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Michele Somerville Headshot

Why 8,000 Eighth-Grade NYC Students Don't Have High School Placements Yet

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I wasn't surprised to learn on Friday morning (the day after students received their letters) that the NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) had failed to match more than 8,000 New York City students with appropriate schools. And it is not students but the DOE who failed in this.

As a former NYC teacher and parent of three adolescent students (two of whom attend NYC DOE schools) who has presided over a NYC DOE high school application process in recent years, I can hardly find the widespread disappointment of 8000 children who are currently without high school placements surprising.

In the NYC DOE, the students are too often afterthoughts. The deck is stacked in the favor of the educrats.

The matching process for eighth graders seeking places in NYC high schools is cloaked in secrecy. We are told that children are placed in schools by means of algorithms and computers at the mysterious OSE (Office of Student Enrollment).

"Top schools" have first dibs on all applicants because not only do the strongest students choose "top schools," but these "top schools" also recommend that students hoping for seats in them list them first (and second). Therefore, applicants with realistic chances of being admitted to these "top schools" -- as well as those gambling on long shot acceptances -- all put the same handful of schools at the top of their lists. How fair is it, really, that easily more than 10,000 students might be encouraged to squander their best shots at a few schools that can only accept 300 or 400? And isn't there something sinister about asking 13-year-old children to gamble in this way?

The order of preferences on these lists should be blind. This would make it more difficult for the OSE computers and more difficult for Brahmin DOE educrats to take the "articulation" money and run -- but it would be fairer to students.

Specialized high schools have separate admissions processes. Stuyvestant (considered by some to be the best school in NYC) for example, uses the lone criterion of one's score on the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test) to select students. An unfortunate consequence of this is that principals and guidance departments seeking the cachet of Stuy placements now direct families who can afford them to rigorous test preparation programs. Obviously this ups the ante, promotes inequality, and widens the educational divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Overemphasis on standardized test performance is bad for learning; in addition, schools that admit students on the basis of testing alone tend to lack racial, cultural and economic diversity.

One can be sure that whenever the children of white lawyers and teachers are scrambling, planning appeals and revisiting options that looked unseemly and untenable a week earlier, that things aren't looking good for eighth-graders living in poor sections of the city.

The high school admission process is emblematic of all that is wrong with the DOE; it is fruit of the poised tree which, by design, is subtlely racist, embraces a pedagogically lazy and naive view of the value of standardized tests, rewards mediocrity, is organized to suit the needs of computers and educational toadies, and offers those who already have the most -- the best chance to win the most.

The opening of new schools and closing of so-called "low-achieving" schools help ambitious administrators and affluent parents to keep the upper hand. New "selective" schools and charters tend to target stronger students. Administrators who lack the ingenuity to improve it are too often rewarded when they figure out how to "game" the system as they "make their bones" by pandering to vocal, white, well-educated parents.

Although charter schools have a better track record when it comes to reaching out to black and brown students, too often new schools are placed in buildings and zones without regard for the people already working in those facilities and areas. Every time a new, whiter brighter school opens, some neighboring program in which predominantly black and brown students are enrolled is indirectly compromised.

More balance is needed because the entire "system" becomes more discriminatory when new schools are conceived unscrupulously. Not only do whiter brighter schools siphon off DOE funding, but they also siphon off educational expertise. It is far easier to run a school with an active PTA and well-prepared students than it is to turn a "hell-hole" full of "sweat-hogs" around; yet some of the smartest young people in New York City are "sweat-hogs" in DOE "hell-holes!"

Many a child the system has cheated would become an "elite" students if only her or she were given a clear shot at a proper education.

The current method of matching students with high schools freshly violates those from forsaken (generally black and brown) schools that were closed this past winter following pro forma DOE PEP votes. Having long been denied the kind of support that students in new schools will receive this fall, students in "struggling" schools will now find themselves last in line when it comes to finding seats in decent high schools.

Does coming from a closing school put a candidate for admission at a disadvantage? In an inherently racism system, I should think it does.

One of the reason that nearly 8,000 eighth-graders don't know where they will attend school next year is that the DOE needs them scrambling -- in order that newly "articulated" whiter, brighter schools be fully enrolled. The DOE has a vested interest in making sure these whiter, brighter schools get off the ground, and the OSE (Office of Student Enrollment) has a critical role in facilitating this.

Newly articulated "selective" schools will not get the "cream" of the crop this year (It takes new schools several years to become genuinely "selective.") but thanks to the OSE game of musical chairs -- wherein there are nearly 8,000 more players than there are schools -- the whiter, brighter schools will enjoy the opportunity to skim off the top of the pool of nearly 8,000 students, many of whom wouldn't have given a new school a second thought a week ago.

If every one of those nearly 8,000 had been placed in appropriate schools, the whiter, brighter schools would have no enrollment.

The corruption can and should be addressed. All new schools should be required either to admit students by lottery, or to reserve a significant percentage of seats for students residing in low-income areas. A conflict of interest exists when administrators who design schools run them. Monitoring the articulation of screened schools in demands particular vigilance -- in order to ensure that new "screened" schools do not become fiefdoms and (relatively speaking) sinecures for unprincipled principals.

Students, parents and educators all know that the movers and shakers of the system are not those sucking up to district brass at Tweed conference tables and racking up credits at Teachers College. The movers and shakers say "no" to corruption, racism and cronyism. The movers and shakers are the teacher who taught my child to write a college essay when she was in his fifth grade class and the first-year high school Social Studies teacher whose daily quiz on the "A" Section of the New York Times she had to pass each morning. True educators, not a cabal of tenure whores, should supervise the "articulation" of schools. True educators set smart students ablaze while bringing "struggling" learners up to speed. They are the brains of the NYC DOE operation.

We don't need more "selective" or "elite" schools. We need good, safe, solid, diverse high schools for every young person in the system. Elite teachers make all their students "elite." They know how to dig in at "low achieving" schools. They bring up everybody's game.