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Hurdles still high for students looking to switch high schools

On the first day of school this year, a Bronx high school student watched through the fence as students at the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science played games on the football field. He didn’t attend their school, but he wanted to.

His own school, Christopher Columbus High School, will close at the end of the year, while CIMS, one of six schools in the same building, enrolls high performers and sends them on college trips. The student didn’t want this name used because he is still petitioning the city for a slot at CIMS, even though his time in high school is winding down.

“You know you’re in a bad school and you’re just trying to get out,” he said. “Even in the same building there’s a big gap.”

The Bloomberg administration’s approach to closing that gap has been to push struggling schools to improve and close those that do not. But improvement rarely comes quickly enough for students, whose time in high school is short, and those in search of a better school or just a better fit struggle to find a way out.

The Department of Education declined to share data about how many students apply to change high schools each year and how many of their requests are approved. But even as the Bloomberg administration has increased choice across the city and at most grade levels, it remains difficult for students to change their high schools in all but a few circumscribed situations.

“I have spoken to students who have managed to transfer but it took a lot of persistence — and luck,” said Pamela Wheaton, who helps families navigate the high school choice process as an editor at Insideschools.

The complicated admissions process ends with a single placement for each student, and eighth-graders who are unhappy with their initial placements can appeal. Those who start ninth grade and are unhappy with their schools can go through the high school application process again for 10th grade. But after the application deadline in the first semester of their freshman year (this year, the deadline is Dec. 2), students must have a documented medical or safety reason to change schools, or their commute must exceed 75 minutes each way.

The limits leave students who seek courses or programs their schools don’t offer without many options, even as the city tailors high school offerings more and more narrowly. The hundreds of small, themed schools that the Bloomberg administration opened each offer only a slice of the course and extracurricular options that large schools can boast.

Selecting from among the choices can be a daunting prospect for 13-year-olds and their families. Schools change year to year, and teenagers change at an even faster pace. Jessica Escolah, an eighth grader at I.S. 45 in the Bronx who attended the city’s high school fair with her classmates this fall, said knowing that her interests might change increases anxiety about an already fraught application process.

She said she thinks she wants a school that focuses on theater, but that choosing among schools with themes like “Food and Finance,” “Media Arts,” and “Telecommunications” feels like a high-stakes decision.

“I’m scared and nervous at the same time,” Escolah said. “You might change what you want to be. What you pick to start may not interest you anymore.”

That’s what happened to Hannah Hanrahan, who attends Brooklyn Technical High School. The school is one of the city’s most selective and prestigious, but Hanrahan said she quickly realized that she didn’t want to focus on the sciences and felt anonymous at the 5,500-student school.

Still, she said, she wanted to give the school a fair chance before deciding to leave, so she didn’t reapply by the high school application deadline three months into her freshman year. By the time she decided to pursue a transfer, she said, she was surprised to find that it was too late to choose a new school.

“I definitely think staying at a school for four full years gives you more of a sense of identity with the school,” Hanrahan said. “You may have more school pride and comfort with the school, and you know how things work. I think maybe it’s possible for students to do better grades-wise in that sense. But if you’re unhappy, I think locking them in is so much worse.”

Hanrahan was not technically locked in: After several visits to enrollment offices during 10th grade, the city offered her a spot at another just before her junior year. But it was not Millennium High School, a screened school where she and her mother said staff members had told them she could attend as long as the city’s enrollment office approved the transfer.

Before the city’s admissions system changed in 2003, Hanrahan could have transferred with permission from her principal and Millennium’s. But the new, centralized admissions system, which gave students more choice over which schools they wanted to attend, also limited their ability to switch schools after they enrolled and gave the department’s enrollment offices control over transfer decisions.

A new mayor could change the admissions system once again. Wheaton at Insideschools said she would like to see the department show more flexibility so that securing a transfer doesn’t require quite as much effort.

“We’re looking at a child, a student, a 14- or 15-year-old kid suffering for some reason,” she said. “It shouldn’t be easy … but if a kid presents a compelling case that they should be at another school and the other school has space, I honestly don’t understand why they’re not allowed to transfer.”

City officials say the limits on high school transfers exist because stability is good for schools and students.

Giving city students as much choice in 10th grade as they have in eighth would put additional — and significant — stress on a system that already has to process and assign nearly 80,000 incoming ninth graders to schools each year. High schools already struggle to accommodate students who enter the system outside of the regular admissions process.

Added student mobility would also complicate some of the city’s accountability measures for high schools. The city assesses high schools based on the annual performance of their students, and when students transfer, their successes or struggles cannot be attributed to a single school.

Researchers say the department’s overarching principle is mostly sound.

“The general finding from research is that mobility is hard on kids,” according to Beth Shinn, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University. Students who switch schools must make new friends, get used to new teachers, and adjust to different curriculums and expectations, she said. Those challenges are the same whether students change schools by choice or because of factors outside of their control, such as homelessness or a family move, she said.

But in some cases, a student’s desire to change schools “might outweigh the potentially disruptive effects,” Shinn said. “There might even be circumstances in which the kid could really benefit from having a new peer group and a fresh start elsewhere.”

For now, city students are wising up to the fact that getting out once they’ve gotten into a high school is no easy task. Matilda Frendergast, a sophomore at Cobble Hill School of American Studies, attended this year’s high school fair to represent her school. Her advice to eighth graders: “You’re going to be going to that school for four years, so you don’t want to choose the wrong one.”

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