barriers to entry

Open houses and closed doors: How the first step toward high school can become a stumbling block

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Ruby Bromberg stares at her computer at her home in the West Village.

One day last fall, Ruby Bromberg rushed to her computer and frantically began refreshing the page to see when Bard High School Early College — a high-performing public school in Manhattan — would post its open house registration. When the site went live, she clicked through as fast as she could and snagged a coveted seat.

It’s a good thing she moved so quickly.

When she arrived at the school’s open house, she learned the slots had filled up in less than 15 minutes — and the principal welcomed students by cracking a joke about it.

“Congrats, this open house is harder to get into than ‘Hamilton,’” the principal quipped to the room, recalled Ruby, now a rising ninth-grader at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College. Everyone laughed, she said.

Ruby knew to be at her computer to sign up at precisely the right time because her family paid $150 for a service called High School 411. The service sends email updates with information and reminders about coveted open house slots. Without it, the website says, “families are left in the dark and on their own.”

That’s exactly how many city students feel when they’re applying to high school, a process that starts with attending open houses, a crucial first step. In some cases, the information sessions count toward admission. In others, they provide key information about a competitive school. But getting to them requires time, resources and flexibility many families don’t have.

Students like Ruby, who can supplement the city’s confusing system with a private service like High School 411 and ample family support, are in the best position. Those without such help face a much greater challenge.

“This is a very opaque process,” said Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York, a program that helps low-income students through the high school admissions process. “Though there’s this illusion of meritocracy, it certainly advantages those who know how to work the system.”

WHY DO OPEN HOUSES MATTER?

At many city schools, attending information sessions helps determine whether you get admitted. The roughly 231 high schools with what are known as “limited unscreened” programs cannot, under Department of Education rules, consider factors like a student’s grades, state test scores, or attendance record. But they can take into account whether he or she “demonstrated interest” by attending an information session or signing in at a high school fair.

There is a weekend-long citywide high school fair held in late September in Brooklyn, and individual borough fairs during one weekend in October. Students are supposed to be allowed to sign in at these fairs and have that counted as “demonstrated interest,” but critics say that not all schools attend the fairs, and there is no way to track whether those sign-ups count.

A Department of Education spokesman said limited unscreened schools input their own list of students who have signed in at both high school fairs and information sessions. He also said high schools are “encouraged” to present at the fairs, but did not say they are required to do so.

A high school fair at Brooklyn Technical HIgh School.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
A high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

At the most competitive of the limited unscreened schools, getting priority is virtually essential. At Pace High School in Manhattan, for example, where there are 36 applicants per seat, 100% of admitted students attended an open house or school fair. The same is true for New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, which has about 20 students vying for each seat in its law and government program.

At the 157 city schools with “screened” programs, the process is murkier. These schools can judge admissions based on a number of factors, including test scores, interviews and writing samples. Some screened schools do not weigh open-house attendance in admissions decisions, but others, including Manhattan Village Academy, which has 40 students vying for each seat, do include “demonstrated interest” in their selection criteria.

Even for those that don’t officially count student visits, a highly competitive open house process means some prospective students never get a chance to see the school.

“It’s a very disconcerting system. We are stretched to our limits. We can’t do more open houses than we are doing,” said the principal of Bard Manhattan, Michael Lerner, who said his schools host several packed open houses, but can’t accommodate all the students who are interested in attending. “We do the best we can, but it pains me every year.”

Parents who have attended information sessions describe them as extremely helpful. The tours give attendees a feel for the school and school staff are on hand to explain and clarify how to apply, said Meeta Gandhi, the mother of a rising eighth-grader who attended some open houses last spring.

She is also skeptical that schools claiming they don’t track open-house attendance fully ignore it. In fact, Gandhi said she got the opposite message at her screened school tours last spring.

“They would say, ‘Be sure to sign in. It helps us know that you were here,’” she said.

NAVIGATING THE MAZE

Going to open houses requires figuring out when and where they are — which can be a complicated and time-consuming task.

Details about information sessions are supposed to be compiled on the Department of Education’s online “Admissions Events Calendar,” introduced in 2015. But so far this year, the calendar is incomplete.

