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The incredible application adventure

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By SUSAN SAWYERS

More than 2,000 visitors streamed through the imposing set of doors of the Beaux Arts Emigrant Savings Bank on Chambers Street one weekend in February. They had come to learn about the city’s 16 new public high schools opening for students next fall.

A selection of brochures and handouts from February's High School Fair (Photo/Susan Sawyers)

Students jostled from table to table – or school to school – picking up chocolate kisses, Dunkin’ Donuts, globe-shaped key chains, and learning about each school’s unique offerings and eligibility requirements. For the city’s 80,000 eighth graders, this ritual has become a new and disarming right of passage.

For many, the old-fashioned neighborhood school may no longer be an option. Instead, eighth graders and their families face choosing one of 400 high schools that may be far away from home. Or worse, many may not find out which school they will be attending until September. This already confusing process was tossed into further disarray on March 26th when a state supreme court judge halted the city’s plans to close down 19 schools, placing the fate of 8,500 eighth graders who had chosen one of those schools initially in limbo.

Wrenny Lewis, 14, was one of the those students. On the February weekend, he was still testing out some options.

“Come, Wrenny,” said Martha deSilva, 33, to her son, who is tall, thin and wears plastic rectangular shaped glasses. “Get closer,” she said motioning toward the representatives of Frank McCourt High School of Writing Journalism and Literature, a new small school that will ultimately become one of four to replace Louis D. Brandeis High School on West 84th Street in Manhattan. DeSilva, maneuvered her stroller-bound 2-year old daughter, Leah, who sat bundled up in a bubblegum pink snow jacket.

Wrenny, an eighth grader at M.S. 571 in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn, had never heard of Frank McCourt, the Irish-American teacher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Nor was he especially interested in writing, the main theme of that particular school’s application.

The requisite test scores, attendance records and interviews were irrelevant to Wrenny’s mother. Her main concern was to find a school close to home. Wrenny is a fine student, but he’s easily distracted, and needs a small classroom in order to function well. Frank McCourt High was an hour away by subway and bus.

This was Wrenny’s first visit to the school fair. Prior to Christmas, he’d submitted his selection of 12 schools to his guidance counselor, Jennifer Denton, who had, in turn, passed it along to the Department of Education. His first choice: Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, conveniently located across the street from his home. Second choice: Metropolitan Corporate Academy, also in Brooklyn. He’d included Brooklyn’s Bedford Academy High School and Midwood High School, too. None of the schools on Wrenny’s list were represented at the fair.

Students are encouraged, but not required, to visit schools, meet with faculty and get a first hand glimpse of their prospective academic stomping grounds. Normally, a kid like Wrenny could wait for the “matching process” to work its magic.

But in late January, Wrenny’s mom, a single mother who worked until recently as a babysitter for a Manhattan family, received a letter from the Department of Education notifying her that his second choice, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, founded in 1992 in partnership with Goldman Sachs, would be closing in 2013. If he wanted to amend his high school application, he was free to do so.  Mother and son were on a mission to find an alternative, so they could submit a new application.

Applying to high schools for New York City’s class of 2014 begins in June when students received a comprehensive high school directory that is as thick as the yellow pages. Students who weren’t applying to the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant or Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, that require entrance exams, were instructed to narrow down their options by September. To ensure students are matched with high schools that suit their interests, the Department of Education created a computerized system that is like the one that pairs medical students with residencies.

The Department of Education’s third and final fair before September 2010 focused on the city’s new high schools. Most of them are small and have themes such as leadership or the environment. Representatives from the International High School at Union Square, the newest in a network of a dozen international schools citywide and Manhattan Academy for Arts and Language spoke with students, their parents, guardians, guidance counselors and siblings across the street from imposing Tweed Courthouse, home of the Department of Education headquarters.

The Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the Department of Education

“Bronx and Manhattan on the right,” said Don Holly, Department of Education high school ambassador at the Emigrant Savings Bank fair. “Queens, Brooklyn to the left,” he said, as he dispensed clear plastic bags emblazoned with Chancellor Joel Klein’s name. The bags held a milky violet colored book “Directory of the New High Schools,” that looked more like a drug company annual report than an inviting pamphlet for young teens. The bag was big enoughm though, to collect more appealing treasures, such as peppermint candies and colorful pamphlets from the 20 or so schools vying for applicants’ attention.

“There will be a spot in high school for everybody,” said Holley. “It may not be his or her first choice but he or she is going to grade nine.”

As Wrenny, his mom and baby sister made their way through the crowd, the next stop was The Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation a school located at East 100th Street and First Avenue. There Wrenny met Principal Nicholas Tishuk, whose strawberry blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail accenting his hard-not-to-miss Abe Lincoln beard. “Kids learn by doing,” said Tishuk. “The teaching is based on a three-tiered model.”

Definitely too far away from home for Wrenny. Too loosey goosey for his mom.

The next school, Hudson High School of Learning Technologies, offered Three Musketeers candy bars and an online signup on one of three laptop computers. “When a spot opens up,” said Dr. Haber, a school representative, “add your name to the list.”

Wrenny entered his name as instructed and when asked, “Are you interested in technology?” He said, “Yeah.” Meanwhile, Wrenny’s mother, who is from Guyana, perked up when she saw an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. “We use forensic science to look at The Last Supper,” said Haber. The Chelsea location of the school in what was the Bayard Rustin Education Complex, nixed it as an option. Too far from home.

