the school search

Families seeking last-minute school spots flood pop-up offices

A family approaches the entrance to a student registration center at Brooklyn Technical High School. Each summer, the education department opens 10 registration sites around the city for students who are new to the school system.

Patrick Chiriboga sought a public school spot after withdrawing from Catholic school after ninth grade. Brownsville’s Rose Sistrunk wanted to enroll her daughters into new schools as the family prepared to move from a homeless shelter into permanent housing. And Canarsie’s Kathleen Ettienne hoped her daughter would land in a school that was better than the charter school she had left.

Chiraboga, Sistrunk, and Ettienne are among the thousands of parents and students who will pass through New York City’s 10 temporary student registration centers this year. The registration centers opened at the end of August and will stay open well into this month to serve families who are still looking for schools as the new year gets underway.

On the first day that the centers opened this year, Aug. 28, staffers stationed at Prospect Heights’ Clara Barton High School estimated they saw 300 students. At Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus in the Bronx, that number was closer to 450, workers there estimated. Days later, there were again dozens of families lined up along East Fordham Road when the enrollment center opened its doors for the day.

Department officials did not provide total numbers of how many students citywide passed through the doors at the registration centers last week, but site supervisors said they expected an even larger influx this week. Each year, about 50,000 students enroll in city schools “over the counter,” or after the regular enrollment cycle, many of them in the first weeks of the school year.

Many of the families are new to the city’s school system after moving from elsewhere or withdrawing from private schools. They are the intended targets for the registration centers, which also help families who are seeking to transfer schools within the system.

The Department of Education’s welcome mat

“For a lot of these families, it’s their first experience with this bureaucracy and we want to be here and let them know that they’re not alone,” said Henry Eiser, who is working at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of three registration centers in Brooklyn.

He is one of nearly 40 retired teachers hired at Brooklyn Tech, one of three centers in Brooklyn to help parents through a daunting enrollment process. Parents first speak with Eiser or another greeter to answer some basic questions. Are you new to the New York City school system? Are you currently enrolled in a school? What age is your student? Are you this child’s legal guardian?

The last question tripped up one great-grandmother who visited the enrollment center at Clara Barton last week.

“I don’t have guardianship, but her mother’s not around,” said the woman, whose great-granddaughter recently moved to New York from North Carolina to live with her. “She’s been with me since June and we can’t get in touch with her [mother].”

Families that make it past the first greeters then meet with a second set inside the centers who provide forms that family members might not already have filled out. Then, counselors and social workers go over all of the required documents, which include immunization records, birth records, school transcript and, if necessary, details about a child’s special education plan. After the intake process, department officials offer a school placement.

It’s a process that earned accolades from at least some of the families that go through it. “They’re very nice in there,” said Ann-Marie Morris outside Clara Barton. Morris enrolled her daughter in It Takes a Village Academy after she moved from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “If people had a bad experience, it’s probably because they went in there like that.”

A line forms outside of Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx one morning last week.

But other families leave less satisfied. At A. Phillip Randolph High School in Harlem, many families were sent home to acquire more documents to prove they live in the city.

“It could be more organized,” said J.C. Sanchez, whose nephew, James Cano, just moved to the city from the Dominican Republic and was referred to Gregorio Luperon High School, a Washington Heights school that reserves seats for recent immigrants from Latin America. “They ask for too much information, and ask it of people who can’t provide it — too rigid.”

Choices and louder voices

For Chiriboga, landing a seat in a city high school was a straightforward process: He showed that he had attended a Catholic school last year and asked for a placement near his family’s home, getting one at East Bronx Academy for the Future.

But sometimes it’s up to parents to figure out what their children need and takes persistence on their part to make sure they get it.

Ettienne, a small business owner, waited near the front of the line outside Clara Barton at 7:55 a.m. with her daughter, a third-grader who until June attended New Hope Charter School. The school wasn’t helping her special-needs daughter get better at reading and writing, Ettienne said, so she was looking for another school and had brought along a thoroughly researched list of the top-rated schools in the area.

But after meeting with enrollment officials, Ettienne got bad news. Her daughter was given a spot at P.S. 272, a nearby elementary school that received an F rating from the Department of Education last year.

“It’s disappointing,” Ettienne said. “I don’t think our children should be shoved into their zoned schools. We need choices, our parents need choices.”

Kathleen Ettienne reviews the schools that she ranked in order of preference for her daughter to enroll in outside of Clara Barton High School, one of three student registration sites.

Days later, she returned with renewed determination. “I felt like I didn’t fight enough,” she said. This time, she said, she left with better news: Enrollment officials wrote her a letter of recommendation to enroll in another nearby elementary school, P.S. 115 The Daniel Mucatel School, because Ettienne believed the school could better handle her daughter’s special education plan. “As long as they have room for her, she can go there,” Ettienne said.

Navigating new terrain

Ettienne knew more about schools in her neighborhood than many of the families that show up at enrollment centers. Of the roughly 300 families on the first day at Clara Barton, half had recently moved to New York from outside of the United States, according to supervisor Roxanne Jordan. At Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Borough Park, the third Brooklyn site, the “vast majority” of families were new to the country, said David Glickman, the site supervisor. Most spoke Chinese, he said, estimating that the staff’s Chinese interpreters provided interpretation services for about 65 families one of the days.

Glickman said his team kept meticulous track of the families that visit his site. They keep track of which families require interpretation services, which issues get resolved, which ones don’t and why.

“Everyone who comes through that door and speaks to one of my counselors is counted,” said Glickman, a retired teacher who has been working at the sites since 2004.

But being counted and getting personal attention doesn’t mean that nothing goes awry. Sistrunk said she and her three daughters have been living in a temporary shelter in Brownsville after losing their home to a fire. She said they are preparing to move into the Fort Greene Houses within weeks, but for now, her only proof of residence is a letter from the shelter that vouched for their current living situation.

Federal law requires districts to enroll homeless students even without some documents such as proof of residence, and Sistrunk said one Fort Greene elementary school, P.S. 67, had already accepted one of her daughters based only on the letter from the shelter, an account that a P.S. 67 official confirmed. But Sistrunk said officials at the Brooklyn Tech registration site told her the letter was not enough to enroll her daughters in a nearby District 13 school.

So Sistrunk took it upon herself once again. She handed the same letter to officials at The Urban Assembly School For The Urban Environment and the accepted her older daughter, Sistrunk said.

Sistrunk said it wasn’t her first choice for a middle school, but “they’ll all be in school on Thursday. That’s what’s important.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”