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Clinging to the idea of choice, some students leave their best option behind

One of my students, whom I’ll call Monique, was already struggling when she arrived at my school for ninth grade. At her middle school in the Bronx, she told me, it was common for students who take the Algebra Regents in eighth grade to be targeted by gangs for “trying too hard.” Monique didn’t put in much effort for fear of being attacked, and she arrived at my school, a small district high school in Harlem, prepared to fight.

From the beginning of the year, Monique got into numerous verbal conflicts with another student and often left the building in tears. Our discipline team encouraged her to enter into a mediation with the other student, but she refused, recalling bad experiences at her previous school.

It seemed that Monique thought the only way to solve the problem was to leave, and by November, she had already begun the process of looking into other schools.

In my experience as a special education teacher, New York City’s policy of school choice creates the illusion that everything is temporary. It doesn’t help that adolescents—especially teenagers—often suffer from “grass is greener” syndrome. Even after completing the high school application process and starting ninth grade, I’ve seen many students respond to the challenge of adjusting to high school by trying to transfer. Some stop trying in their classes once they decide they’d like to change schools.

This makes me wonder: Are young students able and ready to make complex, informed decisions about their lives? Would we be better off teaching students that eventually they will have to make things work wherever they are?

Under the city’s school choice program, eighth graders rank high school choices from hundreds of options. If they’re not happy with their schools once ninth grade begins, they have the option of going through the process again by submitting applications in early December.

In some cases, it may be true that students would be better off at different schools. The quality of high schools varies widely, and many schools specialize in certain subjects or fields that interest some students more than others. But in many cases, students who think their school isn’t a good fit are really just facing the ordinary challenges of a 14-year-old starting high school.

Many of my students are used to instability in their lives. They have moved several times and know that the next day could bring another change. They have learned that the best way to solve many problems is by avoiding or escaping them. So when faced with the normal challenges of ninth grade—new teachers, new social scene, higher expectations—some of my students assume they can solve their problems by avoiding them and transferring.

But there are benefits to staying in one place for four years. Students who stick it out benefit from the chance to get to know adults over the course of four years, who can help them make good choices about college or a career and write thorough recommendations.

Particularly for students with special needs, staying in one place also allows for continuity in services. Like many special education teachers, I work hard to form relationships with students and help communicate their needs to other teachers in the school.

It’s hard to know how my students fare at other schools when they do transfer, since I don’t see them in their new environments. What I have been able to observe is the way some students’ performance suffered when they started thinking about transferring, then improved when they decided to stay at our school.

Monique, for example, agreed to participate in a mediation session after several conversations with me and other teachers. As her relationships with teachers and peers improved, she began to rethink her decision to transfer. She is now one of the top students in the ninth grade, and she’s on track to take Advanced Placement courses during her senior year.

Monique continued to work hard even when she was planning to transfer, so she was able to keep up with work and even excel this year. But I’ve seen other students who want to transfer stop trying in their classes or simply stop coming to school.

Many students are not aware that in order to transfer, they need to be accepted by other schools—some of which are more selective than our school—and their parents need to agree to the change.

One student, whom I’ll call Edgar, hated our school this fall and wanted to transfer. He came to school sporadically for two months and when he did, he often got in trouble for not doing work and talking during class. When he got suspended due to a fight, his response was, “I don’t care, I’m transferring.” I think he thought that once he transferred, his record would clear and he could start over.

But it doesn’t work that way. Students records follow them between schools, and even with excellent grades and attendance, it’s not easy to transfer after starting ninth grade.

In November, I met with Edgar and his mother and explained to him that with his poor attendance and grades, it might be hard for him to get accepted to some of the schools he wanted to attend. This opened his eyes. Since then, he has almost doubled his attendance rate, and is now passing half of his classes. But if we hadn’t intervened in time, he might have continued thinking that his work at our school didn’t matter, limiting his transfer options and his learning this year.

In the end Edgar, like Monique, decided to stay, and I’ve noticed a marked change in his behavior since January. Not surprisingly, with time he made friends and developed stronger relationships with me and other teachers.

I’m not opposed to students transferring under certain circumstances. But a system that instills in students the idea that they can choose their schools—and choose again, if they’re unhappy—runs the risk of not teaching them a more important lesson: how to handle tough transitions and make the most of the available resources wherever they are.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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