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.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.