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This article appeared in the New York Times in 2017. It evaluated Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s legacy in high school admission.
Mayor Bloomberg eliminated zoned high schools and instituted a policy of citywide choice. Students could apply to any high school in the city.
This was supposed to reduce racial segregation, but instead it increased it.
Bloomberg, who had sole control of the New York City school system, also increased the number of schools with selective admissions policies.
This too increased the segregation of schools.
Graduation rates are up, but graduation rates are always suspicious since they are easily manipulated and manufactured by devices such as “credit recovery.”
What is certain is that segregation has intensified.
Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools — a situation that school choice was supposed to ease.
Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admissions requirements — a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, open houses. And getting into the best schools, where almost all students graduate and are ready to attend college, often requires top scores on the state’s annual math and English tests and a high grade point average.
Those admitted to these most successful schools remain disproportionately middle class and white or Asian, according to an in-depth analysis of acceptance data and graduation rates conducted for The New York Times by Measure of America, an arm of the Social Science Research Council. At the same time, low-income black or Hispanic children like the ones at Pelham Gardens are routinely shunted into schools with graduation rates 20 or more percentage points lower.
While top middle schools in a handful of districts groom children for competitive high schools that send graduates to the Ivy League, most middle schools, especially in the Bronx, funnel children to high schools that do not prepare them for college.
The roots of these divisions are tangled and complex. Students in competitive middle schools and gifted programs carry advantages into the application season, with better academic preparation and stronger test scores. Living in certain areas still comes with access to sought-after schools. And children across the city compete directly against one another regardless of their circumstances, without controls for factors like socioeconomic status.
Ultimately, there just are not enough good schools to go around. And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control — like where they live and how much money their families have.
Choice does not solve the problem of scarcity. Instead of concentrating on increasing the number of good schools, Bloomberg focused on choice.
Each year, about 160 children from Pelham Gardens join the flood of 80,000 eighth graders applying for the city’s public high schools. The field on which they compete is enormous: They have to choose from 439 schools that are further broken up into 775 programs. One program may admit students based on where they live, while another program at the same school may admit only those with strong grades.
The sheer number of choices offers up great possibilities, but it can also make the system maddeningly complex, with so many requirements, open houses, deadlines and portfolios to keep track of. Yaslin Turbides helps middle schoolers apply through the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization in Brooklyn. She said that she and her colleagues called the application system “the beast.”
Rare is a 13-year-old equipped to handle the selection process alone.
The process can become like a second job for some parents as they arm themselves with folders, spreadsheets and consultants who earn hundreds of dollars an hour to guide them. But most families in the public school system have neither the flexibility nor the resources to match that arsenal.