A Chalkbeat survey of 50 high schools spread over the five boroughs found that only 26 of the schools had listed information sessions on the calendar this year, despite the fact that schools were asked to submit the dates by July 14. A review of 50 “limited unscreened” schools, all of which consider open-house attendance in admissions, yielded only 19 information sessions.

The city recently extended the deadline for schools to submit their open-house dates until Sept. 9. That means more dates will be added throughout the fall, but that does not help families who want to plan ahead, or those without a computer at home. And the process is underway: Some of the information sessions are in early September or have already passed.

"Congrats, this open house is harder to get into than 'Hamilton.'"Bard Manhattan Principal Michael Lerner

“We encourage students and families to visit citywide and borough-wide high school fairs, where they can learn more about hundreds of high school choices and receive priority in admissions by signing a particular school’s list,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell. “We’ll continue to work with families and educators to make the high school admissions process easier and more equitable.”

He added that the city will continue to work with schools to post and update their information. The Department of Education has also launched an email service to inform parents of key deadlines and resources. Plus, parents and students can sync their Google calendars to the DOE’s list of open houses.

But online innovations bypass a more basic tool still used by families: the New York City High School Directory, said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. He pointed out that few if any open houses are listed in this year’s printed directory, though there have been far more in the past.

“In certain parts of the city, they have no idea [about open houses]. What they do know is they were given a directory to take home over the summer and that’s your bible,” Frumkin said. “That’s the true equalizer. Beyond that, a lot of it depends on how savvy your counselors are, how engaged your parents are, word of mouth.”

Even if the online calendar did contain all open house dates, it has another problem: Many people don’t know that it exists or question whether it is reliable.

"Though there’s this illusion of meritocracy, it certainly advantages those who know how to work the system."Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York

Wong of Breakthrough New York, whose job it is to help students through the process, had not heard of the tool. Elissa Stein, who runs the 411 service, sent the calendar to her listserv with a warning.

“It’s a lovely start, except that it’s incomplete,” she wrote. “So, I suggest taking this with a grain of salt and always double-check on things.”

In reality, finding out about open houses requires visiting a variety of individual school websites. Some of them aren’t posted in a timely fashion and require a call to the school. That leaves groups scrambling over the summer to put together makeshift calendars.

Wong said she put her interns to work compiling a calendar. The process took a “solid week of full-time work.” At the school’s suggestion, Gandhi and a group of parents at her middle school divided up the duties amongst themselves, with each parent taking responsibility for six schools.

The whole process is more challenging for those who don’t speak English fluently or who don’t have access to a computer, Wong said.

“Primarily, it’s really just a question of time and navigation,” she said. “If I am a family who may not necessarily have access to information, or have the skill set to do research or even the time to do research, that’s going to be a disadvantage for me.”

THE SIGN-UP RACE

Bard is not the only screened school with a competitive open house sign-up process. Other elite public schools, like Eleanor Roosevelt on the Upper East Side, also use an online registration system for school visits. That one went live in the middle of Labor Day weekend.

At Beacon, another selective public school in Manhattan, there is no registration before the actual day of the open house. For Ruby, that meant knowing to show up hours early to get a spot in line with a blanket and snacks.

In middle- and upper middle-class circles, these open house tricks and rules are well-known. Jo Goldfarb, whose daughter is a fifth-grade student from Park Slope, attended a high school information session at NYU this summer. She said she remembers the fall when some of her friends were going through the process.

“All my mom friends, I asked them out for drinks,” she said. “And they said no, they had to be online. They were all tied to their computers.”

Being on top of this information quickly, like Goldfarb’s friends, is essential. High School 411 founder Stein said that almost all of these online registrations will “sell out.” Even starting in eighth grade can be too late. At the recent information session at NYU, the majority of parents who came to learn about the process had children in seventh grade. Two had children in fifth grade.

To get a jump-start on the process — and to allow enough time to make it through a long list of schools — many parents start touring schools in the spring of their child’s seventh-grade year.

For some lower-income students, the process couldn’t be more different. Yahayra Colon, a current college freshman from Washington Heights, said she did not realize the importance of the process while she was going through it. She didn’t go to any open houses — let alone participate in the sign-up race at the more competitive schools.

