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?”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede