools should consider previous years’ scores when they weigh students like his son, Kenneil.

“He did good on the sixth grade test,” Smith said. “Not so sure about seventh grade.”

Eliazar Ramirez, 14, went to the fair in the Bronx to see schools that might suit her. She thinks she already knows her top choice: the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. LaGuardia is a well-known performing arts school that offers conservatory-style arts education in addition to normal classes.

With only limited experience in the arts so far, her guidance counselor is helping her assemble a portfolio (both visual and vocal) for the art schools she is applying to.

Victoria Aranowicz, 14, plans to audition for the Professional Performing Arts High School in Manhattan with a song from “A Chorus Line” and a monologue from “The Crucible.” Her mother was positive but realistic about her daughter’s chances. “We’re going to stand by and support her in pursuing her dream,” she said. “But there’s stiff competition. You have to be better than the twenty kids sitting next to you.”

The teachers and counselors staffing their respective high school tables at the fairs typically have only a couple minutes to sell four years of learning to interested students – and their parents.

Teachers said that parents are more concerned about how high school can help their children prepare for careers, while the kids are more interested in having fun.

“Parents are looking at careers, students are looking for sports and extracurriculars,” said Lisa Wales, who teaches math at Midwood High School. “In Brooklyn we’re lucky, we generally have a bit more green space the kids can use.”

Midwood, like most of the high schools represented, used the borough-wide fair as a recruitment opportunity. In the few minutes they usually had with students and parents, the teachers at the tables always asked for contact details in order to send students more information and invite them to make personal visits to campus open houses.

That was easier at the borough fair than at the massive citywide fair, held last month at Brooklyn Technical High School. The Department of Education estimated that about 36,000 people attended the two-day fair.

“We’ve got it down to the kids that have narrowed their choices down to the borough of Brooklyn, so we can really get to them at a more personal level. The small venue helps, it’s not a madhouse,” said Joe Arzuaga, who was in charge of George Westinghouse High School’s booth.

Meanwhile, in Queens, some students ran into problems with test score expectations. Ian Tasch is an eighth-grader from Forest Hills. One of the first booths he and his family visited was Jamaica’s Thomas A. Edison Career & Technical Education High School, where Ian was told that his test scores weren’t high enough to get in. Ian’s mother said that they wouldn’t waste any time visiting selective schools; they would rather find a school where Ian would be comfortable.

“It’s about what’s doing right for your kid, how to help him be successful,” she said.

Students and parents left the fairs carrying armloads of flyers and ads from schools.The teachers staffing the school booths hoped they would see them again — perhaps for the next four-plus years.

“Voices From the 2013 High School Search” is a project of Tim Harper’s Craft 1 class at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Kayle Schnell led development of the map and Graham Corrigan wrote this story. Students from the class contributed reporting.

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.