going 'blind'

Some of Brooklyn’s most sought-after middle schools will no longer see how applicants rank them

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

When middle schools in a brownstone Brooklyn district with a hyper-competitive admissions process consider prospective students next year, they will no longer be able to factor in how families ranked them on their applications, officials said Wednesday.

Parents and experts have long lobbied for that change because they say the current system forces families to fill out their applications strategically, while often penalizing those who list their true preferences. Because the top middle schools in District 15 — which includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Sunset Park — each receive hundreds of applications, they generally only consider students who rank them first or second.

“For years, families have felt as though their options were limited to two top schools on their applications,” District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop said in a letter to parents Wednesday announcing the change. They “have felt as though they need to be strategic, rather than honest in their ranking of choices.”

The middle school admissions process varies across the city, but most districts currently use “blind ranking” systems that do not show schools where they were listed on a student’s application. The citywide high school admissions process also works that way.

Beginning next school year, District 15 will join the three-quarters of districts that do not show middle schools how applicants ranked them. (Seven of the city’s 32 school districts will continue to share the rankings with middle schools.)

“I am pleased to announce that we are making positive steps toward a more inclusive, equitable and family-friendly middle school admissions process for all of the District 15 community,” Skop wrote in the letter to families.

The district’s current process can be torturous for parents.

The odds of making it into one of the district’s most sought-after middle schools are dauntingly low: M.S. 447, The Math and Science Exploratory School, for instance, had slots for fewer than 10 percent of its 1,448 applicants last year. Yet parents must rank those schools first or second to be considered.

That means many families apply to those top schools and are rejected, only to find that schools they listed lower on their applications have filled up with students who ranked them first.

“If you don’t get into your first choice, in some cases you’re just screwed,” said Pamela Wheaton, managing editor of the website Insideschools. “People have been protesting this for years.”

The district’s more affluent parents often turn to their social networks, email groups, or paid consultants to help them rank their choices in a way that maximizes their odds of getting into top schools. Meanwhile, lower-income parents with less time to make sense of the process may list schools in a way that reduces their odds.

“A process in which schools see who ranks who further entrenches already entrenched inequities,” said said Neil Dorosin, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, who helped design New York City’s high school admissions system. “That’s just fundamentally unfair and wrong.”

M.S. 839, a new middle school in the district, uses a random admissions lottery. For that reason, some parents automatically rank the school third so that they can save their top slots for schools that consider ranking, said principal Michael Perlberg. He said some parents have received their first ranked choice but appealed that decision because they actually preferred M.S. 839.

The policy change to blind rankings “is going to allow parents to sit down with their kids and do a ranking that’s really authentic,” Perlberg said. “We’re really excited about that.”

The change could complicate the screening process for district schools that attract large numbers of applicants.

For instance, New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, which received 1425 applications last year, requires applicants to sit for an interview and an audition. However, it only invites students who ranked the school first or second to go through that process. Now, it may be forced to invite in many more applicants.

A district spokesman said the policy change was made in partnership with the local principals. He added that individual districts decide whether or not to allow middle schools to see how families ranked them, and that District 15 could serve as a model for districts considering moving to a blind-ranking system.

Superintendent Skop also informed parents that middle schools cannot consider letters of recommendation during the admissions process. That rule has already been in place, but district leaders say that parents continue to submit letters to schools.

Correction [May 12, 2016]: An earlier version of this story misstated when District 15 middle schools will stop receiving information about how applicants ranked them. That change will happen when schools review applications in early 2017, not fall 2017.

Speaking Up

‘Smooth sailing’ or ‘left behind’: The student voices in a charged debate over NYC’s high school admissions

PHOTO: Julian Giordano/Teens Take Charge
Students at a Teens Take Charge forum with Nikole Hannah-Jones

At the same time Monday night that Manhattan parents were protesting proposed changes to how a few New York City high schools choose their students, teenagers in Brooklyn were giving voice to their frustrations with their educational experience, including the city’s entire approach to admissions.

Students with the advocacy group Teens Take Charge shared their struggles to navigate a sometimes labyrinthine high school application process. They described arriving late and ill-prepared to an undertaking that favors middle-class students — and, in some cases, realizing that they were beneficiaries of the system’s shortcomings.

