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.”

college prep

One Jeffco program is taking on a big problem: Many low-income students accepted to college never attend

Jefferson graduates take a personality test to prepare for their first day of classes at Red Rocks Community College. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

On a recent evening, a dozen 2017 graduates of Edgewater’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School were back at their alma mater, split into small groups at tables in the school library.

Community volunteers walked through a “pre-college checklist” with tips about paying tuition online, buying books and getting a student number. Most had already done all of those things.

There was even a personality test — designed to help the students get in touch with the traits that could help or hurt their chances of college success.

This mentorship program, in its first year, is designed to address a problem that often flies under the radar in the discussion about increasing college access: nationally, 40 percent of low-income students who have been accepted to college don’t show up to the first day, studies show.  

Many Jefferson students will be the first in their families to attend college, said Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, which is running the mentorship program. Their parents might not have had any exposure to the process before, he said, rendering them easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of steps necessary to enroll at school.

“We have a high number of students that leave saying they’re going to college and a low number that actually go,” said Nathan Chamberlain, a counselor at Jefferson.

The program began in the fall and picked up again in June with a week of sessions including college visits, placement test preparation and other resources to help Jefferson’s college-bound seniors.

Edgewater Collective has held monthly mentoring sessions since, inviting community members and school staff to help students with tasks such as getting ID cards and registering for classes.

“The big thing we’ve noticed this summer in just kind of walking alongside students through this process is that a number of the roadblocks that pop up would be hard if we weren’t walking alongside them,” Newton said.

In the program’s first year, Newton said about half of Jefferson’s college-bound seniors participated. He said he hopes to expand the program to include not only more students continuing their academic careers, but also provide career readiness training.

“We did a lot of this on the fly,” said Chamberlain, the school counselor, adding that the organization will start the sessions earlier in the future. “It was easier for kids to fall through the cracks, and we didn’t have a chance to follow up with some.”

Newton said community members and local organizations such as Red Rocks Community College and Goodwill Industries loaned time and resources to the program’s pilot year. That included support to fund scholarships. About 80 percent of the college-bound graduates have scholarships, Newton said.

Additionally, Edgewater Collective teamed up with the nonprofit PCs for People to provide new computers to program participants who attend 80 percent or more of their first three weeks of classes.

“Incentives are great but more than just the incentives, we’re overdoing these first two years because we’re trying to create a culture,” Chamberlain said. “When you talk about a first generation school like ours, college isn’t the buzz … We’ve put incentives in place to have a mob mentality, in a positive way, of ‘everyone’s doing this, so I should do it too.’”

pipeline problems

City pols’ report questions the fairness of starting new gifted classes in third grade

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, left, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, right, hosted a task force to discuss issues in gifted education and specialized high schools.

When the New York City education department recently opened new gifted classes in historically underrepresented neighborhoods, it altered its approach to admissions.

By starting the programs in third grade rather than kindergarten and changing how students got in, experts said enrollment would be more fair. Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

But a report released Wednesday by the Bronx and Brooklyn borough presidents questions that approach, suggesting that starting in third grade is too late.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” the report asks. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

Most gifted programs start in kindergarten, with admission based on the results of formal tests. Historically, students in poorer neighborhoods take and pass the tests in much lower numbers than those in wealthier school districts.

In spring 2016, the education department opened new gifted classes in four districts that had gone years without — districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx and 16 and 23 in Brooklyn. Those programs admit students in third grade based on their classroom grades and teacher recommendations.

Using multiple measures instead of a single test score and starting the process later could make it less likely that students are admitted based on solely on the advantages they bring from home — such as the ability to prep for a test.

“This is good news that they’re using multiple measures and they’re opening up access to these programs,” researcher Allison Roda said at the time, though she added that she has reservations about separating students into gifted classrooms in the first place.

But the new report on gifted education from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. raises questions about whether the changes are truly fair. Basing admissions on teacher recommendations may be problematic, the report argues, because bias could play a role in classifying students as gifted or disabled. And, most New York City students still enter gifted from a very early age.

“The DOE is adding third- and fourth-grade classes, but has still not committed to kindergarten, first, and second grade programs in all districts,” the report notes. “We demand this commitment to programs from the earliest ages equally throughout the city.”

Among the report’s other recommendations:

  • Universal gifted testing for pre-K students, unless parents choose to opt out.
  • Creating access to gifted classrooms in every community.
  • Expanding gifted options in middle school at either the district or citywide level. Research has found that just a handful of middle schools are major feeders for students who go on to specialized high schools, which are themselves starkly segregated.

In an emailed statement, an education department spokesman wrote: “We’ll review the recommendations in the report, and look forward to working with the borough presidents to increase access to high-quality schools.”