Student Voices

In their own words: Voices of high school admissions, round two

PHOTO: Cassandra Giraldo
From left, Lordes Lliguichiuzhca, her daughter Elizabeth Cuzco, 13, Sonia Bucur, 13, and her mother Dina Bucur, sit in front of Martin Luther King High School after attending the Round 2 high school fair.

Victoria Ramirez thought she had done everything right.

The eighth-grader wants to be a pediatrician, and with help from a teacher at P.S./I.S. 78, she picked schools that seemed to offer good programs in science and health for her high school application. But when students across the city received their admissions matches, she was told she would need to try again.

“I was kind of sad at first, but there are still good schools left,” she said.

When New York City students don’t get matched to a high school in the first round, or they’re unhappy with their match, they can try again in round two, though the pool of potential seats is more limited. Last weekend, schools with seats to fill set up in the Martin Luther King, Jr. campus, hoping to convince students like Ramirez that they were the right choice.

Here are a few of their stories.

Tsunami Ubiera

Tsunami Ubiera wants to become an anesthesiologist. So after she didn’t make the cut for specialized high schools, she was on the hunt for schools that offer honors classes in the sciences.

“I want a school that is going to teach me the things that will help me to get there,” said Ubiera, an eighth grader from Inwood.

Ubiera said her guidance counselor and teachers at Inwood Academy helped her navigate the admissions process. But she felt unprepared for the specialized high school admissions test last fall.

“I heard about it this year for the first time, and I tried studying for it the best I can but I didn’t get accepted,” she said.

Ubiera’s next move: Applying to A. Philip Randolph High School in Harlem.
—Anjali Tsui

“I think it was unfair everybody got their top choice and I didn’t,” said Joshua Pierre, a student at Eagle Academy for Young Men III.
“I think it was unfair everybody got their top choice and I didn’t,” said Joshua Pierre, a student at Eagle Academy for Young Men III. —Cassandra Giraldo
David Mizhquiri

David Mizhquiri, an eighth grader from Sunset Park, was nervous as he entered the fair. But he soon worked up the courage to talk to high school students and teachers.

“It’s basically my future in my hands, so I have to speak to them about how the school is, what they can give me, and how they can prepare me for college,” he said.

Mizhquiri, who attends J.H.S. 220 John J. Pershing, didn’t receive any offers during the first round. He says he made the mistake of only applying to three schools. Although eighth graders can list up to 12 schools on their applications, Mizhquiri prioritized schools that were in his neighborhood.

At the fair, Mizhquiri sensed the magnitude of the decision he was about to make.

“If I make a wrong decision, my future could go black, it could go dark, I could lose everything,” he said. —Anjali Tsui

“It’s different when you’ve been looking at a school in a book. It helps to meet people who can give you info,” said 14-year-old Bianca Watts (left), with her sister Alexis. Their mother, Xiomara Samuels: “I just want this to be over with so they can excel and achieve what they need."
“It’s different when you’ve been looking at a school in a book. It helps to meet people who can give you info,” said 14-year-old Bianca Watts (left), with her sister Alexis. Their mother, Xiomara Samuels: “I just want this to be over with so they can excel and achieve what they need.”  —Cassandra Giraldo

As she prepared her high school application, Maisa Alvarado went to 12 schools’ open houses.

So she was disappointed when it didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped: She was matched to Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem instead of Pace, her top choice.

“We didn’t know the application process well enough,” her mother, Maira Alvarado, said through a sign-language interpreter.

But Maisa still knows what she’s looking for. “For me, the school should be close to home, or a short commute,” she said. “I also want the school to motivate me.” —Ilgin Yorulmaz

Fraternal twins Chanel and Stedman Abban, 13, want to attend the same school, but only Chanel got a seat at Central Park East. “Some of the schools seem pretty interesting but not all I would rank as my first,” she said.
Fraternal twins Chanel and Stedman Abban, 13, want to attend the same school, but only Chanel got a seat at Central Park East. “Some of the schools seem pretty interesting but not all I would rank as my first,” she said. —Cassandra Giraldo
Marco Vargas

The guidance counselors at the Computer School on the Upper West Side offered plenty of help to Marco Vargas as he put together his high school application, he said.

“They told me not to put down just a couple of schools, but to list more than that,” he said. In the end, when he wasn’t matched with his first-choice school, “Even the assistant principal in my school was surprised.”

Vargas lives in the Bronx, but listed only the schools in Manhattan. It probably hurt his chances, his mother, Jodi Morales, said.

“How they match people is a mystery and not fair,” she said. —Ilgin Yorulmaz

Dominique Torres, 13, said opening her admission letter in front of her friends at school was devastating. Her advice: “Look more into the schools before you put them on your application." —Cassandra Giraldo
Dominique Torres, 13, said opening her admission letter in front of her friends at school was devastating. Her advice: “Look more into the schools before you put them on your application.” —Cassandra Giraldo
Tejas Wini

To Tejas Wini and her family, the number and variety of schools at the fair seemed overwhelming.

Tejas trailed behind her father, Sudhakar, a banker, who had relocated his family from Mumbai to New York just a month ago. Together, they listened as teachers and cheerleaders explained why they should consider their schools.

“I need to go to a school specialized in science and math,” Wini explained. “In India, almost everyone goes to the same school from kindergarten to 12th grade. This is all very new to me.”

She took notice how friends at her current school, I.S. 237, took the news when they opened their admission letters last week.

“Some of them were very upset,” she said. “Some got in only their sixth or seventh choice.” —Ilgin Yorulmaz

Deshearra Irby, 15, and her friend Jasmyn Kentish, 15, were there to represent Urban Assembly School for Global Commerce. Kentish's advice: “Don’t just pick a school because it’s the school your parents like."
Deshearra Irby, 15, and her friend Jasmyn Kentish, 15, were there to represent Urban Assembly School for Global Commerce. Kentish’s advice: “Don’t just pick a school because it’s the school your parents like.” —Cassandra Giraldo

This story was produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Education on screen

School segregation at center of new documentary from collective founded by Ava DuVernay

PHOTO: ARRAY

Sixty years to the day after the Little Rock Nine integrated a high school in Arkansas, a documentary chronicling how many of America’s school systems have segregated again is set to debut at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

The film, “Teach Us All,” is the basis of what first-time filmmaker Sonia Lowman hopes will be a national student-led movement to integrate schools. The film is being released with a social action curriculum meant to help students gather information about their own school systems and push for change.

“We are at a point where we are regressing, where we’re at risk of eroding the gains of the civil rights movement,” Lowman said.

In the film, Lowman looks at Little Rock schools separated by race and class, both when the Supreme Court cut down school segregation laws and more recently. But it’s not just the South: the film explores segregation in New York City and Los Angeles by race, class and language.

PHOTO: ARRAY
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. where nine students integrated the then all-white school in 1957.

It also touches on the challenges schools face in attempting to integrate, and the complicated choices parents have to make about where to send their children for school.

Read our Q&A with Ruby Bridges, who at six years old was the first black student to integrate New Orleans schools.

The documentary is being distributed by ARRAY, a collective founded in 2010 by producer Ava DuVernay, an award-winning filmmaker who produced the movie “Selma” and the documentary “13th.” “Teach Us All” will be shown in 12 cities and be released on Netflix on Sept. 25.

The National Civil Rights Museum, where the film will premiere in Memphis, has taken an active role this year in hosting events that delve into issues of educational equity. Museum President Terri Freeman recently said she sees education-focused programming as a key part of their mission.

“For the museum not to have conversation about education, with the museum being an institution of education in an informal way, would be for the museum to not do what it’s supposed to,” Freeman said at a panel discussion on school segregation. “If people come to look at photographs, but there’s no change involved, then in my estimation we failed as an institution.”

You can watch the trailer below. RSVP to register to attend the Memphis screening:

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.