high-stakes choice

Hurdles still high for students looking to switch high schools

Eighth-grade Jessica Escola said it's hard to choose a high school knowing her interests may change.
Eighth-grader Jessica Escolah, right, said it’s hard to choose a high school knowing her interests might change.

On the first day of school this year, a Bronx high school student watched through the fence as students at the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science played games on the football field. He didn’t attend their school, but he wanted to.

His own school, Christopher Columbus High School, will close at the end of the year, while CIMS, one of six schools in the same building, enrolls high performers and sends them on college trips. The student didn’t want this name used because he is still petitioning the city for a slot at CIMS, even though his time in high school is winding down.

“You know you’re in a bad school and you’re just trying to get out,” he said. “Even in the same building there’s a big gap.”

The Bloomberg administration’s approach to closing that gap has been to push struggling schools to improve and close those that do not. But improvement rarely comes quickly enough for students, whose time in high school is short, and those in search of a better school or just a better fit struggle to find a way out.

The Department of Education declined to share data about how many students apply to change high schools each year and how many of their requests are approved. But even as the Bloomberg administration has increased choice across the city and at most grade levels, it remains difficult for students to change their high schools in all but a few circumscribed situations.

“I have spoken to students who have managed to transfer but it took a lot of persistence — and luck,” said Pamela Wheaton, who helps families navigate the high school choice process as an editor at Insideschools.

The complicated admissions process ends with a single placement for each student, and eighth-graders who are unhappy with their initial placements can appeal. Those who start ninth grade and are unhappy with their schools can go through the high school application process again for 10th grade. But after the application deadline in the first semester of their freshman year (this year, the deadline is Dec. 2), students must have a documented medical or safety reason to change schools, or their commute must exceed 75 minutes each way.

The limits leave students who seek courses or programs their schools don’t offer without many options, even as the city tailors high school offerings more and more narrowly. The hundreds of small, themed schools that the Bloomberg administration opened each offer only a slice of the course and extracurricular options that large schools can boast.

Selecting from among the choices can be a daunting prospect for 13-year-olds and their families. Schools change year to year, and teenagers change at an even faster pace. Jessica Escolah, an eighth grader at I.S. 45 in the Bronx who attended the city’s high school fair with her classmates this fall, said knowing that her interests might change increases anxiety about an already fraught application process.

She said she thinks she wants a school that focuses on theater, but that choosing among schools with themes like “Food and Finance,” “Media Arts,” and “Telecommunications” feels like a high-stakes decision.

“I’m scared and nervous at the same time,” Escolah said. “You might change what you want to be. What you pick to start may not interest you anymore.”

That’s what happened to Hannah Hanrahan, who attends Brooklyn Technical High School. The school is one of the city’s most selective and prestigious, but Hanrahan said she quickly realized that she didn’t want to focus on the sciences and felt anonymous at the 5,500-student school.

Still, she said, she wanted to give the school a fair chance before deciding to leave, so she didn’t reapply by the high school application deadline three months into her freshman year. By the time she decided to pursue a transfer, she said, she was surprised to find that it was too late to choose a new school.

“I definitely think staying at a school for four full years gives you more of a sense of identity with the school,” Hanrahan said. “You may have more school pride and comfort with the school, and you know how things work. I think maybe it’s possible for students to do better grades-wise in that sense. But if you’re unhappy, I think locking them in is so much worse.”

Sophomore Matilda Frendergast, left, advises eighth graders to make their high school choices carefully.
Sophomore Matilda Frendergast, left, advises eighth graders to make their high school choices carefully.

Hanrahan was not technically locked in: After several visits to enrollment offices during 10th grade, the city offered her a spot at another just before her junior year. But it was not Millennium High School, a screened school where she and her mother said staff members had told them she could attend as long as the city’s enrollment office approved the transfer.

Before the city’s admissions system changed in 2003, Hanrahan could have transferred with permission from her principal and Millennium’s. But the new, centralized admissions system, which gave students more choice over which schools they wanted to attend, also limited their ability to switch schools after they enrolled and gave the department’s enrollment offices control over transfer decisions.

A new mayor could change the admissions system once again. Wheaton at Insideschools said she would like to see the department show more flexibility so that securing a transfer doesn’t require quite as much effort.

“We’re looking at a child, a student, a 14- or 15-year-old kid suffering for some reason,” she said. “It shouldn’t be easy … but if a kid presents a compelling case that they should be at another school and the other school has space, I honestly don’t understand why they’re not allowed to transfer.”

City officials say the limits on high school transfers exist because stability is good for schools and students.

Giving city students as much choice in 10th grade as they have in eighth would put additional — and significant — stress on a system that already has to process and assign nearly 80,000 incoming ninth graders to schools each year. High schools already struggle to accommodate students who enter the system outside of the regular admissions process.

Added student mobility would also complicate some of the city’s accountability measures for high schools. The city assesses high schools based on the annual performance of their students, and when students transfer, their successes or struggles cannot be attributed to a single school.

Researchers say the department’s overarching principle is mostly sound.

“The general finding from research is that mobility is hard on kids,” according to Beth Shinn, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University. Students who switch schools must make new friends, get used to new teachers, and adjust to different curriculums and expectations, she said. Those challenges are the same whether students change schools by choice or because of factors outside of their control, such as homelessness or a family move, she said.

But in some cases, a student’s desire to change schools “might outweigh the potentially disruptive effects,” Shinn said. “There might even be circumstances in which the kid could really benefit from having a new peer group and a fresh start elsewhere.”

For now, city students are wising up to the fact that getting out once they’ve gotten into a high school is no easy task. Matilda Frendergast, a sophomore at Cobble Hill School of American Studies, attended this year’s high school fair to represent her school. Her advice to eighth graders: “You’re going to be going to that school for four years, so you don’t want to choose the wrong one.”

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.