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.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. Here’s the word from Denver Public Schools spokesperson Will Jones: “This was one of the items negotiated (Wednesday) night and early into the morning (Thursday). The result of that discussion was that teachers will not receive back pay.”

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”