high school and beyond

How some low-income students discovered the unwritten rules of high school admissions

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Ellis Wu and Maya Holtham learn about the high school admissions process through Breakthrough New York.

Maya Holtham describes herself as a talkative girl. High school interviews, she thought, wouldn’t be a problem.

But when she got to Breakthrough New York — a program that helps high-achieving, low-income students get into and succeed at selective high schools and colleges — she learned she sometimes strays off-topic when facing questions.

“I kind of learned how to center it and give my idea precisely,” said the eighth-grader, who attends M.S. 260 in Manhattan.

Holtham’s lesson is a testament to the fact that getting into a selective high school in New York City can require following mostly unwritten directions that many low-income students don’t have access to. The city’s high school directory includes more than 100 schools that screen students, using tools such as interviews and writing samples.

“You’ve got this school application that at first glance, looks really simple and you could very easily think it’s a matter of filling out the application and you’re done,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. “But it’s all the preparation and leg work and education that really can make the difference.”

Breakthrough tries to help close that knowledge gap, first by helping students sort through the 649-page high school directory. Then, Breakthrough staffers coach them on all of the other ways they can improve their chances for a coveted admissions slot at public and private schools alike, from basics like handshakes to more complicated strategies for advocating for oneself.

“Many of our kids end up taking the leap into a very elite, private space that their families haven’t necessarily had access to in the past,” said Natalie Cox, Breakthrough’s senior program director. “It’s not devaluing their comfort zone, it’s teaching them a set of strategies for how to navigate this new space that has new norms.”

STEP ONE: CHOOSING SCHOOLS

There are stark differences in the amount of support New York City students receive when completing a high school application.

Some have access to guidance counselors, parents who can take them on school tours, and a network of adults who understand how to identify schools that make sense for them. Others have overworked guidance counselors and no great ways to know which schools are best, Frumkin said. Those students  can end up overwhelmed and in schools that aren’t a good fit.

Before finding Breakthrough, Ellis Wu, an eighth-grader who lives in East Harlem, thought there were only two kinds of high schools in New York: Stuyvesant and “bad” schools.

Now an eighth-grader at Manhattan’s New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math, a school that serves gifted students from across the city, Breakthrough helped him identify other top public schools with less name recognition and pushed him to consider a few prestigious boarding schools as well.

“Breakthrough just opened our eyes to these different schools,” he said.

THE NEXT STEPS

The city’s high-school choice process is designed to be straightforward: Students are told to list up to 12 schools on their application, then wait for an algorithm to match schools and students. Some schools are screened, which means they have discretion over which students are most likely to be accepted. Successful applicants to those schools often must take school-specific tests, participate in group activities, or submit writing samples.

The city approves schools’ admissions processes, and schools aren’t supposed to depart from them. Yet people with a close view into admissions processes say families frequently try to help students get their applications noticed with informal communication such as writing a letter or placing a phone call.

“There are even more unwritten kinds of things that families are doing, techniques they’re doing to advocate themselves,” Frumkin said.

Breakthrough helps fill these informal information gaps with a curriculum designed to give students “fluency in the language of power.” The program tells students about the mandatory open houses and deadlines they’re up against, then helps them perfect how they’ll present themselves in an interview with feedback about eye contact and body language.

To help one student with his eye on Manhattan’s prestigious Beacon High School, for example, Cox told him to call the school every morning for a week to make sure they paid attention to his application. He hasn’t got in yet, but he did land an interview. Ellis participated in a series of mock interviews and learned that he should talk more when questioned.

“A lot of middle-school students, they don’t know what to talk about — they’re very modest, and they feel like they haven’t accomplished anything,” Frumkin said. “A lot of it is getting them to understand that they have a lot to be proud of.”

Throughout the process, Breakthrough staff members tell students that this process is designed to give them a new set of tools, not to change the way they act or speak.

“We’re really explicit about it from the beginning, and that it can sometimes feel really defeating,” Cox said. “The whole focus of what we’re trying to do is equip them with a toolkit for when I walk into this space and I feel uncomfortable.”

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing:

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”