High School Hustle

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On the Monday after Thanksgiving, parents and 8th graders in public middle schools around the city put the final touches on their high school applications. With admissions rounds in both fall and winter, a separate specialized high school exam and sometimes-confusing forms to fill out, the application process generally causes stress for all. But adding to the stress for many parents on the West Side is the frustrating fact that no selective District 3 schools give local students admissions preference.

Across town in District 2, which covers the East Side and much of downtown Manhattan, students have first-priority access to at least five desirable high schools, according to the official school directory. The few District 3 schools (Frederick Douglas I and II and Wadleigh, for instance) that do give priority to residents are designed to promote college-level achievement in students from under-served backgrounds.

That means no “selective” or “screened” schools, which take GPAs and other criteria into account, cater to West Side students. Unlike the “specialized” schools, which require a single admissions test, “selective” schools are an appealing public school option for students who may not have made the cut for Stuyvesant, but who are academically accelerated and in need of a strong college-prep high school.

Up until a few years ago, the Beacon School, at 227 W. 61st St., gave preference to District 3 students. But in 2005, that changed, and admissions made no geographic distinctions among citywide candidates. The District 3 Community Education Council passed a resolution in July asking that the District 3 priority be reinstated for Beacon, but the Department of Education and Beacon have announced no plans to change the policy back.

“We take very seriously the recommendations made by the Community Education Council, but there is no plan for Beacon to change its admission criteria, at least for this year,” Andrew Jacob, a spokesperson for the department, told  West Side Spirit in June.

West Side parents are frustrated because they feel the disparity puts undue pressure on their kids, some of whom don’t get into any of their top schools during the first round of admissions and have to go through the process again later. They wonder if the rest of New York is being treated differently than residents of some of the tony neighborhoods covered by District 2, like the Upper East Side and Tribeca. So how did this arrangement come about? And will the city change this policy?

Part of the reason there are no district-priority schools on the West Side is historical. Many of the desirable District 2 High School schools opened between 1987 and 1988, when Anthony Alvarado was district superintendent. A formerly scandal-ridden chancellor known as a fierce advocate for his district, Alvarado boosted scores and reputations in the district. During that era, the Department of Education had centralized control of high schools, while K-8 schools were the province of each district. But District 2 became an exception to this rule. New high schools for that area were allowed during Alvarado’s tenure because they grew out of existing middle schools. They were created in entirely new spaces and therefore did not take away seats from citywide high schools.

Largely as a result of that boom, five schools—the N.Y.C. Lab School, the School of the Future, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Baruch College High School and the Museum School—all give some degree of preference to District 2 students alone. A sixth school, Millennium High School, gives preference to students who live south of Houston Street. Of those schools, Lab, Eleanor Roosevelt, Baruch and Millennium are all selective, while the Museum School and School of the Future have great reputations. There are several other district-preference high schools in the city, many of them in Queens.

According to education officials, the number of out-of-district students who attend these screened District 2 high schools is as much as 30 percent, meaning that although the bulk of the student body is local, a significant portion of non-district students are allowed in.

Meanwhile, parents, students and teachers in District 3—which has its share of well-regarded middle schools, like the Delta Program, Computer School and Center School—didn’t get a chance to play catch-up to the Alvarado era. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein took control of schools in 2002, essentially all new high schools have had citywide admissions. This policy change was implemented to level the playing field, requiring all students to go through the same multi-round admissions system.

But that disparity, combined with the fact that Beacon High School—which was started by District 3 teachers and families—went citywide, has many Upper West Side parents feeling left out in the cold, bewildered or downright angry.

“You go to these District 2 schools, you tour them and they’re great schools,” said Sara Mears, a Computer School parent who started a blog about the high school admissions process, www.nychsasg.blogspot.com. “And you think, ‘This is where I want my kid to go.’ Then you hear that very few get in, but maybe some do. We as parents have no way of understanding exactly what the preferences mean or how they are applied. It seems to be different for each school.”

Mears points out that 2009 admissions data from the Delta program reveal 30 acceptances to Eleanor Roosevelt, zero for Baruch and six for Lab, demonstrating that there’s a huge variation in District 3 acceptance rates among schools that give District 2 preference.

The department did not return requests for comment for this article. However, in a letter to a frustrated West Side parent, Leonard Trerotola, the department’s executive director for high school enrollment, wrote: “While District 2 students are given priority at [certain schools] that does not necessarily mean other students will not be ranked and matched to one of those schools… The approximate number of seats allocated at screened programs that give priority to District 2 is only 5 percent of the total number of seats in Manhattan alone.”

Parents Bijou Miller and Sara Mears are unhappy with the disparity between screened high schools in Districts 2 and 3 that give priority to local students. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Parents Bijou Miller and Sara Mears are unhappy with the disparity between screened high schools in Districts 2 and 3 that give priority to local students. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Many of District 3’s middle school students are also applying to the city’s specialized high schools via the standardized admissions test, or auditioning for LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. But parents say the lack of solid fallbacks, i.e. your basic neighborhood high school, is putting too much pressure on kids to perform well on one-shot applications.