Yahayra Colon standing with her AP Literature teacher Peter Lopez, at her graduation from Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem.

Even though she was one of her middle school’s top students academically, she said, she didn’t pay much attention to the process.

“I was not super engaged,” Colon said. “I didn’t have the support to go visit these schools, to sit in at these schools.”

She ended up getting into the Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan, which she had no interest in attending. So, she entered the second round of high school admissions and was accepted at the High School for Media and Communications, a relatively low-performing school that had a 56 percent graduation rate in 2015.

The school was so scary and disappointing to her that she left after less than three weeks and went to a Catholic school instead. Her mom, a single mother and social worker, started working a second job to pay for it. The process “broke my heart,” Colon said. She ultimately transferred again, and again, before graduating from Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem and starting at SUNY Oneonta this fall.

ARE WE THERE YET?

In the event that parents manage to figure out when information sessions are, snag a seat at the competitive ones, and map out a jam-packed fall schedule, there’s one more obstacle standing in their way: Actually getting there.

Many of the school visits are held on weekdays, during the day, so for many parents that means taking substantial time off work. Ruby’s mom took about 10 half-days off to tour open houses with her daughter last fall, she said. And she only has the flexibility to do so because she owns her own company.

Colon said her mother’s job as a social worker was one of the main reasons she never visited schools.

“She couldn’t leave work to take me to a high school to visit. There was no time to kill,” Colon said. “My mom had to support me and my sister. There are bills to pay.” Her father was not in the picture, she said.

To make matters worse for many students, open houses at the city’s most competitive schools that factor open-house attendance into admissions are mainly in Manhattan and the Bronx — a far distance to travel from outer boroughs like Queens and Staten Island.

An analysis by Insideschools found that it could take a student leaving his or her middle school as long as 20 hours to reach the open houses at these competitive schools. Below you’ll find a breakdown of the average travel time by borough.

Average commute time to the most competitive high schools houses that consider open houses in admissions. Data and analysis provided by Nicole Mader at Insideschools, a project of the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School
Average commute time to the most competitive high schools that consider open houses in admissions. Data and analysis provided by Nicole Mader at Insideschools, a project of the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School.

The most competitive limited unscreened school, Pace High School, is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so it takes at least an hour to travel there from East New York or the Bronx, but less time from anywhere in Manhattan.

The most competitive screened school that considers open-house attendance in admissions, Manhattan Village Academy, is located in Midtown. As of last year, it required students to come with an an adult — an added hardship for students whose parents work.

The combination of hurdles limits the choices of some students and makes life difficult for others. That’s why Stein decided to help some parents through the process by starting her business.

“They call it a choice system, but in many ways it’s not,” Stein said. “There’s this illusion as to what this system is, but the reality is very different.”

Education Gap

For Michigan’s 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs, ‘it’s hard’ to find a place to learn

PHOTO: Daniel Jones
Nicole and Shaun Maloy want their son, Alexander, 3, (sitting on his dad's lap) to have the same access to education as his five siblings.

Nicole Maloy has been trying to get her son Alexander into a preschool that can address his speech delay since the day he turned 3.

When he was younger, he was in a program called Early On that works with babies and toddlers who have special needs. When he’s older, he’ll be in a kindergarten program where teachers will be required by law to make sure he gets what he needs.

But right now he’s 3 and, in Michigan, there’s no clear path for parents trying to get special services for their 3- and 4-year olds.

That’s because the state’s lumbering process for transitioning 3-year-olds with special needs and disabilities into early childhood intervention programs is rife with miscommunication, lack of easily accessible information, and a shortage of spaces for 3- and 4-year-olds.

For the state’s estimated 13,000 preschoolers with special needs, it’s more difficult for parents to find places that will accept their children than it is for other preschoolers, said Richard Lower, the state’s director of preschool education.

In fact, there is a shortage of spots for all the state’s preschoolers. But “when you have a subset of 3-year-olds with disabilities, it’s even harder for them to find care,” said Lower. “It’s not impossible, but it’s hard.” Early On is the state’s early intervention program for children with special needs from birth to 36 months.

Parents often are confused by the options, or they just don’t know what the options are.

