Â By November 14th, thousands of New York City eight graders must submit official
applications listing their high school choices. The Department of Education has
information forums for parents and students in each borough. Chancellor Klein
and company are belatedly trying to stem some of the confusion
that has arisen from the initiation of a new high
school admissions process
the beginning of the school year.
The new high schools admissions process was implemented this fall with neither
public announcement nor public vetting. As students, parents, guidance counselors,
and administrators at both middle and high schools scrambled to learn the details
of the new policy, misinformation and frustration reigned. Only now are people
starting to understand the new system.
The new admissions process was designed to be fairer to more of the 100,000 students
who apply to public high schools each year. Beginning this year, students will
rank 12 schools on their applications in order of preference. Unlike previous
years, high schools will make their acceptance decisions without knowing how
their school was ranked on a student's application. A complex computer program
will match up students with their highest ranked school that also accepts them.
The program is designed like the one that matches medical school graduates with
residency programs (though the mechanics of the schools' matching process have
not been made public). There are no more waiting lists. The one school with which
a student is matched will be the only option students will be offered unless
they are accepted into one of the specialized high schools, which have separate
Few would question the need to reform the city schools' high schools admissions
process, which, in previous years, gave top students several school choices but
sent thousands of other students to schools not on their list of preferences
at all. Klein and company addressed the problem quickly, but they have provided
limited public explanation or justification of the details. And they have not
adequately prepared for the effects of the changes. The result is considerable
anxiety for parents and schools alike.
What can the Department of Education learn from this?
School personnel must be able to provide accurate information about new policies.
Some families found sound, reliable information about the new policies, like
Insideschools.org and the Web site and handbooks produced
by the Department of Education. However, many others depended
on school personnel who, not infrequently, gave out wrong or contradictory information.
Better school data are needed too. Because students must list 12 high school
choices (instead of five in previous years), they and their families need to
learn about many more options. With students selecting a larger number of schools,
they will have to look further afield, beyond the schools with which they or
people around them may be familiar. To help, the high school directory should
include school safety information and other basic information about school conditions
now listed only as statistics on school report cards. In addition, if schools
are going to continue to give preference to certain students, the directory should
not only state schools' priority groups but should also give data about how many
students beyond those groups are actually accepted.
Students and parents must be able to get a firsthand look at the schools. This
year, schools were totally unprepared for the much larger number of students
and parents attending scheduled high school open houses and tours. As a result,
many of these sessions have been overcrowded and many schools unable to accommodate
the number of families that wanted to visit. In the future, schools must be accessible
and offer sufficient tours and open houses to accommodate prospective students
All families need to know schools' true admissions processes. As might be expected,
both parents and schools are jostling to gain whatever advantage they can under
the new system: They are trying to figure out how to maximize the chances that
they will get their top choices, whether of schools or of students. Parents report
that some schools are trying to retain the advantages they had under the old
system by creating ways for students "in the know" to submit additional
information about their preferences and qualifications. Many parents welcome
this because they are worried that, with a larger pool of applicants, schools
will make their choices based on a more limited set of criteria, judging students
solely by tests scores, grades, and attendance records. But these practices may
put families who go by the book at a disadvantage.
With such a wide variety of New York City public high schools, the choice of
a high school is a very important one. Many city high schools are just plain
bad, and many more are mediocre. Even among the good schools, there are important
differences--in size, in philosophy, in curricular and extracurricular offerings.
Is the reform going to be a real improvement? No one can yet say whether the
new system will get the intended results or what other unintended consequences
may arise. The new admissions process may ensure that the system by which students
are distributed to schools is fairer to more students. Unfortunately, no admissions
process is going to solve the basic problem that there are not nearly enough
good high schools to go around.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and the director of policy development
at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.
Josh Simons is an artist and designer with
two children in the public schools. The views expressed are their own.
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