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New York City families spend millions of hours choosing high schools, and students from poor neighborhoods finish last: report

Jessica Glazer

New York City eighth graders and their families are spending up to 5.7 million hours every year navigating a high school admissions process that was in part designed to break the link between students’ ZIP codes and their academic outcomes — but that link remains strong, according to a new report.

While the city’s overall four-year graduation rate was 70.5 percent last year, it was as high as 95 percent for students from Greenwich Village and SoHo but as low as 60.9 percent for students who lived in the Morris Heights neighborhood of the Bronx.

That’s the takeaway from a report released Wednesday by Measure of America, which is unusual for focusing on where students live, rather than where they go to school. Below are a few key findings:

Disparities in graduation rates are greater between the city’s neighborhoods than they are between its racial and ethnic groups.

The report attributes this in part to the city’s residential segregation — which affects the schools families choose, too.

“Parents and kids alike canvass friends, relatives, and neighbors for information about which schools would be a good fit. This approach may serve to limit the schools that families investigate and to which they feel comfortable applying to those suggested by people they know and trust. Because New York City is highly segregated by race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and income, this circle of trusted advisors tends to be limited to others who share one’s socioeconomic status. This insularity benefits the privileged, who hear about and apply to the best schools, and harms the disadvantaged, whose social networks tend to be limited to others with fewer resources.”

The high-school choice system can leave average students in low-income neighborhoods out of luck.

Researchers point to what they call “cumulative disadvantage,” starting with the effects of poorer health and economic insecurity that often come with living in poor neighborhoods.

“The best high schools in the city require certain qualifications—a minimum score on a standardized test, strong English essay writing skills, or the ability to play a musical instrument or produce high-quality works of art. As a result, students whose elementary- and middle-school education and family background did not prepare them to score well on entrance exams, perform, or assemble a portfolio—a group that is disproportionately low-income—are at a disadvantage in gaining admission.”

One of their conclusions:

“We often hear about smart, motivated teens from poor pockets of the city who have benefited from leaving underperforming schools behind. But what about those who have not benefited? The data show that far too many young people from low-income black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx and central Brooklyn are winding up in high schools with low graduation rates, going to school mostly with other teens who share their socioeconomic disadvantages.”

Even the process of picking schools is weighted against students in poor neighborhoods.

One factor is what the researchers call “time poverty”:

“The most competitive schools hold few open houses, make a limited number of ‘test tickets’ available in a very short window, and schedule interviews within a several-week period. Competition in this arena is a blood sport, and successful admission to the best selective high schools requires focus, contacts, money, time, flexibility, transportation, extreme attention to detail, and the ability to prioritize the school admissions process over work or family obligations. In all of these areas the privileged have a significant advantage over others, especially poor families and immigrant families.”

Another is geography.

“Although most students leave their immediate neighborhoods to attend high school, their preference tends to be schools that are closer to home … Four of the five poorest community districts in NYC, for instance, are concentrated in the Bronx; attending a school in a more affluent area would require a long trip for someone living in Morrisania or East Tremont.”

The backdrop to this is that New York City’s high school graduation rates have risen sharply over the last 10 years. And, of course, the admissions process isn’t easy for anyone — including middle-class families and people who navigate it for a living.

Here’s what it looks like, how it came to be, and one perspective on what it would take to get more students into schools where they’d be likely to graduate.

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