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Student-made guide aims to simplify high school admissions

The city’s guide to high school admissions includes a directory the size of a telephone book and a few summer workshops. But six high school students say the process can be summed up much more simply — and they’ve taken a stab at doing so.

Working with the Resilience Advocacy Project, a youth organization, and Center for Urban Pedagogy, a non-profit that combines art with civic education, the students created a multimedia guide that fits into one comic strip. They say their guide is a necessary supplement to the tome they received from the Department of Education when they were in middle school.

The city’s labyrinthine high school admissions process requires all eighth-graders to rank up to 12 schools within an hour-and-a-half commute of their homes, then matches — or fails to match — each applicant with one of his or her choices. But many students wind up in schools that aren’t right for them because they don’t have the resources or support to properly navigate the system, said Brooke Richie, RAP’s executive director.

CUP paired one of its teaching artists, Douglas Paulson, with experts in the stakes of getting the process right: six high school students from across New York City. Over eight months, the students and Paulson interviewed principals, advocates, and city officials to create a guide and website for middle-school students about to start the high school search.

On Monday, they released the result, an interactive website titled “Old School New School,” at an event held at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The site includes comic videos detailing the pitfalls of the process, firsthand testimony from students, and a “giant bookmark” that sketches out a timeline for the tasks students need to complete before getting into high school.

“Without this website, you might not get the right information,” Remorn Radway, a junior at Brooklyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, told an audience of parents and middle school students.

Radway and the two other students who presented the guide stressed the fact that the city’s high school directory is published before schools get their budgets for the following year, so programs listed sometimes cease to exist by the time students actually enroll. And they said students should visit every school on their list to avoid surprises.

Several times, the students compared the high school directory to a badly written menu. “Ask about the special sauce before you order,” one video instructed.

Carol Boyd, a parent and activist from District 9, said she plans to use the materials at her annual high school workshops. She said students in her section of the Bronx often get shortchanged in the admissions process because they don’t speak English, or because their guidance counselors don’t take the time to help them find the best fit. Boyd said she looks forward to the Spanish-language version of the materials, which will be released in the fall.

“These children were getting really horrible school choices, and I thought it was because these parents just didn’t understand the process,” she said. “You’re just getting railroaded.”

But although “Old School New School” identifies downsides to the admissions process, it doesn’t aim to indict it, Paulson said. Instead, it’s simply a reality check.

“Whether the system works or it doesn’t, they have to deal with it,” he said about city students. “We’re really trying to get to the heart of it, help every individual to make it work for them.”

And Destiny Lopez, a junior at Gramercy Arts High School, said she ultimately appreciates the choice. She transferred out of her secondary school in eighth grade when the school refused to let her start the admissions process, insisting that she stay on at its high school.

“I’m so happy that I got to choose what I want to do,” she said.

But she said that, like with any system, there will always be losers. Some students will always live too far away from the best fit for them, or not get their first choice, she said.

“Some people will always get cheated,” she said. “It’s just going to happen. But it makes it easier if kids know what to do, and who to go to.”

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