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Researcher: Class divide extends to HS admissions

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In this installment, Madeline Pérez presents her research into how families approach the high school admission process. Perez, an assistant professor of social work and Latino Community Practice at Connecticut’s University of Saint Joseph, worked as a community organizer in Brooklyn and as a consultant on community engagement before earning a PhD from the City University of New York.

Leave questions for Pérez about her research in the comments section.

What questions guided your research?

Both as a former education organizer but also as someone whose own educational trajectory was changed when I attended a specialized high school, I was interested in better understanding how families navigate high school admissions.

I wondered: How do families, middle schools, and the Department of Education experience and influence New York City’s public high school admissions process? In what ways do one’s social and economic circumstances (e.g.: the neighborhood one lives in, the people one knows) manifest in the process? In what ways does the city’s public high school admissions process use choice to remedy inequality, and in what ways does it increase the segregation of students by race, social class, and cultural background?

Although the Department of Education stated that high school admissions was designed around “choice and equity,” I wanted to learn more about how “choice” looks like for low-income eighth-graders and their families whose scheduling inflexibility — due to multiple jobs, language unfamiliarity, or lack of information — deny them access? How differently do well-resourced families experience the system?

How did you conduct your research? What were you looking for and how did you find it?

I spent 18 months at three research sites to understand how middle-school families and school staff understood and experienced high schools admissions. The research sites included a regional office of the Department of Education and two middle schools that were 40 blocks apart in Manhattan. The “Gracie School” served solidly middle-class and upper-middle-class families, while “El Barrio Academy” served low-income families of color.

I collected data from February 2007 to August 2008. During this time, I administered three questionnaires (two for parents and one for students) and conducted interviews (80 in all: 30 parents, 25 students, 15 school staff members, and 10 administrators). Also, I spent a day a week at each of the two middle schools (1,000 hours in total), observing and participating in parent meetings, professional development activities, and school events.

What were your major discoveries?

I found that middle schools are the most important link between eighth-grade families and the high school admissions process — and also that schools’ ability to support families relies heavily on the resources, time and, expertise that staff members have available. I also found that low-income and middle- and upper-middle-class families made different decisions about the high school admissions process.

Gracie’s principal had systems in place for staff to manage many school responsibilities, which allowed the principal to build relationships with the school’s families. El Barrio Academy’s principal, in contrast, was surrounded by constant crisis and thus had far less time to build relationships with staff and families. Both principals had limited time to meet with me but for very different reasons: Gracie’s principal was working with eighth-graders to provide advice on how to negotiate the maze of high school admission, while El Barrio’s principal organized was organizing a funeral for a student who died in a drive-by shooting.

I saw that parents’ ability to intervene and influence the high school admissions process effectively was shaped by their economic resources and social connections. Gracie School parents hired tutors, secured consultants to assist in preparing portfolios, and could enroll their kids in art, dance, and music classes, giving their children substantial advantages in the high school admissions process. Gracie School parents also imposed private rules on a public process by securing “first-choice letters” and unsolicited teacher letters of recommendation to increase their child’s chances of being selected by high schools. These insider tactics were shared within the Gracie School parent grapevine but were not part of the public information about the high schools’ admissions requirements.

El Barrio Academy parents also intervened, but their participation manifested in ways that no one at the institution noticed or credited; it was “invisible involvement.” This non-traditional involvement included creating systems to monitor and ensure accurate record-keeping from the middle school and advocating for free transportation passes for their children. These parental interventions required a great deal of energy, but with the middle school as the target, and in many cases, over things that should have been a given (accurate attendance records, safe travel to school). Often, these interventions pitted El Barrio Academy parents and staff against each other, each group frustrated by limited resources in a broken system. At the Gracie School, parents and teachers were strategically united, which at times was mutually beneficial and at other time mutually exploitive — but always worked to the benefit of students having the best chance of success with the high school admissions process.

I also found that economic resources and social connections shaped parents’ strategies for choosing high schools. El Barrio Academy parents pursued a school choice agenda of what I termed “survival” as indicated by their top three high school criteria selected in my questionnaire: (1) distance/travel; (2) sports/activities; and (3) art/music classes. Parents encouraged their children to apply to high schools close to home, so that they could assist with the child care of younger siblings or return the neighborhood in time to engage in paid work as supermarket baggers or babysitters — and very importantly, to ensure their physical safety in a neighborhood with a high crime rate. The focus on extracurricular activities as priority criteria for El Barrio Academy families highlighted their dependence on schools to provide enrichment for their children.

On the other hand, Gracie School counterparts supplemented such activities (and were able to pay for them out of pocket), allowing them to prioritize a college-preparatory curriculum when selecting high schools. Moreover, some Gracie School parents pooled their financial resources to pay for a private bus to transport their children to specialized high schools and bypassed the public transit system altogether. Overall, Gracie School parents were able to pursue a high school choice agenda of “mobility.” The top three high school criteria they indicated in my questionnaire were (1) academic profile of students, (2) colleges the high school’s graduates attend, and (3) school philosophy. Gracie families also knew that it would cost them less to pay for extracurricular activities or make donations to a parent-teacher association than it would to pay private school tuition. Because students came from families who were financially stable, they could focus on their learning and development as opposed to on contributing to the family’s finances as a teenager.

In order to enter the game of school admissions (or just recognize that it is in fact a competitive process) and play it well, one has to feel as though one has a real chance to influence the process in one’s favor. One of the key differences between the families at the Gracie School and El Barrio Academy was that El Barrio families didn’t even know there was a game, let alone the rules for it. Because they were not aware of the dynamics of the political economy that creates the conditions for those with more resources to benefit from the admissions system, El Barrio families tended to blame themselves for undesirable results. The Gracie School’s principal demonstrated an understanding of the political economy by saying, “We are not better people. We simply have better circumstances.”

What can policy makers learn from your work?

This research is one step in juxtaposing the assumptions of Department of Education decisionmakers against the lived realities of families and school staff across class lines. A public high school admissions process that serves mostly low-income people of color but is based on white, middle-class assumptions must be redesigned. Providing school choices — such as by creating more small high schools or welcoming charter schools — is not enough to improve the prospects of students’ high school placements. Policy makers have to change their expectation that all parents respond to the process as though they have all have the same resources. It would behoove policy makers to create stronger mechanisms to inform parents of how the process works, and consider various possibilities of parental behaviors that might deviate from what they would expect if the family has limited resources.

Are there further questions you are exploring?

My exposure to the personal and professional histories of the two groups of teachers and administrators at the Gracie School and El Barrio Academy developed my desire to look more closely and examine ways in which they served as bridges and/or barriers to students in gaining access to the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the high school admissions process successfully.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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