Parents, students in limbo as NYC dithers on high school admissions



Frustrated parents are blasting Mayor de Blasio and the city Department of Education as jittery eighth-graders agonize over this year’s up-in-the-air high school selection process — while the administration drags its feet, for the second year in a row, on announcing admission rules for soon-to-be freshmen.

“Negligent isn’t the right word. Cruel is the right word,” said Alina Adams, a mom of three who runs the website NYC School Secrets. “These are 13- and 14-year old kids, and they’re absolutely torturing them.”

“I’m very anxious about it,” confessed Morgan LaBella, an eighth-grader at IS 187 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

In the past, students received a thick, telephone-book-sized directory in June of seventh grade, as a guide to the city’s 400-plus public high schools and 700 separate special-interest programs. In September and October, eighth-graders could attend multiple high school fairs and open houses to choose up to 12 schools to list on their applications.

Screening requirements — which, depending on the high school, might include grades, auditions, essays, or special tests — were made public months before the early December application deadline.

Vito LaBella and daughter Morgan
Vito LaBella with his daughter, Morgan, an eighth-grader at IS 187 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

But the coronavirus pandemic upended all that in 2020 — and despite the end of remote learning and students’ return to the classroom, the application system remains in turmoil.

“De Blasio is a lame duck who now can make all the changes he never dared to make when he ran for election,” charged Adams. “Now he’s salting the earth.”

High school fairs never occurred this fall, schools have not hosted in-person tours for prospective students, and the high school directory has been replaced by a difficult-to-navigate online portal that forces families to review each school’s website for information on programs and admission requirements.

“It’s incompetence bordering on malice,” said Maud Maron, a Manhattan City Council candidate whose eighth-grade daughter attends MS 255. “Talk about lack of equity” for poor and immigrant families with less savvy about the DOE system, and limited internet access, she added.

Most importantly, the city has not yet said whether high schools can use their old screening methods — which woke critics have called a form of segregation — to choose students.

That’s left schools as well as families in the dark. One school canceled a scheduled high school information session this week “due to lack of complete information from the DOE,” parents were told in an email.

Meanwhile, hamstrung high schools have no admissions rubrics to give prospective students — and families must obsessively search their target schools’ websites for news.

“It’s daily, monitoring, checking,” said Jessica Chiu of Harlem, whose daughter Leah is an eighth-grader. “I’m being very proactive.”

Adding to the confusion, the DOE has eliminated geographic-based high school admissions policies this year in the name of equity.

That will make admission to top-ranked schools formerly limited to district or borough residents, like Eleanor Roosevelt in Manhattan and Millennium in Brooklyn, harder than ever — and will apparently put an end to zoned high schools that guarantee a seat to kids who live nearby.

“They’re being quite vague about getting rid of zoned high schools, which would have tremendous ramifications, especially for families in Queens and Staten Island,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former DOE official and consultant who runs NYC Admissions Solutions. “There are a lot of families who have moved into these neighborhoods just to go to these coveted schools.”

Jessica Chiu
Jessica Chiu is frustrated by the city’s up-in-the-air high school selection process.
Leah Chiu
Jessica Chiu’s daughter Leah is an eighth-grader.

“Now you have kids citywide applying,” Maron said. “It’s essentially a lottery.”

The DOE announced Wednesday — five months later than usual — that the SHSAT, the entry test for eight specialized high schools, will be given to eighth-graders in DOE middle schools on Dec. 2 and to private and charter school students on Dec. 5.

But students still don’t have an application date for the system’s non-specialized schools — or know when they will receive an admissions decision.

On Friday, the DOE website assured eighth-grade families that “welcome letters” containing their long-sought application instructions “are in the mail.”

“We’re a few weeks into the new school year and look forward to continuing to share more informing on the upcoming admissions process with families soon,” said DOE spokesperson Sarah Casanovas.

“Following the unprecedented impact of the global pandemic, we made common sense and equitable changes to our admissions policies,” she added.

Apprehensive parents are taking no chances.

“We’re [also] taking the Catholic high school tests,” said Vito LaBella, Morgan’s dad, whose older children attended Brooklyn Tech. “We wouldn’t have done that ordinarily. We just need to have all options open.”


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