Experts and advocates call this time between Early On and kindergarten a gap – the lack of adequate seats, services, and widely available education for 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs.

There is no one program in Michigan that will accept all 3- or 4-year-olds regardless of the severity of their disability. Depending on eligibility and availability, parents can opt for the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, and the federal Head Start program, which accepts 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs regardless of income.

The local district can help evaluate a child with special needs, obtain a diagnosis, and place the child.  

Parents are desperate for better resources to figure out how to best help their children obtain the critical early education they need to be kindergarten ready. Studies show that the impact of early education extends through their lifetime, determining kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading proficiency, school attendance, high school graduation rates, and even income-earning potential in adulthood.

As they grow older, children with special needs who successfully receive early intervention services may not need to be in special education classes in school, studies show. Early On, at its best, reduces the number of children who need special education services when they reach school age.

A recent annual federal education report ranked Michigan among the nation’s worst for serving children with special needs starting at age 3, and said the state “needs intervention,” the second lowest ranking in the report. That, combined with a special report from Lt. Gov. Brian Cally’s office last year that found schools are shouldering $700 million a year to pay for services for children with special needs that are not funded by the state, contribute to mounting evidence that Michigan is failing children with special needs.

Although  Gov. Rick Snyder successfully pushed to include an extra $5 million for Early On in next year’s state budget, no new funds were added for children older than 3.

“This is a statewide issue,” said Marcie Lipsitt, a parent advocate and consultant who helps families in southeastern Michigan navigate the complex special education system.

“There just isn’t enough support or funding for families of children with special needs,” she said. We need more capacity and more outreach for families.”

Lipsitt and other advocates said although systems already are in place, obtaining a transition plan from Early On or a local district often is where the system breaks down.

If a child is enrolled in Early On, district staff called coordinators help parents develop a transition plan to enroll their children in preschool, but it’s up to the parents to make sure the meeting happens.

The meeting is crucial, because coordinators also work with parents to set up appointments with therapists, doctors, and specialists.

Caryn Ivey, a parent advocate and co-director of Michigan Alliance for Families, said an array of issues may arise during the process that leave parents confused.

Some parents skip the transition meeting because they don’t understand its importance, she said. Parents may not understand the plan. Others don’t act quickly enough after the meeting; waiting for benchmarks like a formal evaluation and a diagnosis can take time, sometimes months.

If the child is not enrolled in Early On, parents should contact their local or intermediate school district. The process is similar. The district would help create an IEP, or an individualized education program for the child. The IEP describes  any services, accommodations, or therapies the child may need. District staff would also help get a diagnosis for the child, and then take steps to enroll the child in preschool.

To prevent delays, Ivey advises parents to speak to their home school district as soon as possible.

“That could be as simple as writing a letter to the home school district and asking a question: ‘My child just finished Early On, what should I do?’ ” she said.

This helps explain why Maloy’s struggle is not unusual. Before it was time for Alexander to graduate from Early On, she met with a transition coordinator in Detroit’s main district — a meeting all parents in the program should expect to happen six months before the child’s third birthday.

Alexander doesn’t have a formal diagnosis for his suspected autism and delayed speech. But Maloy’s coordinator scheduled appointments with specialists to evaluate him, and set up his education plan to accommodate his special needs. Maloy followed through on the appointments and received his individualized plan, but the Detroit school district doesn’t have a summer preschool program.  Maloy must wait until fall to enroll him, leaving at least a five-month gap in his education.

Also, to enroll him, she needs a diagnosis, which so far she said she hasn’t been able to get. Although some specialists she spoke with were hesitant to diagnose Alexander before his fourth birthday, others shared he could have been diagnosed as early as 18 months.

In the midst of this, Maloy feels her son is losing valuable time.

“I really want him to go somewhere as soon as possible so he can get the help that he needs,” she said.

Maloy thought the process would be faster and her son would be in school by now. While she waits for school to start in the fall, she is homeschooling Alexander and investigating other options for care.

She, like many parents with children who have disabilities, didn’t know Head Start was an option.

Head Start, a free federally funded program for children from low-income families, will accept children with special needs no matter their income. That means it may be a good choice for families who need a slot for their young sons and daughters.

