Choose and Lose

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Omari Edwards found out the hard way what happens when the computer isn’t kind.

Despite good grades at Satellite East Junior High School, despite nights of sitting with his mother, Nila, at the kitchen table, poring over a book that lists every high school in New York City, despite making eight reasoned and careful choices, he came home with shocking news–he was shut out. He would have to attend the dangerous, low-performing neighborhood school, Jefferson High School.

“I went bananas,” Nila recalls. “I took off from my job and went to the school that day to demand they take care of us. I hysterically talked with his counselor, I almost had to act insane … It would have been over my dead body that he went to Jefferson, because it might have ended up being his dead body.”

Omari’s counselor pulled some strings to find an open slot at Telecommunications Arts and Technology High School, which had been his third choice. He graduated in June. This fall he started at Morehouse College studying computer science; Nila says he wouldn’t have had the chance without his education at Telecommunications.

Each March, more than 10,000 eighth-grade students come home clutching a printout with the same bad news: They weren’t accepted by their high school picks. But those kids don’t have Omari’s good grades, well-connected counselor and dedicated mother. So they end up at neighborhood schools like East New York’s Jefferson High, which had a graduation rate of only 42 percent in 1997.

Judging by the sheer numbers of students that do get into a school they picked, New York’s public school choice system is a stunning success, sending tens of thousands of kids criss-crossing the city to the school of their choice each day. But it’s also a jumble of confusing paperwork, missed opportunities and hidden pitfalls. Many students and their families make poor decisions, picking a school just because it’s famous, or local, or because it has excellent PR. Those kids are counted in the statistics as a successful placement, even if the school isn’t right for them.

Mary Butz has seen this in action. Butz, principal of the 5-year-old Manhattan Village Academy in Chelsea, is an intense, engaging woman. When talking about her public high school, she pops out of her seat to grab examples of her 350 students’ work: essays that must be defended in front of a graduation committee, courseloads designed like college classes, a mandatory community service program.

It’s not what you’d necessarily expect in a New York City public school–an energetic principal discussing sophisticated courses in a stylish office. Surely, every student succeeds at this school.

Not necessarily.

“A kid has to make an active choice to be here,” Butz says. “I don’t know if I would have come here when I was in high school–I was a good crammer, and these courses don’t work that way. With our class schedule, there’s not much time off … Kids start saying, ‘I want to go to a real school.'”

To Butz, the pattern has become familiar. An incoming freshman has no idea of the academy’s demands and does poorly. Parents refuse to let their child transfer from such an impressive school, and the kid, frustrated, gives up and drops out or transfers, with few credits to show for the time at Manhattan Village.

The teens that follow that trajectory, says Butz, are usually the students who are “randomed in.” Manhattan Village and most other high school programs that aren’t zoned get their freshmen via the Education Option system, one of the more complex methods of choice in New York. School administrators get to choose half the incoming class from an application list of eighth graders who have picked the school. The other half are randomed in–chosen off that same list by lottery. Both halves must follow a strict formula that admits students with a wide array of reading abilities in a convoluted calibration to balance student requests with school priorities.

Butz insists she’s not just interested in attracting only brainy kids. From the central list of children who have chosen Manhattan Village, she says she tries to admit every eighth grader who came to the school to look around and meet the staff, regardless of their test scores. She just wishes more kids came for that crucial visit. “I don’t think it’s a choice if they don’t know what they’re getting into,” she maintains.

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School reform is more faddish than sneaker design, and the ideas of the moment are vouchers and charter schools. Vouchers for private schools, championed by conservatives for years, may soon see the light of day. Several multimillion-dollar private donations have primed the pump, and a June Wisconsin court decision may allow public spending as well.

Charters–privately run schools connected to the school district and paid for out of the public purse–are even hotter. The first charter school in the U.S. opened only seven years ago. Today, there are more than 800 in 33 states, and the federal government has earmarked $80 million this year to start more. New York doesn’t have them yet, but Governor George Pataki sponsored a charter school bill last spring. The bill failed, but school watchers expect his plan to resurface.

