High School Choice: Like Choosing College

The two red stars on the above map represent The Equity Project (northern star), a small charter middle school in Washington Heights, and Ditmas Junior High School 62 (southern star), a large public middle school in Brooklyn. The yellow pins surrounding the red stars represent the five most common high schools that eighth graders at each school apply to. The students at The Equity Project tend to apply to a more geographically diverse range of smaller, newer schools, while the Ditmas students tend to apply to larger, older, local high schools. Read the story below for more context.

Xabier Peralta is one of the brightest eighth graders at The Equity Project Charter School, a small middle school in Washington Heights. One administrator called him a “model student” who not only gets good grades, but also serves as a tour guide and peer tutor. Hoping to continue his success, the 13-year-old spent long hours applying to over a dozen top high schools all around the city, as well as to out-of-state schools.

It was ambitious, and it was wildly time consuming. “It was just plain annoying,” Peralta said, good-naturedly. But it was worth it. He believes a top high school will help him attain his goal to go to Yale University one day. And he wasn’t as on his own as many city 8th graders are. Teachers and administrators helped every step of the way.

Besides a raft of New York City public schools, he also applied to the ultra-elite independent private schools like the Dalton School on the Upper East Side and Fieldston in the Bronx. All required an exam and a personal interview, and all put him on a wait list. Peralta applied to three Catholic schools, which required yet another test.

There was more. He submitted an application to “A Better Chance,” a group that helps minority students get into leading schools around the nation. The organization referred him to several day and boarding schools and also to Strath Haven High School, an elite public school in suburban Philadelphia where Peralta would live in a house supervised by tutors. And finally, he took the test to get into the city’s hyper-competitive specialized public high schools like Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School, and Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

“I counted all the tests, and I had to take 13 or 14,” said Peralta, who comes from a low-income family of Dominican immigrants. “But it was worth it.” He likes all the options.

It was probably more like six or seven tests, according to David Weinreb, whose main job at The Equity Project is to get students into good high schools. Still, he understood why it might have seemed like twice that number to Xabier.

All of Peralta’s and Weinreb’s hard work paid off. Peralta was the only one out of 107 eighth graders at The Equity Project who was accepted at a specialized public high school: Brooklyn Tech. The city also matched him with Manhattan Village Academy, a small, public school with a 98 percent graduation rate that was founded in 1993. After Peralta visited Brooklyn Tech, he decided it was too large, and moving to Strath Haven would strain his strong relationship with his family. So he chose to attend Manhattan Village Academy next year.

Advocates of high school choice say the system frees students zoned for failing high schools to choose better schools, thereby making high-school education across the city more equal.

But critics warn that the system is so complex and daunting that the one-on-one attention of guidance counselors is needed to ensure that students take advantage of the choice around them. Most students do not have the kind of intense direction Weinreb provides for his students.  A study released last week by New York University found that students still tend to choose schools in their own neighborhoods and that guidance counselors are a major factor in which schools students choose. Many families don’t have the time, ability or resources to do the research required to make an informed decision about high school. The study deals mainly with low-achieving students, but it also contains valuable new information about all students.

“The DOE should ensure sufficient resources are available to help students with their choices,” the report read. “This includes an adequate number of knowledgeable guidance counselors with the time to devote to students needing the most support.”

Dr. Lori Nathanson, one of the study’s authors, said in a phone interview that the study mainly looked at the choices low-achieving students were making and not at what was actually happening to arrive at those choices. But she added that an important part of the process involves what happens inside schools to prepare students to apply.

“Start early – understanding what the tricks are of looking through the high-school directory, taking them to high-school choice events, visiting schools, talking to students,” Nathanson said. “All of those are important things for helping kids make the best choice.”

Nathanson also pointed to the work of Dr. Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj of Seton Hall University, who studies high-school choice. Last year, Sattin-Bajaj accused the Department of Education of failing to implement its choice system adequately.

“Despite the New York City Department of Education’s grandiose rhetoric about the importance of school choice, its public statements have not been accompanied by guidelines, requirements or school-level incentives to ensure that school choice lives up to its promise as a lever for educational equity,” Sattin-Bajaj wrote on the New York Times/WNYC website SchoolBook.org. “Middle-school personnel are granted full autonomy to decide when, where and how to prepare students and families for high school choice.”


A $125,000 per year experiment

March 15 was the day the Department of Education notified students citywide which among their high school choices they would be attending. The day was unusually fraught for students and teachers at The Equity Project – a relatively new 5th through 8th grade school for 478 students on Audubon Avenue, just north of 193rd Street – because this year is the first that the school has an eighth-grade class. Fifty-two percent of eighth graders citywide got matched to their first choice in 2011 – staffers like Weinreb, who has dedicated so much time helping students apply, were hoping that number would be higher at their school.

The convoluted application system is even crazier than college, “especially for our ‘high flyers,’” said Weinreb, who spends 60 percent of his time helping students navigate high school choice. His other responsibilities include managing an after-school tutoring program and recruiting teachers. His official title – “External and Student Programs Manager” – is perhaps intentionally vague, because he’s a sort of utility man, doing jobs that traditional teachers or principals might not have as much time for.

