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Across one city, many voices from the 2013 high school search

Students from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism visited high school fairs across the city last weekend. Click on the markers on the map to learn more about some of the students they met.

Middle-schoolers and their parents packed five New York City high school fairs last weekend to find a high school they could call home for the next four years.

Each borough hosted a fair filled with high school teachers and counselors eager to answer questions, ease fears, and sell their schools to eighth-graders who sometimes seemed dazed at the range of choices.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Jonathan Aguilar, 13, from the fair in Queens. “I’ve been walking through the school booths just taking papers from all of them.”

“Parents always have the same question, every time,” said Ken Irabor, 48, a teacher from Park Slope Collegiate in Brooklyn. “They want to know if the schools are safe, if there’s bullying. That’s a big concern these days.”

Some schools said they emphasize that their safety concerns are not limited to physical bullying. “We teach kids the importance of being careful what they put on the Internet,” said Donald Amsterdam, 32, from Kingsborough Early College School. “If there’s less things online for bullies to use, they won’t have that material.”

All eighth-graders in New York City must apply to high school, even if they live in the few areas of Staten Island and Queens that still offer “zoned” schools guaranteeing enrollment for local students. Students rank up to 12 schools that they want to attend and schools rank the students who apply using a wide range of criteria. Then an algorithm matches schools and students, typically placing about half of students in their first-choice schools and 90 percent in schools that they ranked.

Because students can pick schools in any borough, many parents said they were worried about how long their children would commute to high school.

“We hope to find a school that’s good and close to my home,” said Amani Al Aksry, 46, who took her daughter Usra Al Yafai, 14, to the Bronx fair at the Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus. The two prepped for the fair a few days earlier by mapping several schools.

Al Yafai is also preparing for her high school selection by taking the Specialized High School Admissions Test Oct. 26.

Tests weighed heavily on some parents minds this year. Damian Smith said he hopes schools consider the citywide drop in scores when students took the Common Core exam for the first time last spring, which resulted in lower test scores citywide. The city is telling screened schools to look at students with lower scores than they might have considered in the past, but Smith thinks schools should consider previous years’ scores when they weigh students like his son, Kenneil.

“He did good on the sixth grade test,” Smith said. “Not so sure about seventh grade.”

Eliazar Ramirez, 14, went to the fair in the Bronx to see schools that might suit her. She thinks she already knows her top choice: the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. LaGuardia is a well-known performing arts school that offers conservatory-style arts education in addition to normal classes.

With only limited experience in the arts so far, her guidance counselor is helping her assemble a portfolio (both visual and vocal) for the art schools she is applying to.

Victoria Aranowicz, 14, plans to audition for the Professional Performing Arts High School in Manhattan with a song from “A Chorus Line” and a monologue from “The Crucible.” Her mother was positive but realistic about her daughter’s chances. “We’re going to stand by and support her in pursuing her dream,” she said. “But there’s stiff competition. You have to be better than the twenty kids sitting next to you.”

The teachers and counselors staffing their respective high school tables at the fairs typically have only a couple minutes to sell four years of learning to interested students – and their parents.

Teachers said that parents are more concerned about how high school can help their children prepare for careers, while the kids are more interested in having fun.

“Parents are looking at careers, students are looking for sports and extracurriculars,” said Lisa Wales, who teaches math at Midwood High School. “In Brooklyn we’re lucky, we generally have a bit more green space the kids can use.”

Midwood, like most of the high schools represented, used the borough-wide fair as a recruitment opportunity. In the few minutes they usually had with students and parents, the teachers at the tables always asked for contact details in order to send students more information and invite them to make personal visits to campus open houses.

That was easier at the borough fair than at the massive citywide fair, held last month at Brooklyn Technical High School. The Department of Education estimated that about 36,000 people attended the two-day fair.

“We’ve got it down to the kids that have narrowed their choices down to the borough of Brooklyn, so we can really get to them at a more personal level. The small venue helps, it’s not a madhouse,” said Joe Arzuaga, who was in charge of George Westinghouse High School’s booth.

Meanwhile, in Queens, some students ran into problems with test score expectations. Ian Tasch is an eighth-grader from Forest Hills. One of the first booths he and his family visited was Jamaica’s Thomas A. Edison Career & Technical Education High School, where Ian was told that his test scores weren’t high enough to get in. Ian’s mother said that they wouldn’t waste any time visiting selective schools; they would rather find a school where Ian would be comfortable.

“It’s about what’s doing right for your kid, how to help him be successful,” she said.

Students and parents left the fairs carrying armloads of flyers and ads from schools.The teachers staffing the school booths hoped they would see them again — perhaps for the next four-plus years.

“Voices From the 2013 High School Search” is a project of Tim Harper’s Craft 1 class at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Kayle Schnell led development of the map and Graham Corrigan wrote this story. Students from the class contributed reporting.

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