Every year, parents around New York City go through an elaborate process of getting their kids into school. From oversubscribed preschools to a paucity of seats at the best high schools, parents with kids across a broad age range are engaged in a fight to find seats in the right school.
For most of us, preschool and elementary schools are whatever’s closest — so we choose where to live based on where we want our kids to go to school. But middle and high school is an open process called choice . . . but which should really be called chaos. Last fall, my middle daughter, Sela, applied to high school. This was our second time through the high school application process, so we thought it should be easier. But although my husband and I had seen the schools two years ago, Sela never had, so we had the time-consuming slog through open houses and tours, then exams and interviews.
In the past, many high performing kids took the Specialized Science High School Admissions (SSHAT) test and also auditioned for LaGuardia Performing Arts. This year, the Department of Education purposely scheduled these on the same weekend, penalizing kids who wanted to take both, or making them choose before even taking a test. The SSHAT is supposed to be completely democratic; any eighth grader can take the test and get into a specialized school, no matter his middle school grades. So it is patently unfair to make a 13-year-old decide if he is better at cello than geometry; if he is talented in both areas, he should get a fair shot.
Not only that, Sela’s SSHAT was scheduled for 7:30am on a Sunday. Some Brooklyn schools had to take the test at Brooklyn Tech the day of the NYC Marathon, with the marathon going right by the school. The test was given early in the day so the streets wouldn’t be closed when we arrived. But since it took so long to get the test started, the kids heard the music and cheering while they took the test. That has to impact on how they performed; Sela said she found it hard to concentrate with so much noise. The difference of just one point can mean rejection from a preferred school.
Sela had to put together a portfolio, write an essay and have an interview at one school, take a two-hour test and then return for an interview at another, and then take a test at another school. And during all this, middle school teachers expect the kids to keep up with homework and their tests.
A friend of hers auditioned for LaGuardia on harp and was assured that the school would provide an instrument for her. The harp was so badly out of tune that a key string snapped when she tried to tune it; she had to continue the audition with a broken string. She was allowed to return to re-audition, with a working harp, but this meant another day of testing.
At one school we visited, we were told applicants needed a letter of recommendation from their guidance counselor. I don’t even know who that is. But after we submitted our list, the school got back to us, saying that Sela was eligible for the schools she’d chosen. This, of course, would have been useful before we went to the schools. And though we were able to take time off to do tours, many parents cannot.
I wonder how parents who aren’t fluent in English figure out the complex requirements.