Winners and Losers
The city has expanded its complex system of high school choice, giving students more options. How has this worked out for students at risk?

When the Department of Education revamped its high school admissions process in 2003, city officials intended to replace a school-choice system that gave an advantage to students with high test scores and aggressive parents with one that gave all students a fair shot.

No longer would students in low-income neighborhoods be automatically assigned to failing zoned schools, the planners hoped. Under the city's new method, all students—not just those applying to highly selective schools such as the Bronx High School of Science—would have the opportunity to choose from a wide array of more than 400 high schools, including about 200 new small schools with special themes such as "Law and Justice" or"Hospitality and Tourism." Schools Chancellor Joel Klein created a new, centralized office of student enrollment and established a computerized matching system to ensure that students were admitted to schools in the most equitable way possible.

Six years later, in the spring of 2009, nearly half of all high school applicants received a spot in their first-choice school, according to city officials. A total of 80 percent were matched with one of their top three choices, a vast improvement over earlier years.

Yet this highly centralized system of school choice—designed to spur competition among schools and to bring equity to an inequitable system—has failed many of the very students Klein had hoped to help. A review by the Center for New York City Affairs, based on interviews with 165 parents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors and other school officials, has found serious flaws in both the design and the execution of the city's high school admissions process. Interview subjects were identified at high schools fairs, at our visits to middle and high schools and through referrals from advocacy organizations.

The key findings include:

  • The system of school choice assumes each child has a parent or other adult who is willing and able to take the time to tour schools and fill out applications. In fact, many children have no such help.

  • Some 14,000 high school students each year are assigned to schools they did not choose. This number includes more than 7,000 who are rejected at all their choices and another 7,000 who arrive in the summer or early fall after the choice process is complete and are then assigned to whatever schools still have space—generally, the lowest-performing schools in the city.

  • Students with special needs are often assigned to schools that don't have the services they need. The Department of Education (DOE) has no formal mechanism for matching a child's particular needs with the programs offered at a school, the review by the center found. In fact, the DOE doesn't have an up-to-date list of special education services offered at each school, DOE officials acknowledge. Thirty-five percent of principals responding to a DOE survey said they did not have sufficient special education services to meet the demand in their schools. (See "Unmet Special Needs," page 62.)

  • Children whose parents speak a language other than English, who represent 42 percent of the student population, are at a particular disadvantage in the high school admissions process. While the DOE has made great efforts to translate key documents and to provide interpreters at high school fairs, the system of school choice assumes a level of parent involvement that is unfamiliar to many new immigrants. (See "Culture Shock")

  • Struggling students are shut out of many of the best schools, which either admit students according to the results of an entrance exam or require students to have good grades and attendance records in middle school. Even students with a B or B- average are excluded from the many so-called screened schools, which require grades of at least 85 in all core academic subjects. While students rank schools on their applications, these schools also rank students. No matter how students choose their schools, they must, too, be chosen—ranked as potential admits at the high schools that elect to admit them.

  • Many middle-school guidance counselors, charged with helping students fill out their high school applications, are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and the sheer complexity of giving meaningful advice about 400 different schools. The weakness in school guidance is particularly an issue for students who don't have well-educated, English-speaking parents to help them navigate high school admissions.

  • The Klein administration has severely restricted students' ability to change schools once they are enrolled. In years past, a child who was unhappy or performing poorly had the opportunity to transfer. Now, as a matter of policy, they may not change schools except in very limited circumstances. (See "Forever Lost," page 63.)

Klein's Efforts to Make the System Fairer

New York City has long had the most extensive—and complex—system of school choice in the country. Most officials, advocates and experts agree that the system Klein inherited favored students who had the strongest academic records and the most sophisticated and knowledgeable parents.

Before Klein revamped high school admissions in 2003, a very strong student might be offered a seat at five or six schools while tens of thousands of others were refused admission to all their choices. In some circumstances, principals were permitted to enroll students themselves, and parents with clout could lobby a particular principal to ask that their child be admitted.

