The city’s choice-based high school admissions system should, in theory, allow students to apply to any school in New York City and then deliver each a good match. But as any city eighth-grader can attest, the reality on the ground is far more complicated.
There are over different 400 high schools, with admissions governed by a confusing set of policies. It’s difficult for any student to navigate the system, but even harder for those without well-informed guidance counselors, savvy families, or English language skills.
With that in mind, panels of experts, put together by the Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, gathered Tuesday to talk about what can be done. The following are some of their suggestions.
Idea #1: Reduce screened programs, add more educational option schools
A number of panelists argued that the high school system is unbalanced and needs a serious shake-up.
Some said the city should reduce the number of screened programs, which can choose students based on factors including grades, attendance, interviews or portfolios. Screened programs currently comprise about a third of high school programs in the city, while lower-performing students are clustered in the remaining schools.
“One of the biggest issues with this process is the screened programs,” said Shalema Henderson, assistant director of youth initiatives at College Access: Research and Action, a local nonprofit. “It just has kind of perpetuated the inequity that exists in the schools.”
In place of screened programs, panelists suggested the city create more “educational option” programs, which are designed to enroll students at different academic levels. They currently make up about 23 percent of school programs.
City officials at the conference appeared open to this idea. Representatives from the Department of Education said they have not created any screened programs since 2014, and they have been looking for ways to add educational option programs.
Idea #2: Get rid of priority groups
Some schools give admissions priority for certain subgroups of students, such as those who live within geographic areas or attend open houses. But earning priority can present challenges for low-income families, panelists said.
Chalkbeat has reported that attending an open house, for example, takes time, job flexibility and English skills that many disadvantaged families don’t have.
Another contentious priority group is comprised of students who live in District 2 in Manhattan, a relatively wealthy district that includes most of Manhattan and has some of the most sought-after schools in the city. Since many of the slots at its top schools go to District 2 residents, students from other, less wealthy areas of the city are effectively shut out, critics argue.
The Department of Education indicated that getting rid of District 2 priority would take more time and discussion.
“All of these things that represent historical practice … are going to take a long time to move,” said Amy Basile, director of high school admissions for the department. “And it’s going to take a lot of community involvement.”
Idea #3: Support for middle schools, parents
Middle schools are key to helping students navigate the high school admissions process, but often school staff — particularly guidance counselors — do not have the support, knowledge or time they need to fully help students through the process, panelists said.
Basile sees potential to utilize “College Access for All,” a new initiative started under Mayor Bill de Blasio, to galvanize resources and make admissions a more structured part of the school curriculum.
The city is also trying to increase transparency for families. For the first time this year, the High School Directory includes the percentage of students who received priority at each school and the actual GPA ranges of students who were admitted to the schools. The city also started a new website where students can search for information about schools.
Megan Moskop, a teacher and high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Manhattan, is running a class for her eighth-grade students on high school admissions.
Moskop praised the DOE for helping to craft the curriculum, but she said there is a limit to its potential success. While some students have supportive families, who keep spreadsheets of schools and visit as many as 10 open houses, others are new arrivals to the country barely managing to navigate the shelter system, she said. One class alone is not enough to level the playing field, she added.
“What I’m finding is, even with all those resources and guidelines and set structures, the process is too much to navigate for many of my eighth-graders,” Moskop said.