Their call for change went far beyond the adjustment that the Manhattan parents were protesting — to do away with the admissions exam for specialized high schools and instead admit the top students from all middle schools. The proposal is aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students at the sought-after high schools, and has generated debate, often bitter, since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his desire to change the process in June.

Most of the parents at the Manhattan meeting were white or Asian, while most of the Teens Take Charge students who spoke were black or Hispanic.

The contrast between the two events drew attention from Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who has written about segregation and her own family’s school choice experiences and who joined the teens in a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library.

“I wish these two groups could have been in the same room, so that the progressive parents arguing their already advantaged kids deserve exclusive access to the best public high schools in the city could look the children they would deny this same privilege to in the eyes,” Hannah-Jones tweeted.

We amplified the Manhattan parents’ voices on Monday. Now, here are selections from the speeches of the Teens Take Charge students. Their comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“It is always us … who are left behind” — Brianna Marquez, a junior at New Heights Academy Charter School in Manhattan

‘Are you sure? You know there are many students who have been studying for this test since last year and the summer.’ These were the words from my guidance counselor that rang in my head because like many students, I had some sort of hope that I could have a seat in a specialized high school.…

That’s what disappointed me the most: not being told the whole truth … Not being told that because of my economic status, I can’t have any sort of hope for a quality education. Not being told that many students who look like me — Latinx and black — barely get accepted to a specialized high school. That at Stuyvesant, my dream school, only 3 percent of students during that school year were Latinx, and only 1 percent were black.

It is always us  — Latinx and black students — who are left behind because either many of us aren’t encouraged or are limited because we are underestimated in the work we can do. So you’re telling me that countless nights of doing homework at 1 a.m. because I didn’t have a proper desk to work at during my middle school years isn’t hard work?

A few times a week for a couple of weeks, I would approach my eighth-grade algebra teacher to ask for help with the math section of the SHSAT because of the fear of being left behind or not being good enough to score high for this exam. Unfortunately, little did I know that I was already behind. This was math that I should have understood except I didn’t, because although I was one of the top students at my middle school, I didn’t have enough knowledge. I was never encouraged by an adult to strive to go somewhere such as Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. Instead, we were told to just transfer to a regular public high school.

I didn’t know what were the ‘good schools.’

“I often think about the friends I left behind” — Toby Paperno, a sophomore at Beacon High School in Manhattan

I’ll never forget opening my middle school acceptance letter. I had gotten into my fourth choice, while all my friends had gotten into my two top picks, the only two middle schools anyone in my white, middle-class neighborhood ever talked about.

There was a huge stigma attached to my middle school, due to it being the most diverse middle school in the district….My mother tried to switch me into one of my preferred schools. Because I had been given my IEP [an individual education program for students with special needs] on the last day of fifth grade, my grades weren’t an accurate reflection of my abilities….

At my new school, almost everyone was different from me. I didn’t know whom to make friends with. So, I did what was natural: I found my place with the eight kids in my grade with similar stories to mine.

In eighth grade, I had an amazing social studies teacher. He helped me appreciate the diversity in my middle school and get out of my comfort zone to make friends with kids throughout the whole grade.

Soon it was time to apply to high school. That spring, I stared with disbelief at my high school letter: I had gotten into Beacon, my top-choice school! Only two other kids in my school got into Beacon, even though many others had listed it as their top choice. How come we got in, and they didn’t? Then it dawned on me. We had someone to help us practice our interviews, parents who could help us with our portfolios and advocate for us.

My middle school had a high school that was filled with kids who didn’t get into schools like Beacon. It had even fewer resources than the middle school. The kids like me that went on to different high schools needed less support than the rest of the kids in my grade….

Now, I go to a school that provides me with every activity I could want, several music studios where I can play the drums whenever, a beautiful library, and a PTA that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

I often think about the friends I left behind at my old school, the kids who needed more but got less.

“I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for” — Gerardo Hernandez, a senior at Bronx Leadership Academy II

My parents were not born in the United States and they never graduated from high school. They went through financial instability and tragedy throughout their lives, and the conditions they lived through pushed them to immigrate to the United States. Navigating the education system was foreign to them.