In Head Start, children with special needs attend classes with other students, and they are given a formal assessment and a diagnosis soon after they apply for admission. While other parents may wait indefinitely, it typically takes up to two months at Head Start, saving parents time, and ensuring that necessary steps aren’t overlooked.

“We want to serve those children,” said Kate Brady-Medley, director of Head Start and Early Head Start for Starfish Family Services. Starfish is a social service agency that leads a collaborative of Detroit Head Start providers. Studies on Head Start show the program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

“We have a federal mandate, and we’re trying always to have at least 10 percent of the children in our program have an identified, documented disability,” she said.

Children can miss valuable early intervention in school for a variety of reasons.

Stephanie Onyx successfully enrolled her daughter, Alexa, in preschool in her home district of Madison Heights with no disruptions, right after she graduated from Early On.

Alexis gets tickled by parents, Art and Stephanie Onyx, with brother Drew behind them.

But she pulled Alexa out of the program after the first year because she was dissatisfied with its quality. Onyx was confident it would be easy to enroll Alexa in another program.

It wasn’t so easy.

Several districts turned Alexa away because they considered her disabilities — cerebral palsy, low muscle tone, and inability to speak — too severe.

“Nobody would take her, and it was heartbreaking in this day and age,” Onyx said. “They had special education programs that had openings, but they wouldn’t take her.”

By law, school districts within the same county have to accept children with special needs – no matter how severe the disability is – but when parents don’t know the law and can’t afford an attorney – this happens often, advocate Lipsitt said.

“When a parent makes a request, legally the school district has to request the parents consent for an evaluation or give the parents a reason they are refusing an evaluation,” she said.

If Onyx had made a formal written request for an evaluation and allowed a district to deny her in writing, Lipsitt said, she could have taken legal action.

Making the request is as  simple as saying in a note to the district: ‘I am the parent of this child, and I am requesting a special education evaluation,’ ” and there is a 10-school-day time limit on that, ” she said.

When Onyx wasn’t able to get her daughter into a preschool, she gave up and homeschooled Alexa. The disadvantage of missing precious preschool time with other children became evident when Alexa, now 7, finally was accepted into kindergarten in the Troy district.

After a year of being homeschooled, she was not socially or emotionally prepared to attend school with her peers.

“That first year was a struggle — the entire year,” Onyx said. “We had a lot of meltdowns when she couldn’t get her way.”

Now, after just completing first grade, Onyx said Alexa is doing better and has fewer tantrums, but she still needs more time to catch up.

“She is able to learn and grow. She is able to progress,” Onyx said. “I knew that once in a program, she would progress, and I also know that she would be even further ahead had she been given that opportunity.”

New options could be opening for parents of 3-year-olds with special needs in the future, said Lower, the state’s director for preschool.

For the past few years under the Snyder administration, Lower said he’s researched and discussed with state legislators the possibility of expanding the Great Start Readiness Program, including possibly expanding it to 3-year-olds.

But it all comes down to money, he said.

If all the state’s 68,000 3-year-olds who fall at least 250 percent below the federal poverty level were included in such a program, and funding was calculated at the current per pupil rate of $7,250 for a 6- to 7-hour school day, the annual cost would be at least $493 million, he said.

That figure doesn’t factor in additional costs, including a required 1-to-6 teacher-student ratio, time for meal preparation, brushing teeth, and other activities throughout the school day that add costs to providing care for 3-year-olds.

Lower said a bigger investment in education is needed to increase the number of 3-year-olds in school.

“It’s a complex system that is not as fully developed as K-12, and it’s still being built in early childhood education. There are pieces that are great and high quality, and other pieces that are not as highly developed.”

sorting the students

How one Manhattan district has preserved its own set of elite high schools

Emmanuel Ruiz stands outside near his high school.

When Emmanuel Ruiz cracked open the city’s 600-page high school directory, he was in search of a school with a strong academic track where he could pursue math and technology. After careful consideration, the promising Brooklyn student selected his 12 favorites.

But when he handed the list to his advisor at Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics — a program for students interested in becoming scientists, engineers, and computer scientists — she immediately spotted a problem.

