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Hard Lessons

Why does a kid who’s barely scraping by have a better chance of getting into the high school of her choice than an eager B student? An investigation.


You don’t want to be in a middle school when the news bears down like an early-spring hurricane ripping through a beach town. If you happen to be hanging out in a typical sort of public school, stocked with a hopeful crew of eighth-graders, anywhere from a quarter to almost all the students will have taken the entrance exam for the elite, so-called science schools: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. Now along comes heartbreak day, when most -- more than 10,000 -- will learn they haven’t made the cut.

Some principals try to contain the public histrionics by notifying students individually of their scores, but others just try to shift the mess off-campus by divulging the results as late as possible on a Friday. “And we still have to spend a week rehabilitating these kids, they’re so devastated,” one West Side middle-school principal told me. “The crying, the hysteria, the ‘I’m not worth it,’ the ‘I’m no good.’ It’s the worst week of the year around here.”

Why so much angst about not making it into three admittedly superior schools out of an astonishingly varied 219 public high schools and high-school-like programs available to the adolescents of New York? It’s not as if choice consists of “Stuyvesant or the army,” as one eighth-grader melodramatically sketched his options for me.

It’s just that “the drop-off is so severe between the best and the rest,” as an English teacher in Queens noted, when you compare the 96 percent-or-better Regents graduation rates at Stuyvesant, Science, and the equally elite Townsend Harris (a Queens school that chooses students by their records instead of their test scores) with the graduation rates at most neighborhood schools. In fact, some schools grant virtually no Regents degrees.

But there’s more: The schools with rigorous academic programs that are emerging as strong alternatives to stressed neighborhood high schools are bombarded by applicants, with ten kids fighting for every seat. And parents who assume city high schools work like colleges -- giving the most academically advanced students the best shot -- face a rude awakening. An admissions quota system designed to create a more equitable system overall actually works against the most accomplished students by severely limiting the number of high-performers that some sought-after schools can accept.

In fact, it’s not unusual for better students to be rejected by all the schools of their choice. Last week, the mother of an East Side eighth-grader who has a 97 average but didn’t get into a selective school found out he was also rejected by all of his other choices. “When he didn’t make La Guardia, he put his head in my lap and he cried, bitterly, like a little kid. But when he came home yesterday with the letter, he said to me, ‘I’ve been rejected eleven times.’ He’s a very serious kid, and he can’t really believe this yet. I think he’s in mourning.”

If it weren’t for the quotas, given the way smart kids are trying to vote with their feet, the city could have several more superschools on its brag list tomorrow, with no shortage of qualified students to fill the classrooms. Take Manhattan’s tiny Baruch College Campus High School, which is so young (less than a year old), so barely established, that the sleek, high-rise chambers where its 100 young scholars read Roman history by day actually revert back to college classrooms at night. The school’s small but intensely ambitious, self-critical founding staff concocted an all-Regents, all-the-time curriculum that pushes writing and one-on-one teaching, in which every student pursues a weekly literary correspondence with a teacher. The school was just two months old when it came time for prospective freshmen to turn in their high-school applications last fall. Even so, word was out among Manhattan guidance counselors, who pushed it hard; some 1,394 students bid for next year’s approximately 100 freshman openings.

More than a third of the applicants -- 553 -- came from among what high-school admissions officers define as the city’s top talent pool, based on their reading scores. Another 878 came from a group the Board of Education expansively defines as the “middle,” and 63 applicants came from the lowest-scoring readers, those below the 16th percentile nationally.

“That is some applicant group,” says the school system’s longtime director of automated admissions, Robert Klein, after pulling Baruch’s figures from his foot-thick computer data file on this year’s 90,000 high-school applicants. If it was able to assemble a class that reflected its applicants, Klein said, “it could be a powerful alternative to Stuyvesant.”

But the citywide admissions policy doesn’t allow that to happen. To ensure that no student, regardless of his record, is cut off from the best high schools, Baruch, a so-called Education-Option, or Ed-Opt, school, must accept as many applicants -- 16 out of every 100 -- from among the lowest achievers as it does from among the top achievers, defined this year by the Board of Education as students who score at the 79th percentile or better on standardized reading tests. The remaining 68 come from the middle -- students whose reading scores fall between the 78th and the 16th percentile. The upshot: At hot schools like Baruch, the least accomplished students have the best chance at getting in.

School administrators argue that there are other places in this vast system for bright students: honors programs within zoned schools, and a few schools that screen all students for academic excellence. The problem is that most of those are also beseiged by good students. Most of the 82 new schools that have emerged out of the small-school movement are not screened. Like Baruch in District 2 and Beacon in the West Side’s District 3 or the High School of Environmental Studies (which got eight times more applications from high-achieving students than it did from low-achieving ones), they’re Ed-Opt.

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