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.

talking SHSAT

Fair and objective or useless and biased? A Chalkbeat guide to the case for and against New York City’s specialized high school test

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for admissions changes at specialized high schools.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for New York City’s vaunted specialized high schools, he led supporters gathered in the gymnasium of a Brooklyn middle school in chants of “The test has to go!”

Just days later, protesters flooded the steps of City Hall to defend the Specialized High School Admissions Test. “What do we want? SHSAT!” they yelled.

The pushback against de Blasio’s plan hasn’t stopped. In the more than two months since he launched a push to overhaul admissions in an effort to admit more black and Hispanic students, former allies have backed away, political opponents have put forth their own proposals, and the mayor has contended with a steady stream of protests.

The debate gets emotional quickly, and facts can be hard to find. Here’s our guide to the arguments against de Blasio’s plan and the most common alternatives proposed: what’s true, what might work, and what probably won’t.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it will cause the quality of students’ education at the specialized high schools to suffer.

This argument hinges on the idea that the students admitted under de Blasio’s plan will be less prepared academically. To judge it, we need to know how the academic profile of students admitted to specialized high schools would change. The city has some answers: Under de Blasio’s proposal, which would offer admission to top middle school students across the city, the projected average grade point average and state test scores of the incoming classes would remain about the same as they are now.

The education department says that students’ state test scores would slip slightly: incoming students would go from an average level 4.1 to a 3.9 (out of a possible 4.5). The grade point average of admitted students would hold steady at 94.

Then, there’s the question of whether those are appropriate metrics for judging who is prepared for the specialized schools. Research suggests that GPA may be a better predictor than the SHSAT of how students will perform in specialized high schools, at least for those who are admitted with lower scores on the entrance exam. But some argue that the specific kind of rigorous preparation typically required to succeed at the SHSAT helps students do well at the demanding schools, too.

Integration advocates have pushed back against this argument because it suggests that black and Hispanic students aren’t as bright as the students who now fill specialized high schools.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it is a fair and unbiased way to select students.

Defenders of the SHSAT say it is an objective way to determine merit: If you do well enough on the test, you’re in.

The exam is particularly appealing to Asian parents, who have said they worry that more subjective measures, such as interviews, would be biased against their children. Case in point: the recent controversy at Harvard, where Asian students vying for admission were consistently assigned lower scores on personality traits, according to legal documents in a suit claiming the university discriminates against Asian applicants.

A recently released study also found the SHSAT generally predicts which students are likely to be successful early in high school.

There’s no doubt that the exam is a clean-cut way of making admissions decisions — and clarity is rare in the New York City high school admissions system, where sought-after schools can all have different criteria and students are eventually admitted by an algorithm.

But we also know that not all eligible New York City students are taking the SHSAT, and its use shuts out lots of students who can’t afford test prep. Students also have to know how and when to sign up to take it. (The city has tried to address some of those issues. It hasn’t worked.)

Researchers say the recently released study doesn’t do much to settle the debate around the SHSAT, either. “It tells us something we already knew: Kids who do well on the SHSAT do well in high school,” Aaron Pallas, a researcher at Columbia who reviewed the study, recently told Chalkbeat. “But it doesn’t tell us what is the best combination of factors that predict who might do well in an exam school.”

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because the proposal is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist — a lack of diversity.

The debate around specialized high schools is complicated by the fact that they are already full of students of color: enrollment is about 62 percent Asian.

Some argue that changing the admissions system to admit more black and Hispanic students would come at the expense of Asian students, who have the highest poverty rate of all racial and ethnic groups in specialized high schools (but not citywide). At the eight schools that use the SHSAT for admissions, 63 percent of Asian students come from low-income families, according to data provided by the city.

“What’s so frustrating about the mayor and City Hall’s narrative is that it seems to, at best, deny that Asian Americans are people of color too,” Ron Kim, a state assemblyman who represents heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens, recently told Chalkbeat.

But the disparity between the specialized schools and the city is wide. Only 10 percent of students at the high schools are black or Hispanic, even though those students make up 70 percent of public school enrollment citywide.

Specialized high schools fall short on a range of other diversity measures, too.

Citywide, about 74 percent of students come from poor families. About half of all students in specialized high schools come from low-income families. At High School of American Studies at Lehman College, a small specialized high school in the Bronx, the poverty rate is only 20 percent.

The specialized high schools also enroll a tiny number of students with disabilities, and almost no students who are learning English as a new language.

Research has shown that integrated classrooms can benefit all students. Studies have found that racially and ethnically diverse classrooms can reduce prejudice, improve critical thinking, and lead to high levels of civic engagement.