One of the schools on Ruiz’s list was Eleanor Roosevelt, which almost exclusively enrolls residents from Manhattan’s District 2, one of the most affluent school districts in the city. Ruiz, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, had virtually no shot at attending because of where he lived.

“I was very confused and angry because I was trying to put down as many good schools as possible,” said Ruiz, who is now a sophomore at Manhattan Village Academy. “I thought, now it’s going to be hard to find another school that I really like.”

A charged debate about New York City’s elite specialized high schools, which admit students based on a single test and enroll a low share of black and Hispanic students, has blown open in recent days after Mayor de Blasio proposed changes to their admissions process. But the laser focus on these eight schools leaves out hundreds of other schools and programs across the system whose policies also segregate students by race and class.

The exclusivity starts in elementary school, with gifted and talented programs, and runs through middle school, with highly selective screened programs. By the time students get to high school, about one third of the city’s more than 400 high schools pick students based on grades, test scores, interviews, auditions, or other factors.

But critics say the rule Ruiz encountered in Manhattan’s District 2 is particularly frustrating because it excludes large swaths of students, even if they have excellent academic records. The district, which spans the wealthy neighborhoods of the Upper East Side, SoHo, and TriBeCa, is home to six sought-after and highly selective high schools, all of which have near-perfect graduation rates.

But while most of the schools receive thousands of applicants a year, they give preference to students who live or attend school inside the relatively affluent district, meaning the most popular options rarely have room for students from surrounding, less wealthy neighborhoods. For instance, at Eleanor Roosevelt, 100 percent of offers last year went to students or residents from District 2 and at Baruch, 98 percent of offers did. The rule, critics say, seriously undermines the idea that students can apply to any high school in the city regardless of their ZIP code.

This set of schools is also significantly more likely to exclude black, Hispanic, and poor students. At schools with the District 2 admissions preference that are highly selective, 26 percent of students are black or Hispanic compared to 47 percent in the district as a whole and 67 percent citywide. Similarly, only 41 percent of students at these schools live in poverty compared to 74 percent of overall city students.

 

The six schools included were Baruch College Campus High School, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies, N.Y.C. Museum School, Millennium High School and School of the Future. Millennium High School offers priority to students who live or attend school south of East Houston or West Houston Street. School of the Future offers priority to continuing 8th graders and then to District 2 students or residents. (Graphics by Sam Park)

 

Supporters of District 2’s geographic priority argue that different types of geographic priorities exist in communities across the city because it is important to have neighborhood schools. Others say that removing the priority status would benefit very few students and fail to put a true dent in a deeply segregated school system but it would anger a group of well-connected middle-class parents. These advocates say the real cause of the unequal system is not a single priority status at the six schools, but rather allowing schools to select students by ability in the first place.

But the policy is confounding to those who work with high-achieving students from low-income areas in other parts of the city.

“It seems illogical that a district that already has such a wealth of resources is preventing students from lower-income areas from getting into these great high schools,” said Lynn Cartwright-Punnett, Ruiz’s advisor at BEAM. “From a big picture, what’s best for all children perspective, this doesn’t make any sense.”

***

The geographic priority in District 2, experts say, grew out of an attempt by officials to attract more middle-class families to public schools after years of decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These families, officials reasoned, could draw resources into a system badly in need of a turnaround. In order to attract them, officials in District 2 started creating new alternative school options, said Jacqueline Ancess, who was the director of educational options in District 2 at the time and now runs a research center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Middle-class families in the public school system were at a low and this definitely brought more middle-class families into the schools,” Ancess said.

Throughout the 90s, more middle-class or affluent families started to enroll their children in Manhattan’s public schools. But when they reached high school, these families hit a snag: there were not enough high-quality options in the district, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of the school review site InsideSchools.

“There was a general sense that the high schools that were controlled by central were not offering kids the chance for a college prep curriculum and honestly weren’t even safe at the time,” Hemphill said.

The community school board in District 2 decided to take matters into its own hands and create high schools for students in the district.

