Saturday, October 16, 2004

High School Admissions Rant

I spent today at the first NYC High Schools Fair of the year. Another teacher and I met a couple of our students who wanted to attend and traveled with them from the Bronx to Brooklyn Tech, where the fair took place. Now, if you were planning a high school fair for students from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, where would you hold the event so that it would be easiest for the most people to attend? I'd hold it somewhere around East 59th Street, a location that would be both central and close to public transit from Brooklyn and the Bronx. I'm sure there's a huge public high school somewhere in that area. But whoever planned the event decided to put it in Brooklyn, which meant a long trip by public transit for any student coming from the Bronx or upper Manhattan.

The fair was organized so that all the schools from the Bronx were on one floor, from Manhattan on another floor, and so on. We started out visiting the displays from Manhattan High Schools. That floor was packed with students, and dozens and dozens of high schools with elaborate displays and representatives from the staff, parents association, and students all eager to "sell" their schools. Then we moved downstairs to visit the Bronx schools. That floor was far emptier. Many schools simply did not show up! And there were far fewer students there.

We picked up copies of the enormous High Schools Directory. The process of getting into high school in NYC is byzantine. There are six specialized high schools, which depend on an exam. 25,000 students take the exam, competing for about 3000 spots in those high schools' freshman classes. The exam is next week. In the following weeks, students attend auditions for the performing arts schools (such as LaGuardia). In December, every student submits a ranked list of 12 high schools which they want to attend. In February, students who took the admissions test or auditioned for a performing arts school receive offers or rejections. In March, all students receive a match from the regular round of admissions. And there are additional rounds after students reply to their first matches.

But that's not all.

There are several different selection processes which the schools use to choose their students. Some select 50% of their students based on middle school performance and the other 50% by lottery; some are completely screened; some require a portfolio or audition; some are completely unscreened and are assigned students by lottery. In addition to these criteria, some schools have a geographic preference for students from their home district or borough or both.

That's the infuriating part.

I know of a few good schools in Manhattan that I would feel very comfortable sending my students to after middle school - Beacon High School and Environmental Studies are two - but many on my list give priority to students from Manhattan or their district. And they have only a few hundred spots in their incoming class, at most. Beacon High School gets thousands of applicants for a very small number of spots. I have not found information about how many of those spots are typically filled from their district - but I imagine, given the competition, that it is a high proportion. This priority system makes the competition even fiercer for students from outside Manhattan. It might be fair if the best high schools were evenly distributed among the five boroughs. I think the system is in place to try to create community-based schools, which is a reasonable goal.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the best schools are clustered in Manhattan. I have a book which describes New York's best public high schools. The chapter on the Bronx includes exactly two: Bronx Science (one of the most sought-after specialized high schools), and the Macy Program at DeWitt Clinton HS. Macy is by all accounts a good program, but it only accepts a hundred-odd kids a year. Most of the Bronx high schools give priority to students from the Bronx - but these are not places you want to send your child! The city's average four-year graduation rate is around 65%. There are only two or three schools in the Bronx section of the high schools directory with graduation rates that I would consider acceptable (>80%). Many have few or no AP classes. Their Regents pass rates are in the vicinity of 50%. And some are downright dangerous places to be!

In the past few years, the city has been breaking up large, dangerous, ineffective schools and creating dozens of small new schools. Several campuses in the Bronx were among the most dangerous schools in the whole city, and they have now been transformed into collections of mini-schools. I think it's a decent idea, but these schools are still unproven. The directory has no information on their Regents pass rates, their graduation rates, and so forth, because they are so new. Many have not yet graduated their charter classes. My students took a risk on us for middle school - our charter class is graduating from the eighth grade this year - but it still feels like a leap of faith to send them to a brand-new high school, especially if it's housed in a building which only two years ago was violent, unsafe, chaotic, and ruled by gangs.

In sum, my students get geographical preference to one or two good schools, several schools we know are bad, and several schools with no record. The incentives and pressures of the high school admissions process push them to apply to these schools, because their chances of getting into good schools in Manhattan are so slim. It feels terribly unfair and biased.

Given that they change the admissions process every few years, I don't understand why they've kept the geographical preferences in place for some schools while eliminating it for others. This "choice" system, which is supposed to find a best-fit school for each student, discriminates against students from the Bronx. I am frustrated and unsure of what strategy we should encourage our students to use when ranking their schools. I don't want them to apply exclusively to small, proven schools in Manhattan and then get no offers. I don't want them to apply to bad or unproven schools in the Bronx just to be safe, because then they might have to attend those schools!

I know this will get easier over the next few years, because we will make contacts with the people who make selection decisions at high schools, and high schools will recognize our name and that we send them well-prepared, motivated students, and we will have done it before and know what strategies work. But right now it feels scary and like the deck is stacked against us.

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