The top eighth-grade students apply to five different “sectors”: public, charter, Catholic, private and boarding schools. Weinreb thinks it is “nuts that we do it with 13-year-olds.”

But there are upsides, Weinreb noted. His young students are getting the experience of writing personal statements, doing interviews, and thinking about what types of environments they could thrive in, while in the meantime developing research skills, self-awareness and a sense of possibility.

But most middle schools in the city do not throw as much time and as many resources at high-school choice as The Equity Project does.

“They’re one of the more aggressive schools that I’ve found,” said Jacqueline Wayans, a writer for Insideschools.org, a website run by The New School that offers in-depth reviews of schools for students and parents. Most middle schools wait until eight grade to offer help for students. The Equity Project starts the conversation while pupils are in fifth grade.

The Equity Project charter received national attention when it opened in 2009 for its experiment in recruiting top teachers and paying them $125,000 (plus up to $25,000 in bonuses) a year. Katie Couric featured the school on 60 Minutes. The school went on to receive an “A” grade in every category on the Department of Education’s annual progress report last year, earning it a ranking in the top 10 percent of city middle schools and rating above the average scores in its group of peer schools in all categories.

Its facilities are less than ideal. The campus is a collection of trailers in the shadow of the former 5,000-seat George Washington High School, which now houses four small schools. Bad weather can add stress to TEP’s day, because students and teachers have to run outside between the temporary barracks.

A quarter of the students are English-language learners, and 82 percent qualify for free lunch. Weinreb said the “grand majority” of the students live north of 140th Street in Manhattan, where the census shows median household income fluctuates between about $25,000 and $44,000 annually.

Weinreb has developed a list of 60 high schools out of a possible 500-plus that he considers safe and good enough for his students to put in their top 12. None of the four inside George Washington High made the cut. Safety is the reason, he said, citing the High School for Media and Communications, where only 57 percent of the teachers said order and discipline are maintained, as an example.

“We are looking for schools with strong track records of success, a safe and nurturing learning environment, a high level of academic rigor, programs, partnerships, and opportunities that interest our students, strong leadership, and a happy school community,” Weinreb wrote in an email. “Publicly available data, such as what’s available on Insideschools, and personal visits factor largely into our evaluation of high schools.”

March 15 was “an awesome day,” Weinreb said, because there was more good news than bad. Two students got into Beacon High School, an alternative school with competitive admissions around the corner from the Lincoln Center. Students there are graded based on portfolios, not the state-mandated Regents exams. Thirteen more students will join Peralta at Manhattan Village Academy, and another four were accepted at selective Frank McCourt High School on West 84th Street in Manhattan.

Susette Perez and Jennifer Hernandez, two more of Weinreb’s eighth-grade “high flyers,” also applied to the entire gamut of public, private, and boarding schools. Hernandez complained that the tests were hard and that nobody knows the topics of the essays beforehand. But both acknowledged that there are more pros than cons to the arduous process.

“It stresses you out, but in the end, it’s worth it,” Perez said. She said applying to schools helped her learn about herself.

Hernandez was assigned to Frank McCourt High School, her fourth choice, and Perez got into Manhattan Village Academy, her first choice. Both are good schools. But Perez declined to attend Manhattan Village Academy and reapplied for Bard Early College High School, a Lower East Side public school affiliated with Bard College. Weinreb said she is likely to be accepted.

Hernandez said she doesn’t want to go to a public school. She instead wants to leave the city and attend a boarding school like the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts – she’s on waitlists for several such programs. “There’s a world that’s not the city,” she said.


Starting early

Meanwhile – as Peralta, Perez and Hernandez applied to high schools, found out where they were accepted, and made their decisions – The Equity Project’s seventh graders were learning how to do high-school research. On one sunny afternoon in early April, Wayans visited the school on behalf of Insideschools, going from trailer to trailer and teaching the seventh graders to navigate the website.

In one class, students practiced looking up and learning about high schools (“What is the enrollment for Central Park East High School?” their worksheets asked them). Some worked diligently, but seventh grader Cristian Peña, a 13-year old English-language learner, was having trouble reading the website. He was also uninterested in schools like Central Park East and wanted to know about high schools in Fordham, the Bronx neighborhood where he lives.

When informed about Peña’s struggles, Wayans made sure to inform Weinreb and others that Peña might have an easier time using the website’s Spanish-language feature. She thinks it’s important to start talking about high school early with children like Peña because teachers can identify problems and because “it’s really hard to shatter those kind of long-standing thought patterns that you might have about the local school in your area.”

“Because it’s so close to you,” Wayans said, “you kind of look at it as an option, whereas I try to get them out of that mindset.”

Peña probably has a better chance at a small middle school like The Equity Project of landing at a successful high school, Wayans said.

“I find that where the smaller schools are helpful is that less students get lost in the cracks,” she said.


At a larger, older school

Amal Khalid and Mohammad Ishtiaq, both 14 years old, are two of the top eighth graders in one of what mixed media teacher David Liotta calls the “smart classes” at Ditmas Junior High School 62 in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.

“I know I’m the smartest,” Ishtiaq said, only half-joking.