Low-achieving students had a chance at being admitted to a category of schools, called "Educational Option," that have a formula designed to admit students with a wide range of abilities. They could apply to one of the city's career and technical education schools that combine vocational classes with an academic program. Or they could go to alternative schools designed for students who are alienated by traditional schools, overage or far behind in their studies.

But a large proportion of low-achieving students wound up at large comprehensive high schools that admit anyone who lives in their attendance zone. In many neighborhoods, these zoned schools were seen as schools of last resort, with high concentrations of low-achieving students and a climate of disorder and, sometimes, violence.

To expand the system of school choice and give low-achieving students more options, Klein eliminated zoned neighborhood high schools in large swaths of the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn and created small-themed schools in their place. He required all eighth graders—about 85,000 each year—to fill out high school applications, choosing up to 12 schools that they would like to attend. He also instituted a matching system similar to one used to match medical residents to hospitals. (Students continued to apply separately to the city's highly selective "specialized schools," such as the Bronx High School of Science, which has an entrance exam, and Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, which requires an audition.)

Under the new system, most students received just one offer of admission. Top students were no longer offered seats in half a dozen different schools, so more students received a place at one of their choices. This new system decreased the number of students rejected by all of the schools on their list from 31,000 in 2002 to 7,445 in 2009.

Under Klein, the DOE also stepped up efforts to give parents information about New York City's system of high school choice. The DOE now offers summer workshops to parents of children as young as sixth grade to explain how the high school admissions process works. In the fall, there is a two-day fair at Brooklyn Technical High School where principals, teachers and students from hundreds of high schools are on hand to meet tens of thousands of prospective students and their parents. There are similar fairs in each of the five boroughs and myriad open houses, information nights, and opportunities to visit schools. Interpreters are available at the high school fairs for parents who don't speak English. The high school directory is available online in Arabic, Spanish, Bengali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and Urdu.

It Takes "Hundreds of Hours" to Research Schools

Still, school choice is premised on the notion that each child has an adult advocate—a well-informed parent, guidance counselor, teacher or relative who can spend enough time with him or her to weigh all the possible options and make the best choices (and who can overrule a child who makes an ill-advised decision). In fact, many parents, particularly new immigrants and parents with limited education, say they are ill equipped to conduct the months of research necessary to make an informed choice.

Some parents say they cannot take time off from work to tour schools. Even open houses and workshops held in the evening are a burden for parents who work long hours.

Nearly all of 56 parents interviewed by the center describe the process as overwhelming, stressful, or confusing. Many say they did not receive any help from their child's guidance counselor, who must submit high school applications to the central office of student enrollment. Others say the help they received was inadequate.

For their part, many of the 10 guidance counselors interviewed by the center say they are overwhelmed by the size of their caseloads and by the sheer number of high school options available. Depending on the size of the school, caseloads range from 100 to more than 300. The school system doesn't have an adequate safety net for students who don't have parents who can help them, they say.

According to guidance counselors and student advocates, children from immigrant families, poor families or families with health problems often wind up applying for high school on their own, searching through the three-pound, 584-page high school directory with little adult guidance.

"The onus is on the child," says Jacqueline Wayans, a Bronx mother of three who works as a consultant with the Children's Aid Society to help low-income families apply to high school. "The kids leaf through [the high school directory]. 'Eeny, meeny, miney, mo.' They talk to friends and rely on word of mouth. The high school process is just thrown on the kids. Almost no one talks about it, and then, they're given this big fat book."

"They've created a marketplace for high schools," adds Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, a nonprofit organization that helps children get appropriate placements. "Who does well in a marketplace? A savvy consumer. School choice is biased toward informed and active parents."

Elizabeth Sciabarra, director of the office of student enrollment, acknowledges that the application process is complex: Some schools have entrance exams; others require auditions. Some weigh a student's grades and attendance record; others ask only that a student attend an open house. Some give preference to top students; others admit students according to the Educational Option formula. Some schools specialize in a trade or profession, such as Aviation High School, which trains airplane mechanics.