“It’s nice to have specialized high schools, but I have a problem with that second tier,” said West Side parent Martin Librett, whose twin daughters are applying to high schools. “There aren’t enough screened schools, or schools with tracked programs.”

Librett says that if the process doesn’t work out for his daughters, he’ll have to consider moving out of the city.

Whether the answer is better access to District 2 high schools or local schools of their own, it’s clear that West Side parents aren’t happy with the status quo. And they are uncomfortable with pitting kids from two districts against each other.

“The mentality in District 3 is, ‘They [District 2] have choice, we don’t, and getting kids into Beacon is getting harder,’” said Bijou Miller, who has seen both sides of the issue. She was a member of the District 2 President’s Council, which represents district parent associations, when her older child attended a District 2 school. Now that her younger child is at Delta, Miller sits on District 3’s President’s Council.

“The DOE—whether they intentionally do this or not I don’t know—but when they are moving schools around, putting charter schools in or making new schools, they always end up pitting parents against parents,” she said. “That seems really wrong to me because it dissipates our ability to really help our children. I don’t want to see District 3 fighting to get District 2’s schools taken away.”

Miller believes that District 3 and other districts lacking local options should have their own priority screened high schools, just like District 2. That should include Frank McCourt High School, she argues, the newest school on the West 84th Street Brandeis campus, opening in Fall 2010.

She isn’t the only one. Many Upper West Side parents were hopeful that the new schools on the Brandeis campus, specifically the McCourt School, would become a District 3 preference school. But when plans for McCourt were announced, so was the idea that it would have citywide admissions.

For many involved with the school’s creation, geographically-neutral admissions was the only fair way to go.

“What are the ramifications for kids who used to have access to the Brandeis building who don’t anymore?” said Clara Hemphill, one of the many people involved in brainstorming ideas for the McCourt school and a writer who has published popular guides to the city’s best public schools. “This is a concern of Harlem, Washington Heights and Bronx parents whose kids were sent to Brandeis when it was terrible. Their fear is now that it’s good, they’ll be excluded.”

On Dec. 2, District 3’s parent council passed a resolution asking that the McCourt school give priority to students from District 3, 4, 5 and 6, thus serving both the West Side and other neighborhoods that have been feeding students to Brandeis. But even if that plan is implemented, the Upper West Side would still be without many neighborhood high school options.

Another solution floated by parents is opening District 2 schools to citywide admissions. But that would eliminate the value of those schools as less-competitive alternatives to the specialized schools, Hemphill points out.

“Say that Eleanor Roosevelt takes students with 90 averages and above,” she said. “If Eleanor Roosevelt went citywide, it would have to take kids with 95 averages or even higher.”

This has already happened with Beacon, which residents say used to be more of an eclectic niche school than a hyper-competitive one. Last year, 4,738 students applied for 269 seats.

Still, some parents think increased selectivity would be preferable because it would make the process fairer. David Felton is a Computer School parent who, along with another parent, has been corresponding with Chancellor Klein to protest the disparity between the two districts. He says that the District 2 preference leads to de facto segregation, or at the very least, the appearance of the department being partial to what he sees as more privileged families.

“It’s a huge, huge district of the wealthiest and whitest people in New York,” he said of District 2. “So there’s clear inequity based on where you live.”

Ending district preference at all Manhattan schools is “the only way you can make it fair in terms of less-advantaged districts,” Felton said. “This is bigger than District 2 inequity. The high school admissions process is so unwieldy that by its very nature it’s unfair to poorer families.”

Felton argues that the detailed forms and two rounds of admissions, plus a separate process for specialized schools, inherently discriminates against non-English-speaking families, parents who work double-shifts and single parents and relatives who have less time and know-how to navigate the process. He, like all parents interviewed for this article, stressed that he is not just advocating for his own kids or district, but for all students who come up against similar disadvantages.

Unfortunately, the situation is only likely to get more competitive. A recent study found that the city’s largest class size increases this year were in District 3, where swelling enrollment numbers in lower grades mean more high school students down the road.

“Clearly, the demographics need to be taken into consideration,” said Noah Gotbaum, chair of the district’s parent council, pointing to growing ranks at the elementary and middle school level. “But high school overcrowding and utilization problems are already here in a huge way.”

He added that he believes the department’s small schools initiative, which often puts several smaller high schools together in one large building, doesn’t take shared use of facilities into account when calculating capacity, leading to a major crunch in lunchrooms, gyms and other common spaces. Overwhelming interest in the new McCourt school, he added, reveals “a huge pent-up demand” for high school seats on the West Side.

As more students come up through the system, though, parents hope that any new schools—especially those on the Brandeis and Martin Luther King, Jr., campuses—will establish good records for college admissions.

“There’s a real hunger for good schools on the West Side,” Hemphill said. “I hope all of the schools in the Brandeis building serve that need. The solution is to build more schools, not to have ever more esoteric admissions rules.”

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