the sorting hat

Ten stories from the flood of new faces entering NYC's schools

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Iken Ude-Smith and Corbit Smith, outside an enrollment center in Brooklyn, where they hoped to select Iken’s school.

Every summer, thousands of children scattered across the city don’t have a school to attend in the fall. Beginning this week, and continuing through the beginning of the school year, many of these students will start figuring out what their best options are and find themselves flooding to hubs designed to help them.

The sorting happens at nine pop-up enrollment centers housed in school basements and auditoriums, where Department of Education officials and volunteers sift through documents, check for seats in the city’s 1,700 schools, and listen to new students’ histories and needs.

It’s a process designed to deal with the unique transience of New York City’s public school population, which annually includes about 50,000 students who enroll in city schools “over the counter” — or after regular enrollment deadlines.

We met families at last year’s enrollment centers. Now, here are some of the new faces from this year:

1. Seeking a choice

Many families visit the enrollment centers seeking options that aren’t available to them.

Corbit Smith’s son, Iken Ude-Smith moved to New York to join his father this summer after getting bullied at his old school in California. Smith said the new start felt like an opportunity.

“This could be a crossroads in his life,” Smith outside Clara Barton High School, one of three centers in Brooklyn.

Though they lived in a neighborhood zoned for P.S. 241, Smith wanted to know how he could get his son enrolled at the school where he mentors students, P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights. But after meeting with enrollment officials, he learned that wasn’t likely. District 13 mostly enrolls students in schools based on where they live.

2. Hope, but still no change 

Hector Pujols

Hector moved from the Dominican Republic two years ago to be reunited with his father in Brooklyn. But his transition at school has been challenging, a problem that brought his stepmother, Ramona Pujols, to Brooklyn Technical High School on Wednesday. Pujols heard about enrollment centers over the summer and visited with the hope of transferring the rising third grader to a school that better meets his special needs.

“He sees a sign and copies it, but he doesn’t know how to read it,” Pujols said in Spanish as she left Brooklyn Technical.

Pujols wanted to get Hector and his younger sister, Dayalin, placed at a nearby Bushwick school where her own children attend, Brighter Choice Community School. She left the center with some promising news.

“They didn’t change his school, but they gave me hope,” said Pujols, who added that she’s expecting a call or letter with a decision soon. “They’re going to send his paperwork to the Department of Education.”

3. Language barriers

Walter Chan with his mother, Edna, and younger brother

Walter Chan immigrated from Guatemala in July and, like many people who visit the city’s enrollment centers, doesn’t speak English, but he’s eager to learn.

He went to Brooklyn Tech with his mother, Edna, to enroll in school. “It was my first time [at the enrollment center] and I didn’t know what to expect,” Edna said in Spanish. “I don’t speak English so I had to ask for help.”

For Walter, who was assigned to the Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn, the prospect of learning English is exciting and nerveracking.

“I came here to study and have a better future,” he said.

4. For immigrants, documentation hurdles 

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For some parents, compiling the paperwork required to register children for school is relatively straightforward. For others it’s a daunting task.

Anthony Suazo, who works as a Spanish interpreter at the Clara Barton High School enrollment center, said recent immigrants whose housing situation has been in flux sometimes arrive at enrollment centers without the necessary paperwork.

“A lot have been living in a room with friends or family and don’t have their names on leases,” he said.

Suazo said that most of the families he interpreted for at the enrollment centers came from Mexico or the Dominican Republic.

“One family I worked with didn’t have all the paperwork,” he said, “so they  left and they’re going to try to get it and come back. It’s going to be a big rigamarole.”

5. The whole child

José and Yomaris Pichardo
José Pichardo said he’s not sure which school would be best for his daughter, Yomaris. But one thing he’s not worried about is her academics.

“She’s an excellent student,” Pichardo said in Spanish, as they waited to speak with enrollment officials.

