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Hard Lessons

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Those changes, along with the blossoming of alternative schools, have cut in half the number of kids shut out of all their choice schools. Last year, Klein says, only 10,000 were in Melissa Herrera’s discouraging situation -- sent to their zoned schools or to undersubscribed theme schools whose themes did not interest them.

Still, that’s of little comfort to those 10,000, especially if they have been high-achievers in middle school. Larry Hirsch, who ran the East Side Middle School for gifted students before becoming a Yonkers principal, says, “This is what happened to the kids in my school. The 98 percenters, the really top-notch kids who were good test takers, got into Stuyvesant or Science or Tech, and another four or six would go to Townsend Harris. But the kids who suffered were the hardworking, bright, wonderful, to-die-for kids with the 85 or 90 averages.” As soon as the first-round results on high-school applications came in, Hirsch would hit the phones and start hustling for places for those students. And that’s exactly what principals and middle-school counselors citywide are doing right now, exactly a week since the first round acceptances and rejections went out.

At the end of the board’s three application rounds, and after all his networking, Hirsch said, “There was always a cadre of twelve or eighteen who were bypassed, and a lot of them would go to private or parochial schools, if their parents could afford it.”

Fourteen-year-old Shari Thomas had been commuting from East New York to Manhattan public schools since fourth grade and had a 90 average at Wagner Middle School when she was rejected last year everywhere she applied. “Okay,” she says, “I understand they want the schools mixed so it’s not all brains or all stupid people -- but people I’ve known for years who had low averages were getting into three and four schools.” Because Baruch had just been approved to open this year, she was able to apply there late and was admitted.

“Get used to it,” a schools administrator told me as we were debating the fine points of high-school admissions one day. “The assumption is and always has been that middle-class families in the city will take care of themselves.” Meaning that they’ll pull what strings they can, and if the system doesn’t make room for their children, they’ll pay for a private school that will.

Harrington makes a similar point, though more gently: “If we all chase after the top 10 percent, we forget about the other 90 percent, who are entitled to a public education and who are more in need of us in terms of making a difference in their lives, the lives of their families, and the life of the city.”

Michael Serber, the founding principal of the new Academy of American Studies, a tiny but rigorous academic high school in Long Island City, must take every one of his lowest-scoring applicants. And Serber is happy to do it. “Do you really want to draw a line for a kid, at 13 or 14 years of age, and cut off his opportunities?” Serber says. “I’ll tell you the truth, I was not a great student until my senior year in high school. Spanish IV nearly killed me. I had to go to summer school. I failed high-school math. Then something happened in my psyche in my senior year, and I started to work.”

But principal Nathalie McFarlane of A. Philip Randolph High School at City College says, “I don’t know that I’d buy into this thing that every child should have the right to go wherever they want.” Randolph screens students academically for the medical/science and engineering programs but accepts Ed-Opt students in humanities and general academics.

While McFarlane worries that placing remedial students in tough academic classes can distract from the mission, she says, “I’m more concerned with the effect it can have on the individual student, which can be quite severe. Sometimes what they give me in the lottery is so unrealistic. What can I do with a student in the one percentile on reading? Tutoring. That’s all. Classes are large, and he’s really going to struggle.

“You don’t want to be perceived as an elitist kind of school,” McFarlane says, “but I think it’s so unfair to suggest that students apply to schools where they’ll have difficulty meeting the academic standards.”

So where, then, are the strongest alternatives to the elite schools? Much depends on a student’s interests, and whether the personal attention of a small school is more important to him than having the ability to sample lots of subjects and extracurriculars in a larger school. The ten schools in the sampler that follows represent a range of academic styles. Some are untested but promising; others have a long, strong track record. All possess the key ingredient for a strong school: strong leadership.

As parents of passed-over students file their appeals and work the phones in the coming weeks, it’s worth noting that some stories have happy endings. Four years ago, Lotus Ahmed went into a panic when, despite her A average in middle school, she was given no option but to attend her Brooklyn zoned school, rock-bottom by every measure. “My mother doesn’t speak English well, so I wrote a letter to the Board of Education -- I didn’t even know who to send it to -- and I said it wasn’t fair,” she recalled the other day. “I said if that’s how things were going to be, I was going to stop trying so hard. It wasn’t a letter that was supposed to sound good. I was just saying what I felt because I was so aggravated.”


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