Neighborhood: Lower East Side
Middle School: University Neighborhood Middle School
First Choice: Pace High School
Admitted: Pace High School
Victoria Rodriguez’s older sister was in a high school she didn’t like and she wanted to avoid the same fate. The school was over crowded, personal items were stolen from her school locker and she did not enjoy the group style teaching method. Victoria was so determined to find a school that matched her interests and where she could see herself happy for four years, that she became an expert in the complex maze of high school admissions in New York City.
An eighth grader at University Neighborhood Middle School, who enjoys math, Spanish and science, Victoria said she hopes to graduate from college as a first-generation university student. Located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, University Neighborhood Middle School has 86 students and gives priority admission to youth who live in the district.
Not only did Victoria navigate her own journey through the complicated high school admissions process, she also mentored eight of her classmates.
Victoria, daughter of a healthcare aide, is one of the 76 students who are part of the Henry Street Settlement’s Middle School Success Center, which advises on the high school application process. The Center works with students to research high schools, takes them to open houses and, if needed, helps with auditions to performing arts schools. In addition to receiving guidance, Victoria is one of the Center’s Peer Leaders. She received training for the paid position the summer before eighth grade.
“She knew the repercussions of not knowing the process,” said Shalema Henderson, program coordinator of the Middle School Success Center, of her determination to find the high schools that were right for her. Victoria was one of the first students to sign up to become a peer leader.
“I wanted her to get the best out of high school,” said Pamela Brown, Victoria’s mother. “I encouraged her to find a high school that she was happy with.”
Dressed in a black hoodie and black-framed eyeglasses, the eighth grader revealed why she applied for the position. “I wanted to help someone and I wanted to gain leaderships skills like multitasking, answering phone calls, talking to other people,” said Victoria.
Thanks to her training, she understands the jargon of the admissions process and discusses screened schools (in-person interview, grades, school attendance and writing sample are the main determining factors for admittance), unscreened schools (admittance by lottery) and limited, unscreened schools (attending the school’s open house is highly recommended) with ease.
“Since I’m a peer leader, I want to use the other language I was taught,” she said when describing public high schools which she calls her “other language.” When researching a school, she looks at the four-year graduation rate and college enrollment numbers.
The eighth grader tells her advisees to find out “what their interests are” which she says is the main criteria for finding a high school that is a good fit.
By assisting her classmates Victoria, who is soft-spoken and has a quiet determination in her voice, said she learned even more about public high schools. It helped her discover and recognize a school that she wanted to attend.
Her mother wanted to make sure that the school she selected would accommodate Victoria’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which gives her additional time on exams.
Victoria and her mother went to an open house at Pace High School, which has a limited, unscreened admissions policy. Both liked the school. “I felt comfortable in that environment and so did she because she knows some people who used to go there,” said the eighth grader. “So, when me and her actually agree on a school, it’s rather surprising because we never agree on a school.”
Victoria liked Pace because of the strong academics and extra curricular activities such as badminton. In addition to Victoria’s enthusiasm about Pace, Brown liked Pace’s academics and writing and poetry classes. The school is also an easy commute from their home.
Victoria, who listed the Chinatown school as her top pick, was matched during her first round. Some of her other choices included Harvest Collegiate, which is limited, screened and Manhattan Village Academy. It is screened and the applicant must submit a writing sample.
According to 2014-2015 figures from the New York City Department of Education, Pace High School has an 88 percent four-year graduation rate and 76 percent college enrollment rate for its 423 students. Public schools in the city as a whole have 70 percent and 53 percent, respectively. According to InsideSchools.org, Pace is known for its class projects and discussions.
For students at the University Neighborhood Middle School, the Education Department reports that 17 percent met State standards in English and 16 percent in math. The citywide average is 30 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
Now in its second year, the Middle School Success Center also supports Castle Middle School and the Henry Street School (no relation to the Henry Street Settlement Program.) According to the nonprofit’s figures, 75 of its 76 eighth graders were matched in the first round. In its first year, the program served 121 students and all 121 were matched in round one. Students first begin work with the Center during the spring semester of seventh grade.
Victoria had another success. All eight of her advisees were matched during the first round. All plan to enroll in their selected schools. “I didn’t think that they would be like, ‘I actually got into this school because of your help,’” said Victoria.
“It made me feel proud and really good,” she added.