The quality of schools ranges from superior to inadequate. The enrollment numbers range from fewer than 200 students to more than 4,000. The distance from home may be just around the corner or two hours by bus and subway. Sciabarra says it can take "hundreds of hours" for parents to research options adequately: "You have to learn about the schools, then you have to learn about the whole selection and eligibility [criteria], and then you have to figure out how to navigate all that," she says. She advises parents to begin the process when their child is in sixth grade, long before the DOE sends home the high school directories at the end of seventh grade or early the following year.

"You don't want, at the beginning of eighth grade, to give parents a 600-page directory and say, 'Go forth, here, and make a decision,'" says Sciabarra.

The Labyrinth: Manny's Story

But sometimes, that's exactly what happens. Manny Santiago, who lives with his widowed mother and four siblings in the South Bronx, was a fair student in middle school. He had Level 2 test scores—that is, scores below the state standard but not the lowest level, Level 1. His attendance at MS 201 was good, and he had no disciplinary infractions. He knew he had to apply for high school but didn't think much about where he would go.

When he was in eighth grade, he dutifully brought home the high school directory, but his mother, Gladys Rivera, who receives social security disability payments, didn't have the time to visit schools with him or even to study the manual. Manny didn't want to tour schools alone and none of his friends were going. So Manny's older sister, also named Gladys, helped him put his list together by looking through the directory and talking to friends. Manny and his sister filled out the application sheet, picking schools that sounded good, based on their name or theme or were close to home.

Manny's sister was a student at a small high school, the New School for Arts and Sciences on Longwood Avenue in the South Bronx, housed in a former elementary school. Two other high schools, the Banana Kelly High School and Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research, shared the building. Being close to home and going together to the same building both seemed like a good idea, so Manny and his sister put all three schools on Manny's list, along with Lehman High School, a large school that interested him because it had a wrestling team.

They didn't know that the DOE was closing the New School for Arts and Sciences for poor performance. They didn't know much of anything about Rucker School of Community Research, which was so new that it didn't have a track record. They didn't know that Banana Kelly was on the state's list of schools in need of improvement.

Manny's mother signed the list, and Manny brought it into school. Neither Manny nor his mother reviewed the list with his guidance counselor or a teacher; they didn't ask for an appointment, and they weren't offered one. In the spring, Manny learned he had been matched with Banana Kelly.
Weeks after the high school matches were made, Rivera said she heard from neighbors and relatives that there were fights at Banana Kelly, that students had thrown chairs and that police had been called to restore order. The absence of metal detectors in the school building—which ostensibly reflect a school's safety—frightened her.

Rivera said she hadn't understood when she signed her son's high school application that Manny was supposed have listed schools in order of preference. The information is explicit, both in the pages of the high school directory and on the high school application, but Rivera says she did not see it. "At no time did we know that they would choose in the order written," the mother said.

Manny's guidance counselor, Marlene Lopez, a 28-year DOE veteran, says Manny's situation is common. "Parents don't understand the process. They don't understand they can't change. Only one school accepts a kid. There are no alternatives."

Lopez says she didn't have time to meet with Manny or to go over his list of schools with him before she submitted his application. With 150 students to serve, many with special needs, she focuses her energies on finding the best matches for high-need students.

Rivera appealed Manny's placement, and he eventually was assigned to another small school, Fannie Lou Hamer High School, where he is happy. Still, Rivera remains perplexed by the admissions process. "They make it look so pretty on paper, but it's hard to understand," she said.

Guidance Optional

Middle-school guidance counselors are supposed to be the bridge between students and the office of high school admissions. Some counselors go to great lengths to meet individually with parents and students, touring high schools themselves, attending high school fairs on the weekend, holding information sessions and publicizing test dates and interview deadlines. But many of the 10 guidance counselors interviewed by the center say it is impossible to give meaningful advice to all the eighth graders in their school or even to review every application.

"A guidance counselor might have to handle 300 or 400 kids' applications," says Angela Refomato, a retired guidance counselor who now works for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). "How much time can they give each kid?"

Middle-school counselors may have caseloads ranging from 100 to more than 300 students, depending on the size of the school. Very small schools may share a guidance counselor who spends part of each week in each school. The counselors' responsibilities, determined by the principal, may include individual counseling, group sessions for troubled students, consulting with families and working with special education students, in addition to high school planning. In some schools, one counselor is dedicated to shepherding students and families through the high school admissions process. In others, they split their time across many tasks. In still others, regular guidance counselors share high school planning responsibilities with parent coordinators and other school staff.

The DOE does not require any training in high school choice for middle school guidance counselors. Optional workshops are held at regular intervals, and support is available upon the counselor's request.

DOE officials say they expect the guidance counselors to review all high school applications before submitting them. However, in their interviews with the Center, some counselors report they only review applications of students whose parents request meetings. Others say they dedicate their time to a careful review of applications for high-need students, like those learning English or with special needs. With new schools opening every year, many counselors say they just don't have enough information about the city's 400 high school options to give meaningful advice.

"Who has the time to visit dozens of schools?" asks a Brooklyn counselor who asked not to be identified. She says she goes to four new schools each year. With 150 eighth graders to counsel, she says she has little time to explore well-established schools, much less new ones.

Other counselors don't even try. "We don't know anything more than the book," says a counselor at a large Bronx middle school who also asked not to be identified.

Rapid staff turnover makes the job even harder, says Reformato. "A brand-new counselor, in a brand- new school, with a brand-new principal—it's the blind leading the blind," she says. She says training for counselors is inadequate, and the situation has been exacerbated by the centralization of the school system under Klein.

Guidance counselors have always reported to their principals. However, before Klein's reorganization of the school system there were 32 district supervisors of guidance who offered the counselors support and advice. Reformato says there was easier and more frequent communication among counselors at different schools. "They had monthly meetings, staff development. They told the counselors what was coming," she says.

Now, the DOE has five senior youth development directors, each of whom is in charge of providing support to guidance counselors across an entire borough.

Many middle-school guidance counselors say they don't have their own computers and must share terminals with other staffers, where they key in data for each of their students. If a counselor makes a mistake entering data, it can have serious repercussions for the students. At least one student was rejected at all of his 12 choices because his guidance counselor erroneously listed 36 absences, suggesting he was an indifferent student. In fact, he had an excellent attendance record, says his counselor. She says she was so overwhelmed with finding schools for the students with special needs that she forgot to make the change in his record before submitting the application, and she didn't know how to make the correction once the application was sent.

The office of student enrollment holds annual workshops and occasional technical trainings to help orient counselors. Still, the trainings are not obligatory, and each school is responsible for ensuring the counselors get whatever information they need. "A lot of it is contingent on the school and how organized the guidance counselor is," says Sciabarra.

Of course, even the most organized counselors face another insurmountable hurdle: the shortage of adequate schools. John Ngai is an eighth-grade guidance counselor at MS 126 in Chinatown, which serves a mix of high-achieving children and others who struggle academically. Each year, he takes his students on half a dozen high school visits. He conscientiously researches dozens more schools. For the strong students, he says, there are good options among the selective or "screened" schools, which require an 85 average, a good attendance record, and strong standardized test scores. But for average or weak students, the good options are more limited.

"It's sort of discouraging," he says. "In Manhattan, there are only a handful of schools [for average or below-average students] that I would send my own children to. The rest, you take your chances. When you run out of schools, you have to put something down."

Many Students Assigned to Schools Far from Home

The city's complex formula for matching children to high schools has two goals, officials say: The first is to give as many children as possible their top choices. The second is to distribute students with low levels of academic achievement as evenly as possible among the high schools, that is, to break up high concentrations of low-achieving kids in any one school.

For the students who fill out applications, the DOE does its best to accommodate their choices. However, about 7,000 students each year enroll in ninth grade over the summer or in the early fall, after the high school choice process is complete. The DOE attempts to assign these "over-the-counter" students in such a way as to minimize the number of low-performing students that any one school receives. "If in over-the-counter admissions we have kids who come in, and we see that there may be large clusters of kids in certain schools, we will work with families to figure out how to try to disperse them," Sciabarra explains.

A 2005 report for the DOE by the Parthenon Group, a Boston consulting firm, found that high concentrations of low-achieving students burden a school as a whole, pulling achievement levels and graduation rates down even for stronger students. The report recommended closing schools with high concentrations of weak students and using the high school admission process to scatter those students among various schools.

"Using school closures and the school selection process to proactively control school size and low-proficiency student population can help create conditions conducive to school success," the Parthenon authors recommended. This way, any one high school would not become a dumping ground for low-achieving students.

In practice, this policy means many students are assigned to schools far from home. The DOE office of student enrollment considers any commute up to 90 minutes each way by bus or subway to be acceptable. About one-quarter of students who entered ninth grade in 2008 were assigned to schools outside their home borough, according to the office of student enrollment. In many cases, students request those schools and achieve success while attending them. Many Queens residents, for example, attend the Bronx High School of Science.

But for students with poor academic records, a long commute often means frequent tardiness and absences, principals say. At Truman High School in the Bronx, for example, 45 percent of all entering ninth graders in 2008 had a commute of more than 45 minutes, according to an analysis of students' addresses conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs. Only 5 percent lived in Co-Op City, where Truman is located.

Getting to Truman by public transportation is difficult for everyone, but it's a particular challenge for the 50 ninth graders who were labeled as "long-term absentees," missing at least 50 days of their last year in middle school, says Principal Sana Nasser.

"Kids who are absent that much need to go to a school in their neighborhood," she says. "They've had problems attending school in their neighborhood. Now they have two buses and a subway?"

In the past, principals with open seats could admit a child midyear, and two principals could agree to transfer a child without involving the central bureaucracy. The DOE halted the practice, saying that midyear transfers are disruptive to the school system, Sciabarra says.

This change has made it difficult for some homeless children and children in foster care to enroll in school, according to lawyers at Advocates for Children. Caseworkers and counselors who were once permitted to enroll children directly at schools now must go to the office of student enrollment. Foster parents now must identify the address of a borough enrollment office and visit it in person, often making multiple trips and taking time off from work.

In the past, workers at homeless shelters could simply call a neighborhood school and children were enrolled even if they had no documents. Now, advocates say, some staff members at the enrollment office are unaware of state regulations that permit homeless children to enroll in school without documents verifying their address.

Sciabarra says she is unaware of any such problems in the enrollment offices and that her staff is well trained to accommodate homeless children.

The Limits and Possibilities Of School Choice

The architects of the matching system, three economists hired by the DOE, acknowledge that the success of any school choice system is hampered by a shortage of adequate schools. Moreover, the existing system needs a better appeals process to take into account the fact that 13-year-olds don't always make good choices, the economists Atila AbdulkadiroÄŸlu, Parag A. Pathak and Alvin E. Roth wrote in a 2005 article, "The New York High School Match," published in the journal American Economic Review.

In 2004, a little more than 5,100 students (including 300 who received their first choice) appealed their placements and about 2,600 were granted on a case-by-case basis, the authors wrote. "Designing an efficient appeals process remains a priority," they wrote.

By 2008, the number of appeals had declined to 3,722 and the number granted had risen to 3,234, according to the DOE.

Sciabarra acknowledges that her office doesn't have a good way to offer support to low-achieving, high-need kids from struggling schools who may not have involved parents or experienced guidance counselors, but that doesn't stop her from trying. "Do I think it's a perfect system? It's certainly a goal, a personal goal, to help the kids who may not have as much."

Despite its flaws, she says, the system of choice is better than simply assigning schools based on a child's address.

"I think that choice is really an incentive for schools to get better and for parents to demand that our schools are better. And, having lived through a system where there was little choice, though it means parents have to visit a lot of schools and do a lot of different things, I still think that is preferable to just landing someplace because that's the only game in town for you.

"I think the more choice we have forces schools to be a little bit more competitive and to work on constant self-improvement," Sciabarra adds. "And it forces us, when we look at admissions, to rethink different strategies: how we do outreach with parents and how we engage schools and what we need to do differently."