“Learning doesn’t just involve balancing multiple extracurriculars, enrollment in several Advanced Placement classes and acceptances at Ivy League institutions,” Bo Young Lee, an Asian-American graduate of Stuyvesant recently wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “It’s also having a perspective challenged and broadened by others who look and live differently.”

Argument: Admissions to the high schools shouldn’t change because they’re already producing successful students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Students of color and those who come from poor families often lack access to schools with experienced teachers, advanced courses, and strong graduation records. Specialized high schools offer all that, plus a reputation for sending graduates to top colleges.

But research suggests that the stellar results of specialized high schools have more to do with the students themselves.

Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, recently reviewed two studies on specialized high schools in both New York City and Boston that were conducted by other academics. She summed up their question like this: “Do the exam schools produce academically outstanding graduates, or do they simply admit stellar students and enjoy credit for their successes?”

Two studies suggest the latter, at least for students who were admitted to specialized high schools with lower SHSAT scores. They found that specialized high schools had little effect on whether those graduates went on to college, were admitted to a selective university, and whether they earned a post-secondary degree. (There could be other benefits, outside of academic measures or later in life, of attending the selective schools.)

“While the exam school students in our samples typically have good outcomes, most of these students would likely have done well without the benefit of an exam school education,” researchers wrote in a 2014 report on Boston and New York.  

One counterproposal: Increase access to the test — and to test prep.

Rather than scrapping the SHSAT, many have called on the city to expand test prep to level the playing field. Others argue that prep courses should be more widely available — and better advertised — so more students have a chance to actually take them.

The city has already tried to tackle those issues, and it hasn’t made a dent in changing the demographics at specialized high schools.

The city has begun to offer the SHSAT on a school day at some middle schools in underrepresented communities, and boosted public test prep programs and outreach to increase the number of test-takers. Those efforts haven’t resulted in many more black and Hispanic students passing the exam.

Another counterproposal: Focus on improving elementary and middle schools first.

Some SHSAT defenders say the key to helping more students do well on the exam is to make sure they get a solid education earlier in their schooling. Rather than scrapping the test, the city should do more to make sure students can reach that bar — and that means investing in schools that have long been under-resourced.

“The results of the SHSAT are merely a reflection of the failure of the city to properly educate our black and Hispanic students,” Tahseen Chowdhury, who attended Stuyvesant, recently wrote in an op-ed.

Integration advocates call this argument a red herring since it suggests that unless everything can be solved at once, nothing should change. It also suggests there aren’t more black and Hispanic students already in the system who are capable of doing well in specialized high schools.

The reasons why schools struggle are complex, and often tied up in issues relating to segregation and poverty. Educators and policy makers far beyond New York City have grappled with how to improve academic outcomes for the country’s most vulnerable children, but there has been slow improvement in test scores and graduation rates for black and Hispanic students.

Meanwhile, the existence of New York’s robust test-preparation industry reflects the reality that many families turn to outside help — regardless of the quality of their child’s school — to prepare them to win a spot in specialized high schools.

A third counterproposal: The city should expand gifted and talented programs so more students are ready for advanced academic work.

Many alumni and elected officials have called on the city to expand gifted programs, which are seen as a reliable pipeline into specialized high schools. At the Anderson School in Manhattan, which has one of the most selective gifted programs in the city for elementary school, 76 percent of eighth-graders who took the SHSAT got an offer to a specialized high school this year.

“If we do that, we would not have a diversity problem,” Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, said at a recent rally at City Hall. “We need to meet the needs of children who are above grade level.”

But only 22 percent of students in city gifted programs are black or Hispanic. Absent specific integration measures, experts say that an expansion of gifted programs probably won’t help more of those students get in. The city has already expanded a new kind of gifted program in a few neighborhoods, resulting in more diverse classrooms.

Still, just like specialized high schools, admission to gifted programs usually hinges on the results of a test. Few children take the exam in poor neighborhoods, where schools often enroll more black and Hispanic students. An even smaller number score well enough to get into a program, which many experts attribute to extensive test prep.

“As long as gifted and talented program admissions are based on a single test, advantaged families will be able to game the system by prepping for it,” researchers Allison Roda and Halley Potter, who have both studied gifted programs in New York City, recently wrote in an op-ed.

There’s also the unanswered question of whether gifted programs serve as a funnel to specialized high schools simply because they admit students who do well on tests and come from savvy families — or because of the impact of the schools themselves.

Race and class

Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Principal Chandra Sledge-Mathias speaks to Crosstown High School's inaugural ninth grade class outside the building on the first day of school.

