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Jessica Glazer

For some students, starting school is a complicated process

Twelve-year-old Tiana Rodriguez hurried out of P.S./I.S. 218 past a line of people last Thursday, trailed by her mother, Liza Rodriguez. Tiana had been admitted to the Bronx Writing Academy for middle school, but then the family moved. So, on the first day of school, she and her mother were trying to find a seat at a school closer to home.

Tiana had her heart set on M.S. 244, where she has many friends, but they were told the school was full. Instead, she was enrolled at P.S. 95, which Rodriguez said had a poor reputation and where Tiana knew no one.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Rodriguez said while Tiana stood off to the side, wiping tears from her eyes. “This is where they sent her.”

They were among the thousands of people who rushed to one of 10 enrollment centers across the city over the last two weeks looking for a school assignment, clutching paperwork, waiting in line, hoping to move students to schools they see as better, safer, or more convenient.

Not all of the arrangements ended in tears. But the process is a frustrating one for many, especially in the first days of school when many parents wait for hours only to find they are missing documents or that their request for a transfer will be been denied. Some return to the centers, tucked into school basements and auditoriums, multiple times.

The centers have a significant task. By some estimates, about 221,000 students enter city schools after the typical enrollment deadlines every year, though only a portion of those students enroll through the temporary registration centers. Still, on busy days, hundreds of people visit the enrollment centers.

At P.S./I.S. 218, also known as the Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School, a line of parents stretched out of the building on Thursday. The packed enrollment center was still less crowded than the center at nearby Roosevelt High School, where the wait was so long — up to four hours — that the city bused families to 218.

Fourth-grader Isis wanted to transfer to her sister’s school, which has better special ed assistance, her mother said.

Fourth-grader Isis wanted to transfer to her sister’s school, which has better special ed assistance, her mother said.

Jessica Glazer

There, Cordell Fisher, 27, stood on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette and killing time while his wife and stepson waited inside the school.

The boy, Rocquan, had recently moved to the Bronx from Maryland and his birth certificate and school transcript had only arrived in the mail Wednesday, holding up the application process. Fisher’s seven-year-old stepson had not been so lucky. His documents had yet to arrive from Maryland, so he would have to miss his first days of school.

Meanwhile, Fisher was missing work at the Bronx solar-power company. “I’m missing some pay, but I’m not worried,” Fisher said. “The kid’s got to go to school.”

Families end up at the centers with a variety of special circumstances. They might have moved from a homeless shelter to a permanent residence, or are caring for a child who arrived as an unaccompanied minor fleeing violence in Central America. Some are seeking safety transfers because of bullying, or looking for a school with better programs for students with particular needs.

When they reach the front of the line, students with a legal guardian sit with an enrollment specialist who listens to their needs and histories, and checks for seats in the city’s more than 1,700 schools. But they need to have the right documents to do that.

One woman wanted her son to transfer out of a charter school, but since she lived with her mother, she had trouble producing the required proof-of-residence documents. The enrollment specialists she spoke with — she went back three times — did not accept the cable bill, notarized letter, bank statements, medical insurance form and food stamps she brought in the absence of a lease or utility bill.

Chantee, an eleventh-grader at Frederick Douglass Academy, faced a different obstacle. She wanted to transfer to a school with daycare so she could be near her young daughter as she finished high school. Chantee had brought along her older brother, Raymundo Garcia, to the center in Manhattan, but because he isn’t her legal guardian the enrollment specialist wouldn’t discuss their options.

Chantee wanted to transfer to a school that also has an early childhood center, so she can have someone to watch her baby while she finishes high school.

Chantee wanted to transfer to a school that also has an early childhood center, so she can have someone to watch her baby while she finishes high school.

Jessica Glazer

“I feel disappointed, a little unprepared, a little embarrassed,” Garcia said as Chantee stood next to him, baby on her hip. They would have to come back with their mother.

Some families visited enrollment centers to request transfers for safety or academic reasons.

The family of a fourth grader named Isis was hoping for a transfer to a school with a strong special education program. Isis arrived at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan with her mother and grandmother the first week the centers were open. Isis was enrolled at P.S. 175 but wanted to go to P.S. 191 instead; that’s where her older sister attends school.

Both girls have special needs and 191 has done wonders for Isis’ sister, explained their mother, Jasmine Cruz. “She could only say three-word sentences,” Cruz said. “Now we can’t get her to shut up.”

But the family left the enrollment center without a new school assignment. Horne said she wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but wasn’t ready to give up. She’d keep trying.

When Gene Mitchell walked out of the same enrollment center last week, he was frustrated as well. This was his third visit in a week to request a safety transfer for his son, who he says has been bullied at school. Saul, a fifth-grader enrolled at P.S. 36, comes home with bruises about six times a year, Mitchell said. “He is afraid,” he said.

Mitchell had no more luck on his third visit than his first. In order to be granted a safety transfer, he was told he would need to submit a police report, a requirement that has been under increasing scrutiny. Mitchell was hesitant to escalate the situation, but knew his options were dwindling. (It’s unclear whether a police report is actually required in all cases, which Chalkbeat has written about in the past.)

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Mitchell said.

On Friday, the last day that the temporary enrollment centers were open, Isis, the fourth-grader who had hoped to enroll in her sister’s school for her special education needs, still had no final decision from the city. In the meantime, her mother and grandmother were looking into nearby charter schools, including ones run by Harlem Children’s Zone and Success Academy.

“I am hoping that we can do it soon,” Horne, her grandmother, said.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting.