looming deadline

Days before deadline, a new online system for applying to NYC schools raises concerns

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students put the finishing touches on their applications.

For the first time, New York City students are using an online system to submit applications for middle and high school admissions as they race to meet the Dec. 3 deadline. But the system has arrived late in the process and is creating new headaches, according to some guidance counselors.

The new website replaces the old process: students filled out paper applications that ranked their school choices and turned the paperwork into their guidance counselors, who would enter the information into a central system.

Students can still fill out paper applications, according to the city’s education department. But now, parents can go directly on to its MySchools site and create an account, which their children then use to rank their top choices for middle or high school. The website can also be used to apply for gifted and talented programs.

But a bumpy rollout, including glitches in the system and a poorly designed portal for schools, is making it harder, counselors say, to help students navigate the process or select schools for next year.

“A school that just kind of wants to wipe their hands clean of responsibility — this would do it,” said one guidance counselor at a Queens middle school who wished to remain anonymous.

How widespread the portal problems are remains unclear, but a department of education spokesman did acknowledge it has received complaints — for example that the system is too slow for users.

Education officials said the department decided to make the change as a previous contract was expiring, which provided a chance to modernize the application system.

The new website lets families search schools that match certain preferences, like academic programs, sports or other activities, accessibility, and proximity to particular subway lines. And people who spoke to Chalkbeat said they’ve heard positive feedback about the portal for parents — that it’s easy to use for people who are already familiar with computers.

But the portal — available in ten different languages — could still present challenges for parents who can’t read, lack access to a computer or are not familiar with such technology. And the separate portal for schools was described as basic and rife with delays. One counselor compared it to the old operating system MS-DOS.

The department announced its plan, part of a long-awaited diversity initiative, to switch to an online system in June 2017 and said the transition would happen in the fall of 2018. Officials notified superintendents about the transition in April and told principals in June.

But education officials did not host in-person and webinar trainings for guidance counselors until September and October. This is also when families received letters notifying them about the changes, although education department officials say those families that attended summer high school events were also notified of the transition from paper to the MySchools portal.

The Queens counselor said her school reviewed the old process with seventh graders in the spring so that they would be ready as eighth graders to apply for high schools of their choice. She heard changes were coming but was not informed about when they would go into effect or what the system would look like until September.

“If they wanted to do this, they probably should have started a little earlier,” said another guidance counselor at a Brooklyn middle school.

One issue both counselors raised is they can no longer readily identify which students have yet to fill out applications. Under the old system, while cumbersome, counselors could check different classes and see who was missing from the list. The old system, the Queens guidance counselor said, made checking up on every student in her caseload easy. When she found students who hadn’t applied, she could quickly turn to “hunting them down, calling them and talking to them.”

The responsibility for making sure students were making progress was “on my shoulders,” she said. “I can’t do that anymore.”

The Brooklyn counselor said about 50 percent of students have still not filled out their applications at her school — which she only discovered after education officials sent the school a letter just a couple of weeks ago.

The education department could not immediately answer a follow-up question about how many students have filled out their applications to date compared to this time last year.

In the past, because counselors would receive sheets with their students’ school choices, it was easier to advise them on whether selections matched a student’s performance or chances of being accepted. This might prevent an adult from unduly discouraging a student from considering schools that some might judge out of reach. Under the new system, families can make their choices without a counselor actively involved in the process. But students who genuinely need guidance, encouragement or just logistical help may now miss out on such support or trouble-shooting, which could end up disadvantaging students who need assistance the most.

“A parent that does not communicate with us or thinks they have it under control, or a parent that is just putting it off until the last minute — we’re not going to be able to do much,” the Queens counselor said.

Raina Narita, a high school placement associate for Breakthrough New York, a nonprofit that helps low-income students with educational support like tutoring and navigating the admissions process, said that counselors may be right that the system is likely to be a challenge for parents who have little to no experience with computers, or lack access to them at all.

Parents who don’t have such access can still use the paper process or go to a Family Welcome Center, but not all parents may be aware of such options. Narita and both counselors say they have spoken to several parents who never received the letter that instructs them on how to create a MySchools account.

Officials said they have worked with the developer to address issues with the system, including problems with slow speeds that popped up last week and are keeping families apprised of changes and have received “positive feedback” about these efforts.

“We’ve made our application process easier and simpler by bringing it online with MySchools, and families no longer have to mail applications or complete paper applications at school,” said Doug Cohen, spokesman for the Department of Education.


Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.