Small Themed High Schools: Should Principals Be Permitted to Select Students? If So, What Happens to the Unwanted?

You may wonder: how does a story end up in the media?

The answer: the story is “pitched” to the media outlet by the communication staff, public relations company, consultants or “flacks” that the organization employs.

The job of the editor is to sift through the potential stories and assign a story to a reporter.

The world of journalism has changed and continues to change. Print media is retreating and electronic media rules; in New York City Chalkbeat and Schoolbook cover education while Politico and others cover education in addition to other topics. A range of blogs cover and/or comment on education; most are advocacy, Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education comments on education nationally, raises dollars and endorses candidates.

Whoever generated the Schoolbook story, “Theme High Schools Long to Find Interested Applicants,” deserves the fees they charged their client.

I worked for a not-for-profit that created and assisted small high schools; when we asked, “what can we do for you?” – The answer was: “How can we attract/enroll more academically able students” Basically – how can we game the system?

Bottom line: schools are “rated” on graduation rates and graduation rates are dependent on passing five regents exams, especially Algebra 1 and Global Studies – schools vie for the more academically able students.

The current high school admission system assures that schools will receive students with a range of academic abilities.

There three types of admission procedures: Specialized High Schools (exams required by state law), hundreds of screened schools, (principals choose applicants based on grades, or a portfolio or an audition) and limited screened schools (students who attended a school fair receive priority) and schools with a geographic zone. There are about 700 high schools in New York City.

In a month 8th graders will submit high school applications with up to twelve choices listed in priority order. In January principals receive a listing of kids who applied to their school, without any info on their choices by priority. The principals “match” students, make selections, they are advised to select 5x as many students as seats.  In the Schoolbook story the High School for Food and Finance received 16 applicants for each 9th grade slot and the High School for Design and Architecture, in the same building received 3 applicants for each slot.

Beth Fertig, an excellent reporter; however, in this instance did not research the article sufficiently.

Park West High School, the former school that now houses six small schools, was a failing high school; the school was placed on the Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) list, and, is one of the few SURR schools that actually began to resuscitate itself. The school received a grant and implemented the John Hopkins Talent Development Model – one of the most effective school reform models. I was on the review team that visited the school. It was impressive. The school created themed academies, teams of teachers, intensive remediation in the 9th grade, and, the UFT Chapter Leader and the Principal were on the same page. The SURR Team Leader wrote a glowing report – a few months later the Department announced it was closing the school. The school had a number of academies, one was a food program that was part of the original design of the school, and another was a “vertical transportation” program, elevator maintenance. The elevator maintenance program was highly successful, a partnership with the union, it placed graduates in the transit authority and in union jobs. I met a graduate five years out of the program, at the urging of vocational education teacher: “He’s my friend, you can tell him, how much did you make last year?”  The former student: “With overtime, $125,000.” The Department closed the school and the program.

The Bloomberg administration was closing schools and a school in midtown Manhattan was prime real estate in which to create small schools. Park West was doomed.

Fertig writes,

The Department of Education frequently boasts that 75 percent of eighth graders get one of their top three choices for high school. That sounds impressive for a system handling about 75,000 applications each fall. But teachers and principals at small schools with special themes told WNYC they wind up with students each year who don’t want to be there, while some who really do want to attend aren’t accepted.

“Every year I get dozens of emails from people begging me to get into the school, asking me why they didn’t get in,” said Nan Shipley, who chairs the board of a fund that supports Food and Finance. “That’s the question I would like to have answered.”

I would guess that the “fund” that supports the school, a very unusual situation, arranged for the story. Under the Bloomberg administration local electeds with clout in Gracie Mansion created screened schools, primarily schools in neighborhoods with potential Bloomberg voters.

Rashid Ferrod Davis, principal of Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, also wrestles with that problem. His small, celebrated school in Crown Heights has a partnership with IBM; students can earn an associates degree. But Davis estimated just about 50 percent of his incoming students ranked the school among their top three choices. A lot of them also come in well below grade level.

“I don’t mind students who are low-performing coming out of middle school changing habits and behavior to finish high school,” he explained. “But I want that to be coupled with interest.”

How do you define “interest?”

Is “interest” synonymous with higher academic skills, excellent attendance in middle school, engaged parents?

Is Fertig advocating for a two-tiered system: schools for kids who show “interest” and everyone else?

When you ask a kid why they’re applying to a school the standard answer is, “My friends are going there.” If you ask a parent, “I want a safe school for my child.”

There are hundreds and hundreds of schools with what the school hopes is a glitzy name that will attract engaged students, aka, students with higher academic skills or the potential to engage in the school. In reality thirteen year olds will change their minds numerous times about a career. A handful of schools actually prepare kids for a job after high school, there are a growing number of vocational high schools; however the kid still has to pass four regents exams plus a rigorous assessment in their career path.

Once upon a time we created comprehensive high schools, schools with academic, commercial and vocational paths within the school, the school du jour is now a small, meaning about 400 students, with a theme, co-located in a building with four, five or six other small schools.

We now have hundreds of small themed high schools, both the elite or “boutique” schools that select students and the limited screened schools that would like to select students. Everyone would like to be screened, no one, or let’s say very few want to take the low skilled students, students who barely graduate middle school, kids with IEPs, kids who are English language learners.

Under the pre-Bloomberg days we had a triage system – schools that survived and prospered and schools that were struggling.  When I started teaching we had I believe 110 comprehensive high schools and about twenty vocational high schools.

The October, 2014 MDRC Small High School Study reports,

..  a rigorous multiyear study of small public high schools in New York City … confirm[s] that these schools, which serve mostly disadvantaged students of color, not only raise graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points, but they boost college enrollment by 8.4 percentage points. In addition, the small high schools achieve these gains at a lower cost per graduate than that of the high schools attended by students who had applied to these schools but were randomly assigned to other public high schools when small school slots were full.

How many students in small high schools graduated due to the widespread use of credit recovery and teachers grading their own student paper, practices that have since been sharply curtailed, we do not know.

I suspect the Fertig Schoolbook article is the opening volley in attempt to further screen applicants to the themed small high schools.

If the policies are changed: who will teach the “left behinds,” the kids who don’t show “interest,” or have a learning disability, or are an English language learner?

Well, there is the Sweeney Todd solution,

3 responses to “Small Themed High Schools: Should Principals Be Permitted to Select Students? If So, What Happens to the Unwanted?

  1. rachel dearagon

    We have been down this road. A long and winding road that leads us tback o defacto segregated schools. There are those who want the GOOD OLD DAYS… but they were deemed unconstitutional. Although manmy well meaning pricipals just brought in kids they believed would succeed, the courts found that leaving things up to the belief systems of various principals was not a clear way to assure universal access to education. There are those that don’t like the pressure of Brown vs. the B.of Ed , but others of us feel that WE can and have alll benefited from integration.


  2. This article suggests that students are selecting high schools for different reasons than schools are selecting them. How do we reconcile this?


  3. There are actually several different admissions methods at NYC schools: screened (usually this means screened for academics, but some are screened for other reasons, such as home language), audition, limited unscreened (where going to an open house puts you in the first priority group), ed. opt. (theoretically, the students are selected in a way that guarantees a mix of abilities, but in practice many ed opt programs find they only have low-performing applicants), unscreened (as near as I can tell, the only school that still offers unscreened programs is Curtis HS on Staten Island), and zoned guarantee.

    And, as a different schoolbook article points out, the DoE hasn’t opened new screened schools in a few years. They’re really pushing for more ed opt programs right now. (This is something that seems to piss off more than a few parents who assume that screened automatically means “better quality”.)


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