Amid the incredible uncertainty the coronavirus outbreak has created for the nation’s largest school system, as more than 1 million students out of school for at least four weeks, one aspect of the system is chugging along as planned.
High school admissions offers are expected to be sent to over 70,000 families this week.
For the first time in 16 years, the admissions process is undergoing a significant change. The education department is launching a new system of waitlists for every student who fills out an application and does not get into their top choice.
For example, if you get your third choice school, you’ll be on the waitlist for your No. 1 and 2 choices. Many students will be on multiple waitlists — for each school they ranked higher than the school at which they were offered a seat.
If last year is any guide, that means more than 40,000 students will likely wind up on at least one waitlist because they did not get into their first choice school. But families shouldn’t necessarily count on getting into their first choice.
“My advice going into this for families would be to manage expectations,” said Laura Zingmond, an editor at InsideSchools.
Also, given the new reality of school closures, students may not have easy access to their guidance counselors, who could have helped them navigate the new process.
Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about how the new process will work.
What are these waitlists, anyway?
New York City students must apply to high school, listing up to 12 schools they want to attend. A complicated algorithm, developed by a Nobel prize-winning economist, then matches a student to one of their choices.
That fundamental algorithm is not changing. But for the first time this year, any student who does not get into their first choice school will automatically be added to the waitlist of every single higher-ranked school they didn’t get into.
Every school that has more applicants than seats will have a waitlist. It’s a similar model that the education department uses for pre-K, kindergarten, and middle schools — something education department officials said is an advantage.
High school students tend to travel across boroughs, in many cases, and incoming ninth graders can apply to any of the city’s more than 400 high schools. A sizeable chunk of the high schools can select students based on factors like grades and attendance, not just geography.
Previously, the education department allowed families who were unsatisfied with their match to appeal under certain circumstances, but that process has been eliminated.
What determines a student’s rank on the waitlist?
At non-selective schools, your waitlist number is essentially random. If a school gives priority to students who live in Brooklyn, for example, those students will be randomly selected before students in other parts of the city.
At highly selective schools, the process is more complicated. But the basic idea is that students will be ranked on the waitlist based on the same selection criteria (such as grades, attendance, test scores) that the school uses in the normal admissions process.
Students can learn their position on school waitlists — or add themselves to new ones — through the MySchools portal.
“It’s like going to a store and getting the ticket, you know what number you are, and you know how many folks are ahead of you, and you’ll be able to watch the process go,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said over the summer.
There’s more than one way to get on a waitlist.
Students will learn which waitlists they’re on at the same time admission offers go out this week. But after that process unfolds, students can add themselves to any school’s waitlist. (For selective schools, students must still meet the entrance criteria, which can include grades and test scores.)
Students who add themself to a school’s waitlist will generally be considered after students who ranked the school on their initial application, meaning families probably shouldn’t bank on getting into schools they didn’t list on their initial application.
Officials previously told families that they can add themselves to school waitlists through the MySchools portal, by visiting Family Welcome Centers or through their current schools. But with school buildings shut down, it’s not clear how much access students will have to their guidance counselors. Officials said Family Welcome Centers would operate remotely and aim to respond to questions within 48 hours and that families could call 311 for assistance.
What are the odds of getting off a waitlist?
Since the process hasn’t unfolded yet, it’s hard to know how much movement there will be. It will likely vary from school to school. At selective schools, which often receive many applicants for every available seat, it’s unlikely that lots of students will have much luck with the waitlists.
Education department officials previously told Chalkbeat they don’t anticipate the new waitlist system will lead to many students getting into higher-ranked schools in general, which implies that most students won’t make it off a waitlist.
What’s the process for schools telling families about the waitlist?
If a principal decides to admit students off their waitlist, they’re supposed to call families multiple times “until you reach the parent/guardian,” according to principal training materials. They’re also supposed to email families if they have email addresses, and even call their current schools.
After a school begins reaching out, families have one week to make a decision about whether to accept an offer, though schools have the option of offering families more time. “High schools should continue trying to reach the family throughout the entire week,” the guidance to principals states.
It remains unclear how much oversight there will be to ensure schools follow the rules and whether savvy families will find ways of influencing their position on waitlists — or their movement off of them.
It’s a lot of new work for principals.
Some principals are nervous about the amount of time it will take to manage their waitlists, call families off of them, and deal with potentially hundreds of inquiries about the likelihood of getting off the list.
“I’m worried this is going to be a similar thing where families are calling frequently to say, ‘Where am I on the list,’ or ‘What does that mean?’” said Damon McCord a co-principal of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens. “I can’t imagine this is going to make things easier for schools or administrators.”
Does the new process do anything to address school segregation?
No. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, driven partly by the competitive and complicated admissions process here. Though grassroots efforts have led to admissions changes in middle schools in some local communities, the city has largely avoided systemic integration efforts at the high school level.
Why did the education department change the process?
This is a question officials haven’t answered clearly — and has left some experts scratching their heads.
One explanation is that it creates a standardized and fairer process for allocating the small number of open seats at schools that don’t enroll as many students as they projected. It also eliminates the previous appeals process, a somewhat opaque system that allowed families to challenge their admissions decisions for reasons including health issues, travel hardships, or safety reasons.
Katie O’Hanlon, an education department spokesperson, said the process is simpler and more transparent — suggesting that families might be reassured by knowing where they stand on a waitlist if they don’t get into the school of their choice.
But given the amount of anxiety and confusion it may create for schools and families, it’s unclear whether the policy change will be a net benefit.
“I think this is a way of placating families and giving them some sense that there’s a way for them to help their child,” said Elissa Stein, who runs a consulting company for parents trying to navigate the admissions process. “The reality is it’s going to help very few families.”
When do the waitlists close?
Sometime in September, though officials haven’t offered a specific date. That means some families may not know exactly where they’re headed until the last minute, which could also create challenges for schools. They may not know who is on their rosters, thus affecting their budget and staffing needs. (Department officials emphasized that this also happened with the previous system.)
Will this affect specialized high school admissions?
There will not be a waitlist process for specialized schools. Admission to eight of the specialized schools is governed by a single test — the SHSAT — a process that is unchanged, at least for now.
Some schools are worried they’ll have a harder time filling seats.
The education department previously offered a second round, where students could rank schools again, choosing among those with open seats. The city this year is eliminating round two.
The move may be welcomed by schools that had to staff the information fairs for the second round. On the other hand, some principals said doing away with this round could complicate their efforts to recruit families who may not have initially considered them.
“In the past, round two provided us with an opportunity to recruit more students for our open seats and I’m not sure how we will have the opportunity to do that under the new system,” said Jason Rosenbaum, an assistant principal at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School in Brooklyn. Still, he added, “I’m open to this being an improvement.”