New York City might not have charters or vouchers, but anyone promoting free-market schooling should swing by for a look. School choice plays out here on an unparalleled scale. New York shows what happens when choice is implemented without enough information–or enough choices.

Back in the 1950s, the majority of New Yorkers went to school in their own community, whether they were satisfied with the school down the block or victims of racial segregation. The exceptions were the specialized high schools for the best and the brightest, and vocational schools for students who wanted to learn a trade. Just like everything else, that changed in the 1960s. School kids were willing to move around to find a better school, and no Board of Education rule prohibited it. If a principal said you could attend, you were in.

Principals realized that attracting hard-working, smart students made their schools–and them–look pretty good. So in the 1970s, schools started launching specialty programs designed to bring in the best kids, the roots of Education Option. “From 1978 or so to 1986, the whole array of choices for the high school level geometrically increased,” says Steve Phillips, superintendent of alternative high schools and programs from 1983 to 1997. “Virtually every high school opened some kind of program.”

Poor parents began to chafe at their children’s limited options. “Individual schools were exercising admission processes that didn’t look equitable,” Phillips says. Programs that required a student interview were accused of racial screening, for example. So in 1986, after two years of negotiation with education advocates, the Board of Ed changed the Education Option system, introducing the lottery and limiting admission criteria to school records.

Then, in 1993, Chancellor Joseph Fernandez gave his blessing to the burgeoning small-schools movement; 53 such high schools have opened since then, and new programs have continued to be added to larger schools, as well. There are now a total of 216 high schools offering programs ranging from social justice to medical science at locations with as few as 100 students or as many as 4,000.

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Each year, about 65,000 public school eighth graders articulate–New York City’s own special jargon for moving into high school–according to Robert Klein, director of the office of automated admissions. “It’s probably the best system in the country,” he says. “Other cities advertise they do it [allow students a choice], but their numbers aren’t close to ours.”

Klein says that more than 40,000 of those students get into a school outside their neighborhood. At the other end of the spectrum are about 13,000 kids that have no choice but to go to their zoned school–none of the schools they picked picked them. And the other 12,000 chose to go to their zoned school. Klein and the Board of Ed consider them satisfied with that school, and many surely are. But this category also includes students that didn’t look into other schools or never turned in their choices.

In November, every public school eighth grader in the city is supposed to turn in a form with up to eight high school picks. An automated system matches kids with schools, and in March, the students find out where they’ve been accepted. “If kids make realistic choices, they’ll do okay,” Kleinsays. “They’ll get something.”

But making a realistic choice isn’t easy. The Edwards may well have made a common–and avoidable–strategic error: putting an unrealistic option as Omari’s first choice. “Schools are disinclined to chose a student that puts them as the second choice. But so many people waste their first choice with a school they don’t have much capacity to get into,” says Noreen Connell, the executive director of the Education Priorities Panel, a coalition of New York school reform groups. “There are lots of losers and when you lose, you lose big.”

“Elaborate, almost Byzantine” was how EPP described the system in a 1991 report. Its conclusion: “The admissions process remains complicated, confusing and cumbersome for students, families and educators alike.”

The Talmud of articulation is a baby-blue softcover the size of a phonebook, the Directory of Public High Schools. Each school gets one or two pages of basic listings, including hours, convenient bus routes and acceptance rates.

The book includes no outside assessments, such as the high school’s safety record or the number of students who passed the state-administered Regents exam. “We don’t think that’s what parents and students use to decide on a school,” says one member of the committee that rewrote the directory for this school year. “They could find that sort of information when they go to the school.”

The descriptions–written by the schools themselves–are boilerplate, with little real flavor. For example, the listing for Manhattan Village Academy never mentions its long classes or scheduling demands and doesn’t explain what preparing a portfolio means. Community service is listed as an option, not a requirement.

A student’s personal articulation Sherpa is his or her guidance counselor, who is responsible for collecting forms, answering questions and providing any other help–be it emotional, administrative or advisory. But it’s pretty hard to get any quality time with a counselor. The 1991 EPP report noted that there were an average of 427 New York City junior high school students per guidance counselor.

The Board of Education is no longer required to track that ratio–but the average amount of money spent on counselors per student has dropped by 20 percent

this decade. Regulations require a junior high to hire only a single counselor for the entire school.

