High-tech tool

Exclusive: Education department launches interactive high school directory

"School Finder" is the Department of Education's new, interactive high school directory.

The bulky, paperback high school directory that New York City students have carried home for years is now accessible on a smartphone. The city’s Department of Education just launched a new, interactive directory called “School Finder” for the 2017-18 school year.

Traditionally, the printed directory has been a key tool for students sorting through the more than 400 public high schools across New York City. It allows students to learn which programs each school offers, check metrics like student attendance, and figure out how to apply.

While the old directory was online as a PDF, the new site, which you can view here, has a search bar where students can input a school name or borough. They can break down their results by distance, admissions method, school size or eligibility rules (such as whether a school is only for males or females). Students can also “favorite” schools of interest, which saves the school name at the bottom of the website.

“It’s a priority for us at the Department of Education to make the enrollment process easier for families,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. “That’s really a part of Equity and Excellence [the mayor’s education agenda], ensuring that families have access to quality information in as easy a way as possible so they can make the best choices for their kids.”

Aside from the basics, the site also allows students to drill down into more specific interests, by searching words like “soccer,” for example, or “advanced placement” to find the school descriptions that reference them. But it does not enable students to sort by performance indicators like high graduation rates or test scores, or to look for schools that accept students with particular academic credentials.

What a search looks like under "School Finder," the department of education's new, interactive high school directory.
What a search looks like under “School Finder,” the Department of Education’s new, interactive high school directory.

Ultimately, the tool is a sleek and easily navigable version of the current high school directory, said Clara Hemphill, founder of the school-review website Insideschools, whose team offered the department feedback on the site. (The final version also provides links to Insideschools reviews.) Yet, School Finder does little to solve the myriad problems created by the complicated high school admissions process.

“Essentially, what you’re doing here is putting the high school directory on a phone. If that’s what you’re trying to do, I think they did a good job with it,” Hemphill said. “If you’re trying to make an extremely complex high school admissions process easier, that’s another job for another day.”

School Finder has some of the same problems as the old directory, such as high schools submitting incomplete information. For instance, Manhattan Hunter Science requires a personal essay for admission, but that is not listed in either the PDF or interactive directory.

The new tool also has little if any information about high school open houses, though it includes a link to an admissions events calendar on the bottom of the home screen. As Chalkbeat reported last week, attendance at open houses is sometimes factored into admissions decisions by schools, and other times provides key information about a competitive school.

The site is still being tested, and the Department of Education welcomes feedback on how to improve it, Wallack said, including being notified of any missing details. One of the department’s first tasks is to make the tool available in more languages. Currently, it’s only in English and Spanish.

While the School Finder requires a smartphone or computer, Wallack said that students without internet access at home will be able to access it at their schools. It will also make life easier for the guidance counselors who advise them, he noted.

“It’s a beta,” Wallack said. “It will continue to evolve and we’re continuing to raise funds to develop it further.”

now hiring

Wanted: An enrollment chief who can help New York City meet its school diversity goals

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

The education department is in the market for a high-level official who will oversee enrollment decisions with an eye toward diversity.

Rob Sanft, who has led the Office of Student Enrollment for the last seven years, is stepping down. His replacement will be responsible for helping Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department implement a plan, released last June, to boost school diversity.

The senior executive director of enrollment “will be expected to drive forward the vision of school diversity, in collaboration with other DOE offices,” according to the listing.

The enrollment chief has already been central to the city’s diversity initiatives. Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in a statement that Sanft has already worked to end limited unscreened high school admissions, which can present barriers to students, and to change the way students are assigned to middle schools. Both were moves laid out in the city’s diversity plan.

“He has led reforms that make student enrollment easier and more equitable for hundreds of thousands of families every year,” Wallack said.

As more of the city’s diversity initiatives get off the ground, Wallack said integration issues will comprise an even larger role for the new enrollment chief. That only adds to the enormous responsibility of the office, which handles the city’s complicated high school admissions process and competitive gifted and talented program.

Integration advocates have called on the Department of Education to put a high-ranking official in charge of desegregation efforts. While that has yet to happen, Matt Gonzales, who heads integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed, found the city’s job posting encouraging.

“I think the fact that DOE is embedding a priority towards diversity into the job description of such an important role signifies a real investment in this work,” Gonzales wrote in an email.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, said advocates will keep an eye on who ultimately gets tapped for the position.

“Before we declare victory,” he wrote in an email, “I am curious about their background, their diversity status, their commitments to equity and integration, their willingness to work with the broader community to resolve issues.”

one barrier down

City to eliminate high school admissions method that favored families with time and resources

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.

“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.

The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.

City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.

“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”

There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.

Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)

As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.

The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.

But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.

“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”

Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.

Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.

While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.

Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.

“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.

In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”

“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.

In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.

Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.

But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.

“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”