student spotlights

From the Bronx to Brooklyn, how six eighth-graders handled high school applications

Jalen Andujar, an eighth grader at M.S. 61 in Crown Heights, stands across the street from his apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Jalen Andujar, an eighth grader at M.S. 61 in Crown Heights, stands across the street from his apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.

Katherine Studt, who lives on the Upper East Side, has been on several high school tours with her father and wants to find a quality writing program. Bryan Abreu, from the South Bronx, talked to his friends about the admissions process and picked a school with a good basketball team.

This week, Katherine and Bryan are two of the city’s nearly 75,000 eighth-graders who faced the same deadline — to submit a list that’s likely to determine where they spend their next four years of school.

Unsurprisingly, some were scrambling to fill their final application slots on Monday night, while others had spent months touring schools and studying for admissions tests.

The complicated process is the product of the city’s choice-based high school admissions system, which allows families to rank their top school preferences then sorts students based on a citywide algorithm. Not only do students have to sift through a 649-page directory, but schools have widely varying admissions requirements, which could include tests, interviews, and essays.

This week, we asked six teenagers to tell us how they made their choices.

A puzzling list: Jalen Andujar, an eighth grader at M.S. 61 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Top choice: Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn

When Jalen Andujar first laid eyes on the high school directory, his first thought was, “This is going to be really hard.”

He ended up listing schools that are extremely different, including the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School and the Beacon School in Manhattan, one of the city’s most selective high schools.

Andujar wants to play football and basketball, which pushed him toward Boys and Girls. His aunt who guided him through the application process also went to the Bedford-Stuyvesant school.

The way he ranked the schools virtually guarantees that he will end up at Boys and Girls, which has struggled to attract students and shrunk dramatically in recent years.

Also on his list: New Utrecht in Brooklyn

Dalizbeth Lopez, an eighth grader at I.S. 224 in the South Bronx, had three schools left to pick before submitting her high school application on Monday night.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Dalizbeth Lopez, an eighth grader at I.S. 224 in the South Bronx, had three schools left to pick before submitting her high school application on Monday night.

‘It’s hard’ in the Bronx: Dalizbeth Lopez, an eighth-grader at I.S. 224 in the South Bronx

Top choice: University Heights High School, a selective, well-regarded school in the South Bronx

On Monday night, Dalizbeth Lopez still had three schools left to select for her application, but she had already overcome the biggest hurdle: deciding to apply at all.

“It was sad,” Dalizbeth said about the first time she sat down with her mom to discuss high school. “I told her I didn’t feel like going to high school.”

Once her mom convinced her to take a closer look at schools, she cracked the “big book” and consulted the list of schools suggested by her guidance counselor.

As she searched, the most important qualities to her were the school’s graduation rate and safety, she said. With those criteria, she found it difficult to settle on a school close to home, she said.

“There’s a lot of good high schools, but it’s hard to find them here in the Bronx,” Dalizbeth said.

Also on her list: Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science

Ananya Roy, eighth-grader at East Side Middle School, is hoping to find a school with a good humanities program.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Ananya Roy, eighth-grader at East Side Middle School, is hoping to find a school with a good humanities program.

High standards: Ananya Roy, an eighth-grader at East Side Middle School

Top choice: Bard High School Early College, a popular school on the Lower East Side that offers two years of college credit.

Ananya Roy, an eighth-grader at East Side Middle School on the Upper East Side, had the opposite problem.

“I had trouble because all these schools are really good,” Ananya said.

Ananya has spent the last few months taking tests, filling out online applications, writing essays and touring schools. She started to look at high schools during the summer after seventh grade, when she went to a seminar to help parents and students understand the high school application process. Before that, she started studying for the specialized high school tests with a tutor.

Ananya is looking for a school with a strong set of English and social studies classes. After emigrating from Bangladesh at age eight, she discovered a love for politics.

“I read the news a lot and, you know, just read in general,” she said. “Politics is always really interesting because there’s always two sides.”

Also on her list: Townsend Harris, Baruch College Campus

Searching for basketball: Bryan Abreu, eighth-grader at I.S. 224

Top choice: A. Philip Randolph High School, a large high school in Harlem

Bryan Abreu, who attends I.S. 224 in the South Bronx, said he chose high schools that “had a lot of programs.”

Mostly, he wanted a school with a good basketball program. He consulted his friends when deciding between schools and made sure his parents signed off on his choices, he said.

His favorite subject is technology, and when he leaves high school he wants to be able to “fix something,” he said.

Katherine Studt, an eighth-grader at East Side Middle School, has toured schools all over the city with her dad.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Katherine Studt, an eighth-grader at East Side Middle School, has toured schools all over the city with her dad.

Touring the city: Katherine Studt, an eighth-grader at East Side Middle School

Top choice: The Beacon School, a sought-after school in Hell’s Kitchen

Katherine Studt traveled all around the city touring schools with her dad this year. As she left the Upper East Side, she said it felt like the whole city opened up to her.

“Since I’m older now, there’s more places I can go,” she said. “I can go to Brooklyn. I can go to the Lower East Side, down to the west side.”

Katherine, who wants to be a lawyer, said she was looking for a school with a good learning environment, one that encourages teamwork, and has a good writing program.

She sometimes found it difficult to juggle schoolwork and admissions requirements, she said. But the slog through tests and applications hasn’t dampened her spirits about high school.

“Overall, it was kind of fun,” she said.

Also on her list: NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, Eleanor Roosevelt

Zerina Caraballo, an eighth grader at M.S. 2 Parkside Preparatory Academy stands outside her school in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Zerina Caraballo, an eighth grader at M.S. 2 Parkside Preparatory Academy stands outside her school in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.

A fresh start: Zerina Caraballo, an eighth-grader at M.S. 2 in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn

Top choice: Preparatory Academy for Writers in Queens

As the third child in her family to go through the high school admissions process, Zerina Caraballo had a pretty good idea what was ahead of her.

Caraballo solely considered high schools in Queens, where her family lives, and prioritized schools that offered courses in forensic science, along with specific sports programs — basketball, cheerleading and gymnastics. After going to six different open houses, she rounded out her list with help from her mom, older sister, and brother.

“Most of my friends are going to be in Brooklyn, so it’s going to be a totally different start,” she said.

Also on her list: Francis Lewis, Hillcrest, and Forest Hills

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.