Reaching the end of the Bronx and Manhattan offerings, Wrenny rounded a bend toward school representatives from his home borough of Brooklyn. The future high schooler approached a table for The Academy for Health Careers,  staffed by a man in a paramedics jacket. “Are you interested in health?” asked Millan, a personal friend of the principal. “Yeah,” said Wrenny.  His mother took a “Sweet Stripes” peppermint candy, and continued down the line. Information overload coupledwith fatigue began to take its toll.

Prospective 9th grader, Wrenny Lewis and his mother, Martha deSilva, at the high school fair

Wrenny is quiet, respectful of his mother and wants nothing more than to play football. He would have been plenty happy to skip all these choices, and attend his neighborhood school, Clara Barton High, except it doesn’t have a football team. His mom prefers that he comes straight home after school.

Wrenny told the assistant principal at the High School for Community Leadership, one of two new schools moving into Jamaica High School’s Educational Complex, about his preference for football. After football, “then what?” asked Robert Jones.

“Uh doctor,” said Wrenny.

“We have an internship with YMCA and with Americares, “said Jones. “You’ll get a hands-on education and play football,” he said. “I can’t promise you NFL but I can promise you everything else.” Jones was a physical education instructor and the football team’s coach. Wrenny had found a friend. “He’s my pick,” said Jones.

Wrenny added his name and address to the sign-in sheet for the High School for Community Leadership. “I can turn him into a doctor,” said Jones.  “I can put him on the football team and promise I can get him into college. I like him. A three sport athlete – all four years and when your sister gets older, we’ll have a place for her too.”

Jones, who wore a gray suit, white shirt and red tie, smiled. “I’ll be in touch,” he said. Wrenny smiled. The school, by Wrenny’s mother’s estimation, was too far from home. After an hour of chitchat interspersed with more candy, the entourage reached the last of the tables.

“Come! Wrenny,” said his mom once again. “This one’s nice,” she said pointing to the table for Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability on Jamaica Bay. “They don’t stay in the class all the ty-um,” said deSilva to her son about the next school. “They go outside and learn.” It’s a school where “we believe in learning by doing,” said Howard Rosenberg, senior director of The Artisan School and an advisor to the new school.

“Wrenny,” said Rosenberg, “I’m Howard. I was telling your mom about the program,” he said. “Is there anything you’d like to know?”

“Yeah, what about sports?” asked Wrenny.

“We have track, football,” said Howard. “PSAL?” asked Wrenny, referring to the Public School Athletic League.

“Yes,” said Howard, whose school affiliate offered foot-long pretzel sticks instead of sugary sweets. He offered a healthy-ish snack to Wrenny, his mom and sister. The threesome gladly accepted.

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Under normal circumstances, Wrenny’s guidance counselor would have heard from the Department of Education by March 24 about where her 97 students would be matched. This year, a lawsuit launched by the teachers union and the NAACP stalled the announcement for several weeks. In the meantime, the judge’s decision on March 26 chastising the city for closing 19 schools without proper community notification set back the announcement even further.

More likely than not, Wrenny will end up going to Clara Barton, his neighborhood high school. He chose not to apply to either of the schools in Queens and his new friend, Football Coach Robert Jones, never got in touch.

“Applying to high schools can be very confusing,” said Denton, Wrenny’s guidance counselor, and a 12-year veteran. “The bad news about the new schools,” she said, “is that we don’t have any performance information. The good news is that they are new!”

Chances are, whenever the match is made, about 20 of Denton’s eighth graders won’t be placed because they didn’t submit applications or the codes weren’t filled in properly. A supplementary round of applications are due in early April. For an inevitable four or five students who won’t have a place for some reason or aren’t happy with their match, they may appeal over the summer.

Denton knows that Wrenny’s mother doesn’t want him to go to Manhattan or Queens and she knows about Wrenny’s encounter with the assistant principal of High School for Community Leadership. “That wouldn’t be a good move,” she said. “He’d be spending too much time traveling when he needs to be studying,” she said. “He’s a bright boy but he’s easily distracted. He needs small class size which would be available to him based on his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at his first-choice school, Clara Barton.”

The school offers academic choice and trains many of the city’s health care workers. The bad news is that it operates at well over its capacity of 1635 students, with more than 2300. The high number of students reflects an influx by many who would once have attended large, now-shuttered area high schools, like Prospect Heights and John Jay. “I’m hoping that Wrenny will be one of those kids that can get it together,” said Denton.

The nutty thing for Wrenny is that he went through the process, had a mom and guidance counselor to help him navigate a cumbersome system of abundant choices, only to end up in his own neighborhood.

“It’s a complicated process,” said Holley, the ambassador with the plastic bags. “But once you do it, it’s easy. The thing is, you only have to do it once.” So it better be right.

“I’m hoping that Wrenny will be one of those kids that can get it together,” said Denton. And who knows, Clara Barton may just be looking at a prospective doctor in training, Wrenny Lewis, M.D.

April 6, 2010

UPDATE on the High School Admissions Process

This just in from the Department of Education

“As of Monday, April 5, high school admissions letters have been mailed to all students who applied, including those students who selected a school originally slated for phase-out as one of their choices. Students who have not received a letter by mail may contact their guidance counselor for a copy of their letter on Wednesday, April 7 when school reopens after spring recess. If you have questions, please call (718) 935-2399 or e-mail HS_Enrollment@schools.nyc.gov for assistance.”

About Susan:
Susan Sawyers is a reporter based in New York City. She covers youth culture and technology in education for the website and observed Central Harlem's Democracy Prep Charter School.
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