In eighth grade I heard someone talking about the SHSAT — the ticket to better schools, schools where kids had their own books, multiple classes to choose from — but I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for. No one at my school encouraged me to prepare for it.

I landed at an unscreened public school in the Bronx. When I walked through the doors, I believed it would be a challenge  —  what I’d read about the school sounded great — but in reality I entered a high school that was performing below standards, where just one in seven students enters the school performing on grade level. I knew there were better schools, but I couldn’t transfer. I was trapped. So I had to make the most of what I was given. We got out of school at 3:15 p.m. I guess they thought the extra time would help us catch up. But we didn’t learn much. I tried striving for better with little to no guidance.  

Fortunately, during my freshman year of high school, I had the luxury of applying to and ultimately being accepted into … a free college prep program for low-income students…. I felt challenged  — for once  — but I also learned how far I was behind. Thus began the difficult task of trying to catch up to high schoolers attending specialized, affluent, or properly developed high schools. I felt vulnerable, confused, and a loss of self-worth…. [The college prep program] cultivated an environment where I could have intellectual conversations, collaborations that signified pushing each other to reach beyond our limits and build trust.  

Now I’m a senior and I am close to … applying for [college]. I plan to pursue computer science as my major, and I hope to double major in Engineering. But I’m ultimately disappointed there have to be programs like SEO Scholars, Opportunity Network, Minds Matter, One Goal,  Bottomline, Prep for Prep and so many more programs that have to help kids like me  — kids the inadequate education system has left behind. Because the reality is: for every one of me, there are nine more still left behind.

“For me, it was smooth sailing” — Coco Rhum, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan

When I was in first grade, I was assigned the task of writing about what I wanted to be when I was older. I wrote: ‘I have a dream that one day girls can be president. Because girls are just as good as boys. I am going to study to be the first girl president’.… My single mother, a Ph.D., both told and showed me that I could be my own boss, that the world was mine for the taking. My zip code landed me in an elementary school with abundant books and arts and friendly faces welcoming me each morning. My first grade teacher fostered my curiosity and love for learning and helped me to see that I could dream big ….

This same privilege that made me dream big in the first grade has led me to opportunities and advantages; I have taken AP classes, have had multiple internships, have played sports and participated in clubs, and have my own desk in an art studio in school … While many of my peers have been unjustly left behind, I have not. When I was born, my mother moved to District 15 in part because of its schools. I attended a lovely and well resourced elementary school. It was over 75 percent white — five times the city average. In middle school, my privilege … continued as I attended a screened school in District 15. My middle school was similarly coveted, and similarly well-resourced. It was almost 60 percent white. And then came high school.

New York City’s high school application process is notoriously complex. But for me, it was smooth sailing. I knew the “good” schools to apply to …. I knew how to speak thoughtfully about myself for my Beacon interview, how to unscramble a paragraph for the SHSAT, and I knew how to pirouette for my LaGuardia audition. I worked hard, but I had already been on a path that meant that I was advantaged. The public high school that I now go to, which, when I applied, had screens for grades and test scores, a portfolio submission, and an interview portion, has an acceptance rate that is lower than Harvard’s and an annual Parent Association budget that is nearly half a million dollars. It is 50 percent white….

At each of the three schools I’ve attended, less than 30 percent of students have qualified for free or reduced price lunch — in a system where 75 percent of students qualify. All of my schools have been majority white in a system where just 15 percent of kids are white. The New York City public school system is segregated, and its resources flow to schools like mine.

“Even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry” — Lennox Thomas, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy

As a young child, I lived by Malcolm X’s philosophy that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” My grandmother learned that to be armed with education was to have a defense against systematic oppression. Her mother, born in the deeply segregated south, was denied a proper education. My grandmother did not want this life for her, nor future generations to come.

So every day during my third grade year in elementary school, my grandmother, with her high-cheekbones, thick box glasses, and sandy brown hair, made sure I completed all my school work along with extra assignments. She hoarded vocabulary flashcards, Scholastic News articles, math workbooks, science dictionaries, and any other resource that had been given to her by one of my teachers, all of whom she befriended. I was so well prepared during my elementary years, that I could not fathom how several of my classmates were at risk of being held back for not understanding the curriculum. This same feeling of academic shock visited me once more four years later when it was time to open my high school admissions letter.