One such school was Eleanor Roosevelt, which Upper East Side parents and then city councilmember Eva Moskowitz, now the CEO of Success Academy charter network pushed for. The debate was racially charged even back in 2001 when the school was approved. Upper East Side parents wanted an even more restrictive school zone that would have included families that lived east of Central Park between 59th and 96th streets. But officials feared that, since the population in those neighborhoods was overwhelmingly white, the plan would be challenged by civil rights groups, according to a New York Times article.

Not long after, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to turn the entire high school admissions system on its head. In 2003, the administration decided students would no longer have access to a neighborhood high school they could attend by default. Instead, all students would apply to up to 12 schools and get matched to one.

But beneath this system of school choice, the city preserved a series of admissions rules that allowed students in certain areas of the city to have a leg up in admissions at schools in their neighborhoods. Some gave preference to students who lived in boroughs, districts, or even within particular streets.

Many of those priorities have survived until today — including preference in District 2. By the city’s count, there are 50 high schools that prioritize in-district students, a number that includes schools that specify students must live within certain streets. There are also an additional 28 zoned schools that set aside some seats for students from surrounding neighborhoods. These schools vary dramatically in selectivity and popularity.

Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for the education department during the Bloomberg era, said that it wasn’t a top priority to get rid of geographic preferences when Bloomberg revamped high school admissions. That’s partially because their model of school change required keeping middle-class families in the schools, he said.

“Their goal was to retain the middle class and this was their strategy for doing it,” he said. “I think where we erred was that we created an even more segregated school system.”

***

Years later, the education department has still not changed its stance on District 2 priority or many other geographic priorities, though officials did not rule out changes in the future.

“School communities should be inclusive learning environments that are representative of New York City, and we’re continuing to look at ways to make the high school admissions process fairer for all families in District 2 and across the City,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen.

Education department officials also noted that the schools have historically prioritized in-district students because there are no zoned high schools in Manhattan.

Even the principal at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Dimitri Saliani, seems open to the discussion about how to change admissions in the city.

“I am in full support for the continued conversation of how we can address important issues related to admissions,” Saliani wrote to Chalkbeat in an email.

Several advocates and parents say that while the city’s high school admissions system needs to be overhauled, eliminating District 2 priority is not the way to do it. For instance, Nadelstern argues that tackling District 2 priority early on in a broader plan to desegregate schools could backfire and cause middle-class parents to pull their children from the public school system.

“What you can’t do in a city like New York is throw down the gauntlet in front of a politically powerful, organized parent group and expect to retain middle-class participation in the public schools,” Nadelstern said.

Other critics argue that geographic priority like that in District 2 isn’t the largest culprit in the stratified school system — sorting students by ability is. At many of these schools, even with the priority given in the district, students need near-perfect grades and test scores to earn admission. Since selective admission tends to favor affluent white students, nothing major can change until this “screening” mechanism is tackled, said Shino Tanikawa, vice president of the District 2 Community Education Council.

Eric Goldberg, another member of District 2’s Community Education Council, who is also the parent of a seventh-grade student, said he understands the benefits of having some neighborhood high schools, including having a community hub and lessening the travel burden for students. Goldberg agrees with Tanikawa that changing admissions at this small number of schools is not likely to make a major dent in school diversity without an overhaul of other admissions criteria.

“If we’re looking at this through a lens of diversity and integration,” Goldberg said, “I’m confident that we’re not looking in the right place.”

But to advocates and those who work with students in areas like the Bronx and Brooklyn — where many would have a short commute to some of the most coveted schools but can’t get accepted due to the geographic rule these explanations ring hollow. In a system built on school choice, giving students from every neighborhood a chance to attend the best schools in the city seems like a no-brainer to Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Frumkin said. “If you’re creating a truly equitable process, you can’t say, ‘Well, we’re creating a choice process and allowing families to apply anywhere they want … but by the way, we’re not truly allowing families to do that.”

In the meantime, students like Ruiz are being blocked from the schools based on their home ZIP code. Before he knew about the rule, Ruiz said he assumed that the population of a school uptown in Manhattan would be different than where he lives. But the admissions process made him feel like he wasn’t welcome there, he said.

“I’m just not fit to go to that school,” he said he realized. “It did come across as very unfair. I don’t think it should be like that.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Shino Tanikawa is the vice president, not the president, of the District 2 Community Education Council.