barriers to entry

Strong students from weak middle schools often don’t try for New York City’s top high schools, new report shows

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair last September already snaked around the corner.

The city’s high school choice system should allow any student, regardless of where they live, to apply to any high school. While is it true students have that option on paper, a new report from the city’s Independent Budget Office provides yet another illustration of the system’s real-life limits.

The report suggests that students’ backgrounds — including their test scores, middle schools, and where they live — influence the schools they pick as their first choices.

“The idea [behind school choice] was to break the link between where you live and where you go to school,” said Joydeep Roy, a senior economist in the IBO’s office who worked on the report. “What we find is, it’s not that simple.”

The study examines the effect middle schools have on students’ high school choices. It finds, for instance, that students at low-performing middle schools are more likely to apply to less competitive high schools with lower graduation rates than their peers at other schools.

Importantly, that trend holds even if students themselves are high-achieving. Students who scored in the top third on the seventh-grade state math exam but attended low-performing middle schools chose high schools with an average graduation rate of 83 percent. Students in the same achievement category at high-performing middle schools picked schools with an average graduation rate of 90 percent.

Roy considers that an important finding since it bucks the idea that students choose high schools purely on their academic merits.

“Not all high-scoring students are the same, and not all low-scoring students are alike,” Roy said.

The IBO study suggests that soft factors such as the quality of information provided by middle schools and the choices peers make might contribute to this trend. The authors also find that geography influences a student’s high school choices. Students from Staten Island, Brooklyn, and lower-achieving students in the Bronx are less likely than other students to travel long distances to attend school, they found.

These ideas are consistent with a Chalkbeat series highlighting the barriers some students face while going through the high school admissions process. Often, there are informal reasons families have trouble applying to high schools, such as misinformation spread at the citywide high school fair or difficulty attending an open house, both of which can factor into admissions.

The report relies mainly on data from the 2011-12 school year. Since then, the city says it has worked to make the admissions process smoother by sending out translated copies of the High School Directory to middle schools, for instance, and launching an online, interactive version of the directory.

“Since the 2011-12 school year, we’ve taken concrete steps to improve the high school admissions process for students and families,” said Department of Education spokesman Will Mantell.

Still, there is a long way to go before the city overcomes the relationship between where a student lives and where they go to school, Roy said.

“High school choice by itself will not break this link.”

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.”