Like every other student in my gifted and talented middle school, I hoped to be among the small percentage of students who would get accepted into one of the prestigious specialized high schools. I had spent the last four months cramming for a single test that would determine if I would enter a free academic heaven where opportunities were endless, funding was abundant, and the number of classes were in the hundreds  — or an academic abyss where there were finite resources, rushed curricula, and short staffing.

When I opened my admissions letter and saw that the words “no acceptance” next to every single specialized high school I applied for, my heart sank. I was slumped for a few weeks and started to think that I was somehow inferior to my peers that got accepted. At that time, I didn’t know that the kids that I was competing against were preparing years in advance….

Education is the passport to the future. But what wasn’t told to me and millions of others is that just like a passport, if you’ve got money, you can pay to get it quicker. If you’re of a certain ethnicity, religion, or gender, it may be denied to you completely. And even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry to a country.

“Are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?” — Ayana Smith, a senior at University Heights High School in the Bronx

Perhaps the most infuriating argument I’ve heard is “black and Latinx students just don’t  work as hard as their white and Asian counterparts.”

My immediate reaction is always, ‘So, are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?’

Then, the person that I’m speaking to will usually retract their words to make an exception: “Well not you, Ayana. Your GPA is in the 90s, and your SAT score is a 1300.”

And, I mean, why wouldn’t they? In our education system, hard work is measured purely by results: numeric values that provide little insight on how hard a student truly worked. And, my stats fall above the national average for all races, so of course I must be more hardworking than my counterparts.

However, the truth is that I’m no more hardworking than the person sitting next to me because hard work is not always defined by being exceptional on paper. My peers do everything that they’re supposed to do: they attend office hours for tutoring, form study groups for the SAT, and spend more time than me studying outside of school.

But  no matter how much we study and prepare, we can only go as far as the limit allows us to … Unlike many of my classmates, I have received opportunities that they didn’t, opportunities designed to compensate for the faults within our education system. Because of this, I’m relied on by my peers to take on the role of a guidance counselor, instructor, and exam proctor.

I gave my old SAT prep books to my classmates who couldn’t afford them. I held mock Princeton Review SAT prep and tutored after school and during lunch. I sent emails outlining the essentials for the impending college application process, and I reviewed supplemental essays and personal statements. All because my school doesn’t have the resources to prepare students adequately for college entrance exams, and it doesn’t have staffing to accommodate the needs of all students: our guidance counselor serves 104 seniors, most of whom will be the first in their families to attend college.

“I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough” — Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Millennium Brooklyn

“Parents in my school didn’t know about the achievement gap” — Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan

Sophie: I’m from the Brooklyn of brownstones, bagel shops, bike lanes, and grassy parks.

Tiffani: Parks in my neighborhood are dangerous after five o’clock. There is no studying in the grass under the shining light of the afternoon sun with textbooks that cost a dollar a page, a dollar a page that could be spent on funding teachers who know what they’re talking about. When it comes to school, people in my neighborhood think it’s all the same – you’ll get a decent education wherever you go.

Sophie: Go to P.S. 8. It’s one of the best schools in the city. That’s what my parents were told. That’s why so many parents decided to move to Brooklyn Heights. And it paid off. P.S. 8 had it all: parent-funded art classes, electives galore, advanced classes, etc. But still I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough. They wanted more teachers with more degrees, smaller classes, bigger budgets, better resources.

Tiffani: Resources were always scarce. ‘I got my degree, I don’t need to be here,’ said the teachers who couldn’t understand our frustration, or whose frustrations overtook them, reminding us of that truth that they didn’t need to be there. So why were they?…

In my middle school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, we received our one minute of fame after being discovered by Humans of New York…. We were 99 percent black and Hispanic. We were constantly told that we were brilliant. That if we worked hard, we could do anything. That the possibilities were endless. That we were more than where we lived…. Cameras flashing, reporters asking, and money and donations and TED talks from our principal … but then … the cameras left.

