Most of the kids who started school today spent last week enjoying the waning days of summer vacation. But those who moved to the city this summer or hoped to transfer from one city school to another spent at least some time at a DOE registration center figuring out where to report for classes today.
The 13 temporary centers, located in schools in every borough, range in size and tone, with some centers struggling to assist a huge volume of families each day since opening Aug. 25 and others with such sparse attendance that DOE officials are able to offer each family in-depth personal attention.
On Friday afternoon, about a dozen families sat scattered throughout the auditorium at the South Bronx Educational Campus, waiting to be called to register or apply for transfers for their children. Norma Nonis, director of borough enrollment for districts 7, 9, and 10, said the registration process was working quickly and painlessly at the site, which opened last year, in part because it serves comparatively few families. Before last year, the 75 families that the South Bronx site registers each day would have had to travel to Manhattan to register their children for school.
At other sites throughout the city, the process was not moving so fast when we visited last week. Families were still trickling out of the center at the Joan of Arc Complex on the Upper West Side at 4 p.m. Friday, an hour after the center shut its doors. And at Brooklyn Tech, several parent-child pairs ran in just as the doors closed at 3 p.m. Because the DOE guaranteed service to any family arriving before closing time, security guards said they thought they’d be at work until 10 p.m. — dozens of families still crowded two large rooms and a hallway in the building’s un-air-conditioned basement.
“There has to be another way because this is just crazy,” said a mother of a high school junior who had been waiting for hours and was still about 40 numbers away from being called.
But another mother disagreed. “There’s not a better way — we’re just lazy,” said the mother of a 10th grader who was hoping to get her into a new high school after the family moved from the Bronx to Brooklyn this summer. “We waited until the last second. We had all summer to do this.”
Even working on the school placement plan all summer didn’t protect parents from spending Friday at a registration center, however. After moving to the city from Bermuda this summer, Holly Alban-Tucker researched middle schools for her son, 8th grader Kyle. When Kyle was placed at a school she considered unacceptable, she learned that a school she liked more had spaces available. The principal told her not to enroll Kyle anywhere else until he called her back. But now it was the end of the last day before school started, and she had not heard from him. She left the registration center unsure how to proceed.
And some registration center visitors said their concerns had not been met even after meeting with registration center staffers. After leaving the Brooklyn Tech center, 19-year-old Steve was tearing up after a frustrating day trying to enroll in high school after more than a year out of the city’s schools. “Everywhere I go, they keep telling me to go somewhere else,” he said. Just hours before the end of the last business day before the new school year, he still didn’t have a high school.
Most students visiting the registration center do leave with a placement, although sometimes families aren’t thrilled about the schools they’re offered. One father on Friday said finding out that his son would have to attend a mediocre high school far from his home “raised my blood pressure.” Unless a student has health or safety needs, the DOE generally grants transfers only if a commute is longer than 90 minutes.
In the South Bronx, many parents on Friday were seeking middle schools closer to home or otherwise had experienced trouble with the middle school choice process. In some cases, parents said they had listed the assigned school on the application but that it was not appropriate for their child; Ana Marcelino said her niece needed bilingual classes, but her mother misunderstood the application process and had listed a school without a bilingual program. In other cases, parents said their child had been assigned to a school they did not list as a choice. And at least one parent complained to registration center staff that her daughter’s teacher had filled in parts of the application without consulting the family.
While she emphasized that individual stories are difficult to verify, Nonis acknowledged the need to make sure parents understand the application process. “Elementary schools should take time out to really talk to parents, to explain the schools that they’re choosing a little bit better,” she said. If a child is assigned to a school that he or she applied to, the DOE will rarely grant a transfer.
The city provides online information, printed information in several languages, and workshops to help parents and students in the application process, Nonis noted.
This morning, about 15 parents and children stood in line outside Brooklyn Tech so they could get into the registration center the moment it opened at 8 a.m. One mother said she hoped to have her daughter at school by mid-morning, only a few hours into the new school year.