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Baseball player’s tale highlights challenge of switching schools

Buried in a New York Times article about the suspension of George Washington High School’s famed baseball coach is a reminder of the steep challenge students face when trying to switch high schools.

Fernelys Sanchez was admitted to Lehman High School in the Bronx but wanted to play baseball for George Washington’s winning team, the Times reports. So he moved into his father’s apartment in Washington Heights. Then he tried — for more than a year before he succeeded — to win a transfer.

But a policy shift over the last several years means that the city’s system of school choice largely closes off once students are in high school.

“For whatever reason, it has become increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get a transfer to another regular high school,” Pamela Wheaton of Insideschools told me two years ago. City officials say it’s not educationally sound for students to change high schools unless they absolutely have to.

The city gives three reasons students can transfer from one high school to another: a long commute, a safety risk, or a health issue. Sanchez’s family said he tried all of them:

The bureaucratic swordplay over the boy lasted for 14 months. Fernelys said the trek to Lehman was wearing him out. The district said the computer showed that the trip was 1 hour 26 minutes, and they would not approve a transfer unless it was 90 minutes, said Melvin Perez, a family friend who interpreted for Fernelys’s mother. Fernelys began cutting classes, and his grades fell. In February 2009, he reported that he had been jumped and forced to hand over his iPod, but his request to transfer for safety reasons was denied on the grounds that Lehman officials believed it was all a lie, a setup, that he just wanted to leave, Mr. Perez said. Finally, the teenager went to doctors, who said — in effect — that he was stressed out by going to Lehman, and, a few weeks into sophomore year, he was granted a medical transfer to George Washington. He made the team.

Now that all transfers are handled centrally, “guidance transfers,” which counselors were once able to award to students who could make the case that they’d be better off at another school, essentially do not exist, Wheaton said.

But there’s actually a fourth way that students can switch schools: by reapplying for 10th grade, which must happen about two months into their first year at a school. It’s not clear from the article whether Sanchez attempted that route, which could have gotten him to George Washington sooner.