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Flaws In The High School Admission Process

by Marcia Biederman, Jun 03, 2004
 
 

Roman Kravchenko, an 8th grader in Brooklyn, came to this country two years ago. After one year of English as a Second Language classes at Joseph B. Cavallaro Intermediate School 28, he attained full language proficiency. Now he studies reading and writing alongside American-born students. He got a 94 in English on his last report card and a 95 average overall.

Yet Roman has not been accepted to any of the six public high school programs to which he applied. Now he's one of 14,000 young New Yorkers adrift in an adolescent limbo created by the city's new high school matching system.

Roman came here from Russia to become a boy without a country. As of early June, he and the thousands like him didn't know where they'd be in September. For the first time in New York, they can't even count on attending their neighborhood school.

The latest edition of the "Directory of the New York City Public High Schools" -- the city's instrument for guiding eighth graders and their parents through the high school admissions process -- boasts cartoons, youth-oriented graphics and "fun facts" about famous New York City high school graduates like Lucy Liu and Colin Powell.

But it lacks a comforting sentence that was included in the more humdrum edition of the previous year: "If you received no offers, you will attend the local high school." That is no longer true. Students must list even their local, zoned high school as one of their choices and hope for a match.

Roman wasn't shooting for the moon. His dream is to attend Edward R. Murrow High School, a school popular with Brooklyn's middle class that accepts students of various abilities. He applied to three selective programs there - each counted as one choice - and to another well-regarded school, Madison. He also listed Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Utrecht High Schools. Some might say those last two should have been happy to have him.

Nobody wanted him, perhaps because Roman's high average and swift mastery of English couldn't remedy a fatal flaw: in 7th grade, he'd been placed in English as a Second Language Arts. His official designation as an English Language Learner had barred him from taking the 7th grade state standardized exam in English Language Arts, and high school admissions revolve around 7th grade scores.

Roman had been instructed outright not to apply to high schools with "screened" admissions, which in the arcane parlance of high school admissions, absolutely require the 7th grade English Language Arts test score. But the lack of the score couldn't have helped him with the other schools either.

"When I found out that no school wanted to take me, I thought, what did I do wrong? It's my fault," said Roman.

Such reactions are common in unmatched students. They sound like mugging victims.

Soon, however, Roman found his bearings.. "Even my teachers said, 'It's some kind of mistake. With your average, no school? What nonsense.' That's when I decided to fight back."

He and his mother, Polina, have decided to renew their push for Murrow. Armed with recommendations from Roman's teachers, Polina secured a letter from a Murrow assistant principal agreeing to accept the boy if the Department of Education consents.

In the meantime, Roman was given a list of schools that still have openings and told to rank his choices again for the final round of the admissions process. There were still openings at Madison, and he will soon learn if he was accepted. In late May he didn't feel hopeful: every unmatched kid he knows had ranked Madison first, he said.

He found the other schools on the list unacceptable. "Their graduation rates were less than 50 percent. I was shocked," said the honors student.

If the match system failed Roman because he's a former English Language Learner, it failed another student at his Brooklyn middle school for very different reasons.

Jason Reichman, also an eighth grader at I.S. 281, had considered Murrow, too. But Jason has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. His mother, Nancy, said, "When I saw how unstructured and laid-back Murrow is, I said, 'Jason, this is not for you,' and he agreed."

Instead, they looked for a smaller school, where Jason would be sure to get attention. His mother said he does well in all subjects except math, for which he has an individual educational plan.

"He needs a little extra guidance," Jason's mother said. "He's not special ed or a top student. He tends to get lost in the shuffle."

The city has supposedly addressed the needs of students like Jason with the creation of new small high schools set to open in September. In the spirit of we-told-you-so, the city announced that more than 8,000 students who applied to one of the small high schools opening in September were matched to them.

Indeed, Nancy Reichman wanted her son to apply to the new high schools - until she learned that the closest ones were eight or nine miles from her Gravesend home and not on a direct public-transit route. In the end, she found only three schools of acceptable size for Jason to list. Two are highly sought after: Telecommunications and Technology High School and Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences. The third, Brooklyn Studio High School, was a pioneer in mainstreaming special education students into general education classes.

Jason received no offers. "My son felt like a failure," his mother said. "It's a farce. They give them all these choices, and all of a sudden there are no choices."

Like Roman, they were given a list of schools with open seats. Not one met Jason's needs. Because she had to submit something, Nancy wrote the name of New Utrecht High School, affixed the notation "signed under protest," and faxed it to the education department with an appeal.

Jason is feeling better, his mother said, because he knows "I'll continue to fight it even if I have to get a lawyer."

The city's new high school admissions process is said to resemble the match program that admits med school graduates to residencies. But Roman and Jason aren't looking for prestigious places to advance their careers. They're just two kids who want to succeed in city high schools that have failed so many others.

Marcia Biederman writes about city public schools for InsideSchools.org and contributes regularly to The New York Times.

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