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How one New York City school handles eighth grade’s biggest drama: high school letter day

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
M.S. 244 Principal Eduardo Mora and guidance counselor Nancy Acosta handed out high school offer letters to eighth-graders on Friday.

The doors to the Bronx District 10 superintendent’s office had just parted Friday at 8 a.m. when Nancy Acosta arrived to collect her letters.

Acosta, the guidance counselor at M.S. 244 in the Kingsbridge section, was one of scores of staffers across the city who were responsible Friday for picking up boxes of high school offer letters and distributing them to some 76,500 anxious eighth-graders. The letters tell students which high school they have been matched with.

Few other days in the life of a 13-year-old New York City public school student can unleash such unbridled elation, or such crushing dejection. On that day, students find out whether they will attend a high school close to home or a distant train ride away, one whose arts or academic programs are renowned or unknown, one that helps catapult students toward college or struggles to get them to graduate.

Acosta, a former parent coordinator who went back to college to become a guidance counselor, had worked hard for this day. She’d taught students to decipher the 649-page high school directory, explained to parents how to help their children rank 12 schools on their applications from more than 700 options, and had hand delivered students’ work samples to the most competitive schools with the hope that doing so might give her students an edge.

Though she awoke early Friday to race to the letter pickup, she had stayed up late the night before checking an online database that allowed school employees to see whether any of her students had snagged spots in top schools. Around 11 p.m. Thursday she began texting M.S. 244’s principal, Eduardo Mora, with good news: Several students had won hotly desired seats.

But Friday was when Acosta and Mora would share the results with students, informing them where they were likely to spend their next four years — years that could steer the course of their lives.

“I get just as nervous as the kids,” Acosta said Friday morning. “Very nervous.”

Bad news first

Students and staff at M.S. 244 comfort an eighth-grader who did not get into the high school of her choice.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Students and staff at M.S. 244 comfort an eighth-grader who did not get into the high school of her choice.

A little after 10 a.m., Acosta led a small group of eighth-graders into Mora’s office. These were the unlucky ones.

“This happens every year. This is nothing to get crazy about,” Mora told the group, their eyes widening. “You’re going to get your letters. You did not get matched.”

This year, after applications were submitted in December and the education department ran its computerized matching algorithm, about 7 percent of students citywide were left without placements. Students who list the maximum 12 choices on their applications and who choose schools for which they are eligible can almost guarantee a match. Still, sometimes even students who submitted solid applications wind up without any offers.

“This is not your fault,” Mora said, as one student buried her head inside her folded arms on Mora’s conference table, and several girls standing behind her wiped tears from their eyes. “It’s not a reflection of you.”

Twenty-six out of more than 300 eighth-grade students at M.S. 244, also known as the New School for Leadership and the Arts, did not receive any offers. Now they must go through a second application round where they will choose from the leftover seats. Often, those spots are found at lower-performing schools that struggle to attract applicants, or they are at higher-performing schools but reserved for students with disabilities.

Acosta promised to stay late that afternoon to go through the list of “Round Two” seats with students, then she led them back to class. Mora began texting some of their parents, and one immediately called back.

“How’s it going?” Mora said, answering his cell phone. “This is a tough day here.”

A teachable moment

Mora talks to seventh-graders about the high school admissions process.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mora talks to seventh-graders about the high school admissions process.

Around 11:30 a.m., Mora pulled open the door to a dimly lit seventh-grade classroom and stepped inside.

“Listen to me and listen to me good,” he said softly. The room went silent.

Students submit their high school applications in the winter of their eighth-grade year, but at M.S. 244, the process begins long before that.

Staffers start taking some students to visit private and Catholic high schools in sixth grade, explaining that many offer generous scholarships. In seventh grade, students learn to distinguish between screened and unscreened public high schools, start drafting the essays that some selective schools require, and compile tentative lists of choices.

This early start is crucial because, while the city’s massive high-school choice system lets any student apply to any school, many of the highest-performing and most sought-after schools screen their applicants. Aside from eight elite schools that accept students based on a single entrance exam, most selective schools review students’ grades, test scores, and attendance — from seventh grade.

“This afternoon, eighth period, keep your eyes and your ears open,” Mora told the class. “I want you to see what goes on with the eighth grade, because that will be you a year from now.”

He went on to explain that the older students would be receiving their high school placements that afternoon.

“Everything you do this year is going to have a direct impact on your high school admissions,” he told the 12-year-olds.

In another classroom where he gave this combined pep talk and cautionary tale, he reminded the seventh-graders that it was not too late to start showing up to school every day, getting better grades, and preparing for the state exams.

“There’s still time,” he said, heading toward the door. “Make sure you end this year on a high note.”

Letter time

Acosta spoke with a student after the letters were distributed Friday.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Acosta spoke with a student after the letters were distributed Friday.

Just before 2 p.m., Room 407 began rattling as dozens of fingers and pens played desktop drum rolls: Acosta and Mora were about to pass out the offer letters.

“It’s like Christmas sort of,” one boy said. “Can I use the bathroom?” another asked, hoping for some privacy when he read his letter.

In just a moment, many long months of poring over the high school directory, scouring school-review websites, and attending open houses — not to mention completing essays, interviews, and auditions for some ambitious students — would end with a dramatic finale.

It had been a taxing process for the students, but also for Mora and Acosta, who had to fill in for many parents who could not afford to take time off work, spoke little English, or were unfamiliar with the Byzantine application process.

Acosta had organized weekend application workshops for families, and sent home notes in Spanish with feedback on students’ school choices. She had reminded the students to plug important admissions dates into their smart-phone calendars, brought a dozen students whose parents were unavailable to an open house (which some schools require applicants to attend), and — with Mora — accompanied students to weekend auditions at faraway schools in Queens.

“If we don’t do that, we’re going to deny the kids an opportunity of actually having a shot,” Mora explained. “And we have some very talented kids.”

As the letters were handed out, students held their envelopes up to the fluorescent lights and tried to peer through. Finally, Acosta gave the order to open the envelopes and reveal their matches. There was frantic tearing, a moment of silence, then a girl’s piercing scream.

“I got into LaGuardia!” she shouted, referring to the famous performing arts schools in Manhattan where thousands of students audition for one of the coveted spots. The class erupted in cheers.

Then the emotions came flooding out: A girl sobbing with joy in Acosta’s arms; a different girl rushing into the hallway to unleash bitter tears. Students searched for classmates who had been matched with the same school, while teachers tried to reassure students who had been offered a third or fourth-ranked choice.

“These high schools make you feel like you’re a failure,” said Amy Carpio, who did not receive her top choice.

Yet when all the offers had been tallied, they reflected well on the arts-focused Bronx school, where 94 percent of students come from low-income families and one-fifth live in temporary housing. Four students had won spots at LaGuardia; five got offers to one of the elite “specialized” high schools; and several others won seats in extremely competitive selective schools such as Beacon High School in Manhattan, where more than 5,200 students applied for 320 spots last year.

In another eighth-grade classroom downstairs, Joel Lopez called his mother to let her know he’d received an offer at Bronx Theater High School. It wasn’t his first choice, but he said he still planned to celebrate.

“I’ll probably get myself some ice cream,” he said.

A little while later in the principal’s office, with the letters read and most tears dried, Acosta finally exhaled.

“It’s a sigh of relief,” she explained, “because these kids have worked very, very hard.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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