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Report illustrates disparities in over-the-counter enrollment

Students who enter city high schools outside of the regular admissions process are disproportionately sent to struggling schools, according to a new analysis of Department of Education data—something advocates for those schools have long asserted.

The statistics also illustrate how differently seats are filled in high schools across the city. At the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology in 2011, only 7 percent of students were enrolled “over the counter,” meaning they were assigned some time after the traditional high school choice process. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology, which the city has tried to close, 26 percent of students were enrolled over the counter that year.

Christopher Columbus High School, which is closing at the end of this year, had some of the highest rates in the city. Over-the-counter enrollments made up 39 percent of the school’s total in 2008, and the pace continued as the school began phasing out, with 37 percent over-the-counter enrollment in 2011.

“That is the reason we’re closing, absolutely,” Columbus principal Lisa Fuentes said. “It’s extremely challenging students—not that they’re bad students, they just have so many different challenges. Behavioral challenges, extreme academic challenges. We just couldn’t handle it.”

When potential high school students arrive in the city after the choice process is over, they head to an enrollment office where they are assigned to a school. The report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform used Department of Education statistics that showed how many of those students were assigned to individual high schools between 2008 and 2011.

According to the Department of Education, those officials look to academic interests, programs available, and parent preferences when placing students. But the process is largely about what schools have space and available seats, and reflects the enrollment policies assigned to each school—which means small schools with capped enrollment, screened schools with admissions requirements, and very popular schools enroll few latecomers.

The report also shows a correlation between low test scores of the students who enter a school during the traditional enrollment process and high over-the-counter enrollment, especially in large high schools, as well as high over-the-counter enrollment numbers at many schools slated for closure.

“That system means some high schools become warehouses for students who have special needs or are ELLs,” said Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who was worked with Columbus High School and other closing schools. “If you look at any schools that are closed or are in midst of closing, you’ll find OTC enrollment throughout the year is probably one of the top reasons. I have yet to see any type of authentic acknowledgment of that.”

State Education Commissioner John King has consistently voiced concerns that the city has concentrated high-needs students in some schools without providing them with adequate support, including at the beginning of this school year. In 2011, the city began sending over-the-counter students to schools that wouldn’t otherwise have taken in any students midyear, though city officials said that was not related to King’s concerns.

Department of Education officials said they do not steer students to low-performing schools.

“We are a system of 1.1 million students across 1,819 schools, and schools most in demand during our high school admissions process tend to have the fewest seats available for students who enroll on the first day or midyear,” spokesman Devon Puglia said. “We make seats at high performing schools available for these students and make every effort to place them in the best schools possible.”

“Over the last decade, we’ve created new school options specifically for this student population – be it through International schools, transfer schools, dual language programs, and programs developed to effectively serve high-need students. Further, last year, every single non-specialized high school enrolled students over-the-counter. The report ignores the fact that many parents exercise choice in the over the counter process and opt for their zoned or local school,” Puglia said.

The report acknowledges that there isn’t a clear-cut profile of over-the-counter students, which include students who move to the city from other districts and aren’t all high-needs. But that population includes students who have moved to New York City from other countries and students who didn’t participate in the high school choice process because of incarceration or instability from homelessness.

Not all of the schools with the highest over-the-counter enrollment are large zoned or unscreened schools—many are designed for students learning English or were new, small schools in their first years. But any school taking in high numbers of over-the-counter students faces challenges providing necessary services for students they didn’t plan for, as well as the day-to-day instability that comes from fluctuating enrollment numbers.

Neil Dorosin, who designed New York City’s high school choice process and oversaw high school enrollment between 2004 and 2007said that deciding how to assign students who enter the system after the traditional process is a universal problem for districts with choice-based systems.

When some schools are popular enough to fill all of their seats during the choice process, assigning all of those seats is unpopular with some and saving some of them for students who haven’t even moved to New York yet is unpopular with others, he added.

“Cities have to make the following decision: Am I going to do something to intervene so that my most popular schools have some room left for kids who are hypothetical, or am I going to do nothing and let my most popular schools fill and let those who are hypothetical choose from whatever’s left?” Dorosin said. “There’s no easy win here. You can’t make everybody happy.”

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the report validated the union’s longstanding argument that the city set certain schools up to fail before phasing them out. “Now we have definite proof, and I think we should call for an investigation,” he said.

For schools receiving high numbers of over-the-counter students, questions remain about how to serve them best. At the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, a meeting is scheduled for the end of October for parents to explain the issue.

“As an un-screened choice high school A.S. E., is mandated to take all new comers,” the announcement says. “Yet how will this consistently improving school continue to successfully educate this population while facing various challenges; the inability to cap enrollment, overcrowded classrooms, brand new Common Core requirements, budget cuts and other limitations beyond the schools control?”

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