First Person

Why high school admissions actually doesn’t work for many city students — and how it could

It was my pleasure to read Professor Alvin Roth’s recent piece on why New York City’s high school admissions process now works most of the time. And as the city’s former deputy director of high school enrollment and a current admissions consultant who has helped thousands of families navigate the process, I see his observations play out every day.

Given how massive the New York City process is, the mechanism of assigning students to schools after families have made their choices does, indeed, work well. But the process by which those choices are made remains complicated, and very much depends on expertise or the ability to spend an excessive amount of time understanding how it works. Many students still go without either.

One family with whom I recently worked had every reason to believe they would do well: A high-achieving student, experienced school counselor, engaged parents, and a strong middle school. Unfortunately, their counselor was overloaded, they had limited time to visit schools, they were armed with less-than-accurate information, and they believed their top choices were within easier reach than they were. Other students with fewer resources or lower grades can face even greater challenges.

Yes, the ever-increasing number of apps, websites, and school search tools are helping some families evaluate their options, and the city continues to improve how information is disseminated. But there is no substitute for personal, human guidance by someone who knows schools, the process, and takes the time to get to know the student on a personal level.

For the nearly 80,000 families citywide each year navigating the transition from eighth grade to high school, middle school counselors play that role. Typically, each will support hundreds of families through the process.

Part of my role at the DOE was to train middle school counselors, whose workloads, savvy, and degree to which their students’ parents were engaged in the process varied widely. Over time, many counselors have developed into admissions experts who do an outstanding job informing their families. A Manhattan school counselor entering her third year recently told me, though, that it was a challenge for her to become familiar with schools beyond the “brand name” schools that everyone talks about.

It’s a problem Roth acknowledges. “Although it’s great to have a marketplace that gives you an abundance of opportunities, these may be illusory if you can’t evaluate them, and they can cause the market to lose much of its usefulness,” he writes.

A lot of work remains to ensure that counselors in every school are supported, bolstered, and rewarded for their efforts — in part to ensure that talented counselors don’t flee those important roles. A more comprehensive, citywide strategy to take advantage of alternative, community-based support where counseling is in short supply is also well overdue.

That’s just one piece of the puzzle. In my experience, even in middle schools with veteran, effective counselors, families continue to struggle to understand what represents a sound choice.

"Even in middle schools with veteran, effective counselors, families continue to struggle to understand what represents a sound choice."Maurice Frumkin

Part of that struggle is just the size of the system. Sifting through over 700 high school programs and narrowing the list down to 12 viable, acceptable options is no easy feat. To do it, most families turn to the city’s massive high school directory.

But significant parts of the book are still not as clear as they could be. The listings for selective high schools — which look at students’ grades, test scores, attendance, and other figures — should provide actual, historic numbers rather than a school’s often-inaccurate targets. All schools should be required to provide information about exactly how they weigh those factors, as well as open house information.

And rather than force families to identify and understand dozens of school-specific requirements like writing samples, portfolios, online exercises, the DOE should consider devising a common exercise used by multiple schools.

Make no mistake: Simply meeting a program’s selection criteria does not guarantee a candidate will be considered for that program. Unfortunately, the published criteria are often misunderstood, resulting in families listing inappropriate, uninformed choices, or not listing any viable choices at all.

It’s not only the number of choices that plays a role in a child’s chances of matching. Roth’s model was also overlaid by geographic school admissions priorities, where certain students have less access to school options than others.

I speak with families every day who are convinced that although there are 5,000 applicants to a selective program with 100 seats, an offer is inevitable because their child meets the published selection criteria. They will, therefore, list fewer choices – and often only choices that represent the most sought-after, screened programs.

Wherever I go, families are shocked when they learn that at certain selective, screened schools, they can be ranked #1, yet not receive an offer to that school because of geographic priorities. Others are elated that they can be ranked #500 and match ahead of the student ranked #1, simply because of where they live or go to school.

Unfortunately, until we have a portfolio of schools with sufficient quality for all — where families don’t need to hold onto their priority status for dear life — true, equitable citywide school choice will remain an unattainable vision.

Without question, Roth and his team introduced a system that brought significant benefits to New York City’s families. Their efforts brought us much closer to a fair, effective marketplace. But until we have a level playing field, the process will, indeed, only work most of the time.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.