Yomaris left the Dominican Republic this summer to join her father in Sunset Park. Now, he said, he wants to make sure she’s supported socially.

“I want a school that’s good for her personality. She’s a little shy.”

6. A trio of new arrivals

The Rahman siblings

Three siblings who immigrated from Bangladesh over the summer don’t know what to expect at their new schools. A family friend, Soaiful, accompanied the Rahman siblings to an enrollment center and acted as a translator. Through him, the siblings asked to be identified only by their last name. After three hours, the oldest and youngest, a high school student and kindergartner, left with school placements. The middle brother was directed to a school that requires interviews, so he needs to complete an interview before his placement is set.

“If it doesn’t work, we’ll come back,” Soaiful said.

7. Return brings relief

Xia and Xinyan Lin

Xia Lin took the lead when she and her mom, Xinyan, stopped by the center at Brooklyn Tech.

“I knew it would be okay because I speak English now,” said Xia, who moved to the United States in time for ninth grade.

She left the enrollment center excited and relieved after re-enrolling at Brooklyn International for her senior year.

“I’m excited to go back,” she said,  “I love it. There we have teamwork. In my other school we did only work individually.”

8. Travel transfers

Iribel and Daisy

Daisy, who asked to be identified by only her first name, took an afternoon this summer to visit the high school to which her daughter Iribel had been assigned for ninth grade. Daisy said she decided right away that Iribel needed to attend a different school.  The commute from her home in Brooklyn to the school in Harlem was too long, she said, and the area felt unfamiliar.

“I forgot the name of the school,” she said. “That’s how much I didn’t like it.” So she brought Iribel to the enrollment center at Clara Barton to request a travel transfer. Students who must travel more than 75 minutes each way to school — a reduction from the previous requirement of 90 minutes — are eligible to be placed in new schools.

Iribel was granted a transfer and then walked across the street to fill out paperwork at her new school, the High School for Global Citizenship, which is housed in the Prospect Heights High School building.

9. Feeling stuck

Luz, Xiomara, and Daniel Rivera

Daniel Rivera went to the enrollment center at Clara Barton hoping to transfer out of Multicultural High School, which he said he thinks “is about to close.” The school received a D on its 2011-12 progress report. Daniel, a rising sophomore, said he wants to go to a school that focuses on engineering.

Though the enrollment centers are designed primarily for students who aren’t yet registered in any city school, many students and their families went to the enrollment centers hoping to change high schools.

“He wants to go to a different school, and that’s all there is to say,” Daniel’s grandmother, Luz, said in Spanish.

But transferring high schools is difficult to do in the city. Many students who, like Daniel, didn’t qualify for transfers due to safety concerns, medical needs, or long commutes said they were told to return to their existing schools. Some, particularly those who wanted to pursue an interest in which their schools don’t specialize said they were advised to speak with administrators at their school and look into extracurricular options.

10. School scramble

Maleek Gordon, left.

As families scramble for spaces in schools, at least one school is also scrambling to find students.

Maleek Gordon, a senior at the School for Legal Studies in Williamsburg, said his assistant principal asked him to go to the enrollment center and “tell the honest truth about how I feel about the school.” Gordon is captain of the school’s cheerleading team and interned at the school over the summer.

“We want to get more students [to enroll],” he said. “I do too. More dancers!”

Chris O’Neil, an intervention specialist at the school, said he and other staff were sent to enrollment centers across the city because the administration is hoping to recruit hundreds of new students before the school year starts, boosting its funding and capacity to offer new programs. (According to the city, the school is only 20 students under its projected register.) He and Gordon went to the Brooklyn Tech enrollment center on Tuesday to meet the staff, then returned today to speak with parents.

“Our school’s not talked about that much,” Gordon said, adding that he hopes to change the reputation by letting parents know the opportunities available for them at Legal Studies. He approached a mother and son on their way into the enrollment center.

“Is there anything your son really wants to do?” he asked the mom. “Is there anything you really want your son to do?”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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