application season

New York City extends school application deadline, adding to an admissions cycle full of change

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

New York City is extending its high school application deadline by nearly two weeks, to Dec. 14, amid snafus with the application website. The city made the announcement Wednesday, just days before the original Dec. 3 deadline.

The last-minute change is just the latest in an application season full of them, adding to an already complicated, controversial process that many critics say contributes to city’s status as one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

“Parents have so much more to deal with,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their options. “Everything is new, and it’s not intuitive, and it’s not easy to figure out, and information in the system — it’s not correct sometimes, and sometimes it’s missing.”

That information is key to navigating New York City’s vast school system, which provides an unusually wide degree of school choice. Families apply to high schools, and some districts don’t have attendance zones for middle schools, meaning families have to rank their top choices. A quarter of middle schools and a third of high schools select their students based on past academic performance and other factors.

Parents and school counselors have been reporting glitches with MySchools, the new website the city launched this year to handle middle and high school applications. Guidance counselors say the switch cuts them out of a process where their advice can be crucial, especially to students who might otherwise be bewildered by the choices. (Although students can still submit paper applications at their schools, some counselors report the online portal makes it harder to monitor students’ progress.)

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said the extension “doesn’t have to do” with the technical problems and “is in line with what we’ve done in the past.” He downplayed the deadline change. “Families were previously able to submit their applications” after the due date, he noted. “Now that the system is online,” the city is simply “formalizing” such leeway. The department has “received roughly 4,000 more applications” compared to this time last year.  

But an onslaught of changes this year has introduced many new admissions factors — and left many students and parents anxious and frustrated about a process that is complex in the best of circumstances.

State test scores were released about a month later than usual, leaving some families unsure about what options were realistic, since the results guide admissions decisions at many schools. One sought-after Manhattan high school changed its admissions criteria just this month. A high school fair, one of the main informational events for parents and students, took place in every borough this fall — another departure since the education department previously held one massive, main event for applicants and their families. A program was expanded to help more black and Hispanic students earn admission to the city’s coveted specialized high schools — prompting protests. And two school districts passed integration plans that affect middle school admissions.

“So many things have happened this particular year,” said Elissa Stein, the founder of High School 411, a service to help parents navigate the application process. “It’s just about going to school. It shouldn’t be this complicated and hard, and this stressful.”

The application process varies by school, but it often necessitates open house tours, entrance exams, or interviews, and students ranking their choices. The different deadlines and requirements can be hard to keep track of or even track down.

While some families can pay for private consultants, others who are pressed for time or lack the social connections to understand the often opaque process — or haven’t been following all the changes — can get left behind. Research has shown, for example, that even high-achieving middle schoolers in struggling schools tend to apply to high schools with lower graduation rates.

Many of this year’s changes were implemented in hopes of making information more readily available and the application process simpler and more accessible  — and boost diversity. There have been bright spots: Watson, the Let’s Talk Schools founder, praised the education department for collecting open house data on a central calendar for the first time.

“We’ve improved the amount and quality of information available to students and families,” Cohen, the education department spokesman, wrote in an email. “We’re working closely with school communities to ensure that families are able to find the school that best meets their needs.”

Still, critics wonder if the moves will only exacerbate racial, ethnic, economic, and academic divides, as once again, those with the money and time to devote to understanding the changes or working through any snafus will be advantaged.

While education department leaders hoped the new MySchools online portal would ease the application process, many have said it puts families without internet connection at a disadvantage. And though the additional high school fairs were meant to make them more accessible to families, Stein said not all schools showed up to all fairs.

“Even plans with the best intentions, unless you think of the entire demographics of the city and make sure everyone is being served, it’s not helping,” Stein said.  

Frustrated by the maze of fractured, incomplete, and overwhelming information, students with the advocacy group Teens Take Charge recently took red pens to the thick high school directory. They marked all the clubs and classes the students hoped to take in their new high schools — only to find out after enrolling that perks like college classes, step club, and band were no longer offered.

The group has been pushing the education department to include more updated information in the books, which can be the main guide for low-income and immigrant students trying to decide which school to attend. The teens have also asked for more relevant statistics, like whether a school’s high school graduates are considered ready to take college-level courses.

“Fixing the directory and making sure it’s accurate — that can be transformational,” said Coco Rhum, a senior at Beacon high school who is a member of Teens Take Charge. “It goes back to this idea of the privilege of having certain information and the capital that some families have.”

There have been efforts, both grassroots and research-based, to improve the information that’s available to parents and students — and to help make New York City’s school choice system more manageable and fair.

Researchers recently found that whittling down students’ options can increase their chances of getting into a high school with a higher graduation rates — especially if those students come from households where English is not the main language spoken.

In districts that are hoping to see more school integration, parents and education leaders have taken matters into their own hands to spread information to families. For these districts, changing the information that parents receive about schools has been seen as key to making their integration plans work. Since families will still apply to the schools of their choice, demographics will only change if parents are willing to consider a wider range of options.

District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park, tweaked middle school admissions this year, eliminating the use of selective “screens” such as students’ past test scores or a performing arts auditions. There, parents are working to land money through the city’s participatory budget process, which allows residents to vote on local projects, to create a robust online portal with virtual school tours, principal interviews, and other information in multiple languages.

In District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, students who come from low-income families or struggle in school will receive an admissions preference for middle schools. School leaders there have printed their own version of the middle school handbook — leaving out any references to test scores in favor of descriptions of what types of enrichment programs are offered, like advanced courses and field trips. The district also poured money into making sure all schools have a website, and posted short videos online of principals talking about their schools.

The goal was for schools to “get their names out there,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who pushed for the integration plan. “Let’s make sure that people at least know what these schools are.”

Brian Zager, the principal of Lafayette Academy middle school in District 3, said he has seen a real difference this year. His school serves mostly black and Hispanic students, but Zager said he has seen a more diverse group of parents show up for his school tours — and the sheer number of interested families has grown. Zager said they’re often surprised to learn of his school’s track record of sending students to high-performing high schools, and that many students take and pass algebra courses.

It kind of pops the bubble that they had a preconceived notion of what these schools are, and what the diversity looks like, and what the rigor looks like,” Zager said. “It’s more like clearing up the fog, and I think its been eye opening.”

Advocates realize that filling information gaps is just one part of making integration a reality, especially since research has shown that parents sometimes make school decisions based on race.

“The second part is, let’s make sure all these schools are inclusive and welcoming,” Berger said. “And that’s obviously the harder, longer burn.”

Reema Amin contributed to this report. 

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that all students must submit a middle school application.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”