“I think most junior high schools only have one person doing articulation,” says Angela Reformato, the United Federation of Teachers guidance counselor chapter leader. “In the majority of schools, the counselors are articulating close to 600 or 700 kids.”

That leads to a one-size-fits-all approach to school choice guidance. “In large junior high schools, essentially the guidance counselors organize a factory model system to get all the kids through,” says Norman Fruchter, executive director of Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. “[The kids] get a packet with a good write-up and five minutes of a guidance counselor’s time. I think some counselors just do triage, helping the kids they think can benefit the most, and in some ways I don’t blame them. It’s a straight function of ratios.”

It goes without saying, therefore, that most counselors don’t have time to schedule meetings with parents. But without help from counselors, even the most dedicated parents can make mistakes. Omari Edwards’ counselor answered many small questions about the application procedure, but he and his mother never had a formal appointment. Nila spoke with his counselor only after her son was shut out. And to this day, she can’t figure out why he didn’t get any of his choices.

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No one knows how many families receive help from their counselor in the choice process. The decentralized school boards have only loose guidelines on articulation, and the process varies from district to district and school to school. For families looking for coaching or help deciphering education-speak, it can seem like there’s nowhere to turn. If they’re lucky, their school holds an assembly to answer families’ questions.

There isn’t much more help at the citywide level. Each borough has a center for high school intake–but it’s open only in September. The central board’s office of high school admissions has counselors, but they primarily handle kids trying to transfer from one high school to another. Phone calls to the office yielded more replies of “We don’t handle that” than answers.

The Board of Ed does organize a high school fair each year. The weekend in October brings in about 10,000 families to a carnival atmosphere, with booths, barkers, light shows and giveaways. This annual jubilee aside, Board of Ed officials maintain that the primary responsibility for preparing children for high school choice lies at the district level.

“The main work with parents is really at their school. We don’t know the record of the kid,” says Larry Edwards (no relation), the Board of Education’s superintendent for grades K-12. “We can give facts about the process, but I don’t know Johnny. If people need help, it’s at their school. You can’t escape it.”

Edwards started in the New York City school system 40 years ago as a junior high school teacher. He’s proud of the fact that nearly 80 percent of the applicants get into one of their chosen schools, perhaps because he, more than anyone else, knows how hard it is to place tens of thousands of kids every year. “The issue is how to humanize a system that is voluminous,” he admits. “We attempt to do things to make this more user-friendly. This is a very important decision in life.”

The Board of Ed has made some improvements. Recently the board has developed training sessions for junior high school guidance counselors, and now provides materials for a class unit on high school options. The directory’s redesign has gotten good marks, and, for perhaps the first time ever, counselors had the book in hand at the start of the school year.

Central administration has also decided that next year, students will get five choices instead of eight. It’s an attempt to make the paperwork easier for the students and the overtaxed computer system. “We wouldn’t have done it just to make it more manageable for us,” says Lynda Sarnoff, director of high school student support services. “Computer analysis found that most kids get one of their first five choices anyway.”

The board cites advocate and parent concerns as one reason for the new directory and other changes. Advocates, while pleased by the changes, continue to demand more staff to help children and their families make smart choices. “There needs to be more help at the level of guidance counselors, some kind of process to get knowledgeable volunteers,” says Judy Baum, a spokesperson at the Parent Education Association. “As it stands, some kids get lost in the system.”

Fruchter agrees. “You’re never going to have enough guidance counselors,” he says. “I think there’s a role for youth-serving community organizations. This could be a function for the Beacon Schools, which are mostly in junior high schools.”

But the basic problem is the biggest: There just aren’t enough good schools to choose from.

“It’s not so much a choice as a competition for a limited number of spots,” Connell says. “The reality is there aren’t enough good high schools. You can go on endlessly with the rules and regulations of the game of musical chairs. But if 20 people are going around three chairs, 17 of them are going to lose.”

Larry Edwards puts it his own way. “We can’t say yes to everybody. It’s just not possible,” he says. “The problem is how to accommodate folks and yet fill all the schools. They all want to go to five or eight of the schools, and I just can’t do it.”