On the first day of school, Sharonda Walker noticed her daughter and other students at the brand new Crosstown High School immediately sorted themselves by race as they made small talk outside the building.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
English teacher Deion Jordan speaks with Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class on the first day of school.

“They went into packs and it was black and white,” said Walker, who is black and lives in Klondike, within walking distance of the school. “It wasn’t intentional, but people tend to hang around people that look like them.”

Leaders at the new charter school have set out to make something that is rare in Memphis, a school that is a mix of races, socio-economic levels, and academic standing. School officials mapped the district, pounded the pavement, and then adjusted their strategy as they saw their population start to fill in with mostly middle-class and affluent white students.

The demand to create diverse schools is growing, especially among charter schools that were formed as an alternative for students of color in poor neighborhoods. Education leaders across the nation have increasingly acknowledged that schools segregated by race and family income hurt students and their communities.

Crosstown High leaders are finding that all their efforts aren’t enough and that they still have work to do.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Left, Ginger Spickler, Crosstown High School’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“It’s going to be ongoing work. It’s never going to be finished,” said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

The result was 150 students that more closely mirror the demographics of the county than any other school in the district. More than a third of the students are white — making it the first charter school in Shelby County Schools to attract a significant number of white students. White students make up a small part of the entire district, about 7 percent.

Five schools have a higher share of white students than the county and Crosstown High, but most of them have academic requirements for students who want to attend. That’s not the case at Crosstown High because charter schools in Tennessee are not allowed to have admission tests. If there is a waiting list, the charter school conducts a computerized lottery to select students.

School leaders are quick to point out Crosstown High is not as diverse as they would like. They want to enroll more Hispanic students, who now represent only 2 percent of the student population. The school also fell nine percentage points below its goal for students from poor families. The school could draw more students from the neighborhood; four census tracts around the school have a median annual income of $36,643, with the lowest being $17,000. The highest was $51,000.

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park


PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School is housed in a 1.5 million square-foot former Sears warehouse and store that has turned into a hub of businesses and apartments.

For Crosstown High leaders to have a diverse student body, they needed a diverse pool of applicants for the lottery, Spickler said.

So, they hit the road. They invited students across the city to apply — many were the same students they interviewed for a grant application to re-invent what high schools do. They tapped into various networks such as parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, student leadership organization BRIDGES, and Memphis Public Library’s student technology group, Cloud901. Along the way, school leaders preached the school’s project-based learning model, where students solve real-world problems and learn the math, science, English, and social studies skills required by the state along the way.

The effort lasted about two years. One such event at First Congregational Church featured students from middle schools in neighborhoods far flung from each other in geography and academic standing.

“I remember looking out and thinking, ‘If we can maintain this kind of representation of Memphis in everything that we’re doing, we’ll get there,’” Spickler said.

When applications first started trickling in, Crosstown High’s small team mapped where students were coming from and noticed they skewed toward white and middle-class families who were also considering private schools. That prompted the team to double down on visiting more middle schools with more students of color from poor families, Spickler said.

Map of Crosstown High students

Courtesy of Crosstown High School

Now that students are in the building, Spickler said the main way the school plans to help students foster relationships across racial and economic lines is through what are known as advisory groups. Administrators are picking groups of about 15 students, each representing a cross section of the school. They will meet with a teacher three times a week for 45 minutes to talk about relationship building. The hope is that the group of students would stay together throughout high school.

“That’s the foundation on which the rest of the model can work because we hope students learn to support each other,” Spickler said. “If they can apply that to the rest of their academics in a healthier frame of mind, it will be better for everybody.”

School leaders are fighting an uphill battle. Memphis schools never truly integrated after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, according to historians. In fact, schools have become more highly segregated in the city. A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, where 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class greet each other on the first day of school.

Racial and economic diversity was “a huge factor” for parent Paul Guibao, whose white son is one of the 150 ninth-graders in the school’s inaugural class.

“You have to break those barriers because they happen early and not necessarily intentionally,” he said, adding his son had attended a predominately white private school prior to Crosstown High.

“Because that’s life. You’re not going to live your life in a bubble. You’re going to deal with people from all walks throughout your existence,” said Guibao, a lawyer who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Harbor Town. “There’s a certain sheltering with people. I don’t think that’s healthy for the individual and I don’t think that’s helpful for the future of our society.”

Walker, the mother who noticed the students sorting themselves on the first day of school, said the way Crosstown is approaching learning and diversity shows there’s hope for a new model in the district.

“So, I think it’s a task,” she said. “But with the structure at hand, I believe it’s going to foster working together — learning from everyone at the table.”