In some ways, Ditmas and The Equity Project are similar. Twenty-eight percent of Ditmas students are English-language learners, and 84 percent get free lunch – the numbers align nicely with The Equity Project’s.

Additionally, like The Equity Project, Ditmas is an above-average school. It ranks in the 61st percentile among the city’s middle schools and scored a ‘B’ on its 2011-12 Department of Education progress report. And the ‘B’ is a bit misleading: two ‘A’s in student performance and school environment were obscured by a ‘C’ in student progress.

Similar percentages of students at both Ditmas and The Equity Project met state standards on reading and math tests in 2012 – around one-third and one-half for the respective subjects.

But in many other ways, Ditmas is much different. It is a traditional public school rather than a charter; it serves 1,286 students in grades six through eight compared to 478 in grades five through eight; and it is a 133,000 square-foot building, over 50 years old, at 700 Cortelyou Road rather than a collection of trailers.

It seems that Ditmas students also tend to have a different mindset toward high-school choice than students at The Equity Project. Next year, Khalid and Ishtiaq will both attend the school they picked as their first choice: Midwood High School, a respectable school nearby. Half of Midwood’s students are zoned for the school, and the other half are selectively chosen based on academic performance. It has an 86 percent four-year graduation rate, well above the 66 percent citywide average. But that is not why Khalid or Ishtiaq wanted to go. Both emphasized that the short commute to the school and the experiences of friends and family were the most important factors.

“I already knew I was going to go to Midwood because all my brothers went,” Ishtiaq said. “It’s the closest school to me. They told me I want to go to a different school than them, but I didn’t want to travel far.”

Added Khalid: “I chose Midwood because all the people in my building – my friends – they went there, they explained to me what Midwood is like, and I really thought it was a good school.”

Neither Khalid nor Ishtiaq had to write an essay or sit for an interview throughout the high-school selection process, although both attempted the exam to get into Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant (both missed the cut). They both agreed that most Ditmas students attend the same schools – especially Midwood and Edward R. Murrow High School, which is also nearby.

The different experiences with high-school choice between Ditmas and The Equity Project can’t be explained by how much money students’ families have: the neighborhood surrounding Ditmas boasts higher median household incomes (anywhere from about $30,000 to $78,000 annually) than those of Washington Heights and Inwood.

Michelle Myers, a guidance counselor who’s worked 15 years at Ditmas, said she wishes more students and parents considered schools that are farther away. Like Weinreb, she often goes to open houses and high-school fairs all over the city. But Myers said students mainly apply to five schools: Midwood, Murrow, Abraham Lincoln High School, New Utrecht High School, and James Madison High School. All are quite old (the newest, Murrow, was built in 1974), large (the smallest enrollment figure is Lincoln’s 2,830) and very close (the farthest is Lincoln, which is four miles away). The Equity Project, on the other hand, tends to send students to a more diverse range of schools in terms of size, legacy and location.

“It gets very challenging, especially when you have parents who want their kids in top schools, and they only know of five good schools,” Myers said. “And there’s so many schools out there, so it’s very challenging on my end, trying to convince them, ‘Hey, let’s look outside the box.’”

On a busy morning in early April, Myers said this time of the year is very hectic. She and another colleague are responsible for about 300 eighth graders, and she can only dedicate about 40 percent of her time to high-school choice – the rest of it goes toward at-risk counseling, classroom visits, and dealing with parents, among other things. To complicate matters, out of the 180 eighth graders Myers is personally responsible for, about 80 are reapplying for the second round of the city’s matching process because they either were not assigned schools or were unhappy with their school matches. (The Equity Project had approximately 20 students out of 107 reapply.) Myers thinks the Department of Education should do more outreach to parents to prevent confusion.

“The kids, I think, are prepared for it,” she said. “But the parents aren’t as prepared for the process as the kids are. A lot of times, they’re choosing schools that the kids would never get accepted to, like a Midwood High School.”

Myers thinks parents who either attended the local Brooklyn schools or have heard about them for their whole lives get the names “stuck in their heads.” She also said that over her 15 years at Ditmas, only about five students applied to a Catholic or independent private school.

Still, Myers thinks the movement toward choice has generally been a good thing for her students. She remembers when Brooklyn kids used to cry upon finding out that they had to attend the now-defunct Erasmus Hall High School, which was closed in 1994 and split into five smaller schools due to poor academic performance. She considers Ditmas successful at getting students into good high schools, considering the circumstances.

Wayans, of Insideschools, said that guidance counselors like Myers at large schools are at somewhat of a disadvantage. They often don’t have the time or manpower to start educating students about high-school choice before the beginning of eighth grade. And there are so many more students to keep track of than at a school like The Equity Project.

“The guidance counselors are well-meaning,” Wayans said. “They’re just overwhelmed. They usually wear more than one hat. They’re functioning as deans, they’re doing after-school programs, they’re doing parent interventions or mediation.

“So this piece of the puzzle becomes the thing that you do when you need to do it as opposed to the thing that your job description actually hired you to do,” she continued. “A lot of it is the way the Department of Education has structured the position of guidance counselor where they really don’t have the time for educating and providing the tools for their young people.”

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