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Families seeking last-minute school spots flood pop-up offices

Patrick Chiriboga sought a public school spot after withdrawing from Catholic school after ninth grade. Brownsville’s Rose Sistrunk wanted to enroll her daughters into new schools as the family prepared to move from a homeless shelter into permanent housing. And Canarsie’s Kathleen Ettienne hoped her daughter would land in a school that was better than the charter school she had left.

Chiraboga, Sistrunk, and Ettienne are among the thousands of parents and students who will pass through New York City’s 10 temporary student registration centers this year. The registration centers opened at the end of August and will stay open well into this month to serve families who are still looking for schools as the new year gets underway.

On the first day that the centers opened this year, Aug. 28, staffers stationed at Prospect Heights’ Clara Barton High School estimated they saw 300 students. At Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus in the Bronx, that number was closer to 450, workers there estimated. Days later, there were again dozens of families lined up along East Fordham Road when the enrollment center opened its doors for the day.

Department officials did not provide total numbers of how many students citywide passed through the doors at the registration centers last week, but site supervisors said they expected an even larger influx this week. Each year, about 50,000 students enroll in city schools “over the counter,” or after the regular enrollment cycle, many of them in the first weeks of the school year.

Many of the families are new to the city’s school system after moving from elsewhere or withdrawing from private schools. They are the intended targets for the registration centers, which also help families who are seeking to transfer schools within the system.

The Department of Education’s welcome mat

“For a lot of these families, it’s their first experience with this bureaucracy and we want to be here and let them know that they’re not alone,” said Henry Eiser, who is working at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of three registration centers in Brooklyn.

He is one of nearly 40 retired teachers hired at Brooklyn Tech, one of three centers in Brooklyn to help parents through a daunting enrollment process. Parents first speak with Eiser or another greeter to answer some basic questions. Are you new to the New York City school system? Are you currently enrolled in a school? What age is your student? Are you this child’s legal guardian?

The last question tripped up one great-grandmother who visited the enrollment center at Clara Barton last week.

“I don’t have guardianship, but her mother’s not around,” said the woman, whose great-granddaughter recently moved to New York from North Carolina to live with her. “She’s been with me since June and we can’t get in touch with her [mother].”

Families that make it past the first greeters then meet with a second set inside the centers who provide forms that family members might not already have filled out. Then, counselors and social workers go over all of the required documents, which include immunization records, birth records, school transcript and, if necessary, details about a child’s special education plan. After the intake process, department officials offer a school placement.

It’s a process that earned accolades from at least some of the families that go through it. “They’re very nice in there,” said Ann-Marie Morris outside Clara Barton. Morris enrolled her daughter in It Takes a Village Academy after she moved from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “If people had a bad experience, it’s probably because they went in there like that.”

But other families leave less satisfied. At A. Phillip Randolph High School in Harlem, many families were sent home to acquire more documents to prove they live in the city.

“It could be more organized,” said J.C. Sanchez, whose nephew, James Cano, just moved to the city from the Dominican Republic and was referred to Gregorio Luperon High School, a Washington Heights school that reserves seats for recent immigrants from Latin America. “They ask for too much information, and ask it of people who can’t provide it — too rigid.”

Choices and louder voices

For Chiriboga, landing a seat in a city high school was a straightforward process: He showed that he had attended a Catholic school last year and asked for a placement near his family’s home, getting one at East Bronx Academy for the Future.

But sometimes it’s up to parents to figure out what their children need and takes persistence on their part to make sure they get it.

Ettienne, a small business owner, waited near the front of the line outside Clara Barton at 7:55 a.m. with her daughter, a third-grader who until June attended New Hope Charter School. The school wasn’t helping her special-needs daughter get better at reading and writing, Ettienne said, so she was looking for another school and had brought along a thoroughly researched list of the top-rated schools in the area.

But after meeting with enrollment officials, Ettienne got bad news. Her daughter was given a spot at P.S. 272, a nearby elementary school that received an F rating from the Department of Education last year.

“It’s disappointing,” Ettienne said. “I don’t think our children should be shoved into their zoned schools. We need choices, our parents need choices.”

Days later, she returned with renewed determination. “I felt like I didn’t fight enough,” she said. This time, she said, she left with better news: Enrollment officials wrote her a letter of recommendation to enroll in another nearby elementary school, P.S. 115 The Daniel Mucatel School, because Ettienne believed the school could better handle her daughter’s special education plan. “As long as they have room for her, she can go there,” Ettienne said.

Navigating new terrain

Ettienne knew more about schools in her neighborhood than many of the families that show up at enrollment centers. Of the roughly 300 families on the first day at Clara Barton, half had recently moved to New York from outside of the United States, according to supervisor Roxanne Jordan. At Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Borough Park, the third Brooklyn site, the “vast majority” of families were new to the country, said David Glickman, the site supervisor. Most spoke Chinese, he said, estimating that the staff’s Chinese interpreters provided interpretation services for about 65 families one of the days.

Glickman said his team kept meticulous track of the families that visit his site. They keep track of which families require interpretation services, which issues get resolved, which ones don’t and why.

“Everyone who comes through that door and speaks to one of my counselors is counted,” said Glickman, a retired teacher who has been working at the sites since 2004.

But being counted and getting personal attention doesn’t mean that nothing goes awry. Sistrunk said she and her three daughters have been living in a temporary shelter in Brownsville after losing their home to a fire. She said they are preparing to move into the Fort Greene Houses within weeks, but for now, her only proof of residence is a letter from the shelter that vouched for their current living situation.

Federal law requires districts to enroll homeless students even without some documents such as proof of residence, and Sistrunk said one Fort Greene elementary school, P.S. 67, had already accepted one of her daughters based only on the letter from the shelter, an account that a P.S. 67 official confirmed. But Sistrunk said officials at the Brooklyn Tech registration site told her the letter was not enough to enroll her daughters in a nearby District 13 school.

So Sistrunk took it upon herself once again. She handed the same letter to officials at The Urban Assembly School For The Urban Environment and the accepted her older daughter, Sistrunk said.

Sistrunk said it wasn’t her first choice for a middle school, but “they’ll all be in school on Thursday. That’s what’s important.”