This story also appeared on GothamSchools.org.
Stephanie Dejesus spent an invigorating three weeks last summer in the dormitories in upstate New York’s Bard College studying mathematical problem solving with the faculty. When she returned in the fall, she set to work applying for Bard, studying for and passing its entry exam. The school would be a tough commute from her Bronx home in Tremont, but she was enticed by its excellent academic reputation.
Stephanie wasn’t applying for college. Stephanie is an eighth-grade student at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the Bronx, or AMS for short. She was considering applying for Bard High School Early College, a Lower East Side high school affiliated with Bard College. And Bard is just one of many New York City schools that require prospective students to test, interview, write an essay, and submit test scores for admission. It’s all part of a labyrinthine citywide system in which students must choose from over 500 high schools.
Stephanie ended up declining to go through the interview for Bard, choosing instead to stay at AMS, which enrolls students from grades six through 12. Stephanie says she’s glad she had the opportunity to choose from different schools and find different programs that might suit her, but she’s also happy to avoid the anxious wait on March 15 for a school assignment. Plus, AMS is familiar, and it’s close to home.
“They’ll make you feel welcome,” she said of the teachers, who will already know her when she arrives for ninth grade next year.
Stephanie’s experience is one example of why AMS encourages its eighth graders to stay for high school, easing the stress of the application process for those children and allowing teachers more time to prepare them for college.
“Any school that cuts down on the number of transitions that a student has to make is going to do kids a service because it’s during the transitions that kids get wiped out,” said Eric Nadelstern, a visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and a school-choice expert.
Before 2002, when the city began a decade of reforming its schools, many students attended their neighborhood schools under a zoning system – the way it works in much of the United States. Only a few, like Stuyvesant High School and the other specialized high schools, screened applicants with a battery of tests and interviews. But in 2004, the city began requiring all students to rank their top 12 choices, many of which have different admissions requirements. A complex algorithm, similar to the one used to match medical school residents with hospitals, then assigns schools to students.
AMS, a relatively well-performing small school on Bathgate Avenue in the South Bronx, was founded in 2004 under the Urban Assembly network with a mission to cultivate students’ math and science skills. There are 606 students total, and 80 percent qualify for free lunch. Most are from the local neighborhood. AMS usually retains about 85 percent of its eighth graders for high school, according to first-year principal David Krulwich.
If an AMS student selects AMS as one of his or her 12 high-school choices during the high-school selection process in the fall, he or she is automatically accepted, Krulwich said. This year, there are 86 eighth-graders at the school, and 68 of them selected AMS as their top choice, guaranteeing that they return.
“It’s a good thing for us that they want to,” Krulwich said of the majority of his students who choose to stay.
The remaining 18 students put other schools first on their lists, but many selected extremely competitive schools such as The Bronx High School of Science and placed AMS further down the list. Of those, many will not get into the borough’s only elite high school and will likely also return to AMS.
Krulwich said the 6-12 model also allows instructors to take a more holistic approach to the curriculum rather than strictly teaching to standardized tests. Seventy-two schools in New York combine high school and middle schools, according to insideschools.org, a website run by The New School.
“It gives you a chance to work with middle-school kids not just because you want them to do well on a test in seventh or eighth grade and then leave, but it gives us a real need to work with kids on things that are going to get them ready for college,” Krulwich said.
Not every student who decides to leave AMS is pursuing admission at a magnet school like Bronx Science or Stuyvesant High School. The small percentage of kids who choose somewhere else do so for a multitude of reasons.
Some want to join a sibling in another building. Some, like AMS eighth grader Nicole Lara, simply want to try something different. Children with long commutes to AMS sometimes opt for schools closer to their homes. Still others, like AMS eighth grader Martin Espinal, harbor the impression that the schools in Manhattan are better. In all of these cases, AMS guidance counselors research other schools with students and help them through the application process, according to Krulwich.
“We know there are certainly some kids who want something different and might be better off going somewhere else,” Krulwich said.
Kimberly Melgar, who teaches eighth-grade math and helps her students through the high-school selection process, said the top three things she looks at in a prospective school are graduation rate, extracurricular activities, and attendance.
The gap left by the students who do leave is filled by incoming ninth graders from other middle schools. There are usually 15 to 17 such students each year.
The transfer ninth graders are sometimes at a disadvantage compared to those who have been at AMS since sixth grade. Freshmen often have emotional and social problems, Melgar said, and it is often easier for teachers to more quickly spot and resolve issues facing students they already know. She added that teachers also identify students who they think will struggle with changing to a high-school curriculum and come in with a plan to keep those students from falling behind.
AMS eighth grader Sar Mnahsheh, who is coming back next year, said he’d be lost if he had to switch to a strange new school for his freshman year.
“You don’t have to make the teachers know your name – again,” Sar said of returning to AMS. Melgar added, “They struggle with not wanting change.”
Krulwich said the 6-12 system is essential to the school’s success as a non-screened, take-all-comers institution.
“We have kids from all elementary schools coming to us in sixth grade,” he said. “They come to us, honors kids and remedial level, from the highest possible test scores to the lowest. And when kids come to you with that wide a range in ninth grade, it’s very, very difficult.”
That gap is easier to close when the students arrive earlier and when the teachers get more time with students, Krulwich added. Indeed, the school received “A” grades in the Department of Education’s student performance and college and career readiness categories in its 2011-12 progress report, while Validus Preparatory Academy, a 9-12 school that shares a building with AMS, scored “B” and “D” in the same categories.
“Our school mission [is] that we can be a non-screened school giving any student a real chance at a good college-preparatory education,” Krulwich said. “And I think that would be much more difficult to do with only four years to work with kids.”