Sophie: I have always been in a school with resources, a school with privilege. But many in our community complained that it still wasn’t enough: all they could see was what their child didn’t have….

Tiffani: Parents in my school did not know about the achievement gap. They did not have the knowledge nor the time to focus on what math books their children were getting, what their children’s drama teachers were doing — or if there were drama teachers. Instead, they had to focus on what they were going to feed their children, and what time they were going to take off of work to pick them up.

Hot Topic

Manhattan parents decry proposal designed to diversify city’s most sought-after high schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Attendees of a District 2 Community Education Council meeting listen as people speak out against a city plan to scrap the admissions test for specialized high schools.

Manhattan parents expressed outrage Monday night over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial plan to overhaul admissions at some of the most sought-after high schools in New York City.

At least 300 people attended District 2’s Community Education Council meeting, where Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack formally presented the city’s plan to get rid of the test that middle school students can take to gain admission to eight of the city’s specialized high schools.

In June, De Blasio announced his plan to phase out the test and instead guarantee a spot to the top 7 percent of students at every city middle school, using multiple measures including their GPAs and performance on state tests. Because the city’s middle schools are starkly segregated by race, the proposal would significantly increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students who are admitted. For the proposal to go through, it would require a change in state law.

Black or Hispanic students make up 10 percent of the enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools but represent almost 70 percent of students citywide. Critics have said basing admission on a single test advantages students who can afford test prep or are keenly aware of how important the exam is.

But many parents pushed back, including Asian families who have lobbied to keep the test (though one group supports getting rid of the exam). Asian students represent about 62 percent of students at the specialized high schools and just 16 percent citywide.

In District 2, the plan has sparked hot debate. The Manhattan district, which stretches from the Upper East Side and through Soho to Tribeca, enrolls just 8 percent of the city’s eighth graders but accounts for almost 13 percent of admissions to specialized high schools.

After Wallack’s presentation, at least 30 parents spoke out against the plan, cheered each other on and booed Wallack. When a parent asked the crowd to raise their hands if they supported the proposal, not a single hand was visible (though one parent did speak in support of the plan). Several parents argued the plan would offer admission to students who are not qualified for the schools’ rigorous curriculum.

According to education department projections, the plan would not significantly affect the average GPA and state test scores of admitted students. And even among selective public high schools nationwide, the reliance of the city’s specialized high schools on a single, high-stakes exam for admission is highly unusual and has contributed, critics say, to New York City’s being one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

Others, who acknowledged how segregated the system is, urged more investment in black and Hispanic students to improve their academic opportunities and characterized the plan as a well-intended proposal that will flop. Some said the plan will create a “snake pit” among middle schoolers, who will resort to vicious competition.

“Put yourself in the place of the black and Hispanic kids who are there because of counting methods,” said Jon Haidt, a professor of social psychology at New York University, who has a seventh-grader at The New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies.

Alan Siegel, also an NYU professor of computer science, said, “You people are proposing a grand experiment on our children.”

The continued backlash against the plan shows just how challenging the fight will be for de Blasio, who has only recently pushed for admission changes at specialized schools despite promising to do so when he first ran for mayor. Key officials, including local politicians and union leaders have not lined up in support, and it’s unclear whether state lawmakers will get behind the plan.

Wallack repeated the city’s intention for the proposal in between clusters of speakers, at one point saying, “We all share the same goals, and no one, of course, is trying to create a plan that will set students up to fail.” One parent yelled out, “Liar,” a couple of times in response. Another parent repeatedly shouted that the test is a fair solution. The meeting, which started at 6:30 p.m., lasted until 10 p.m — because the meeting space was reserved until then.

Even the Community Education Council was split on the issue. Vice President Maud Maron proposed a resolution that, in part, asks the city education department to pull its support of the proposal and allow more community engagement before anything goes forward. The language is sharply critical of the plan, a view some members of the council didn’t appear to share.

Although Maron found some support, others thought the language problematic. Council member Eric Goldberg said he heard “insane obsessions with selection and assessment” during the meeting, and that he didn’t want to vote for something that “denies the essential truth that we have a segregated school system.”

With a 5-5 tie vote, the resolution did not pass.

Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.