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TNLI: Action Research: Policy & Practice: The Leftovers: A Middle School Choice Game


BY DARRI STEPHENS

October 8, 2004
Action Research
TNPI

You are ten. And you have been invited to play a game - a game about your future. Sounds exciting, right? In this game, you get to choose a middle school, which will help dictate where you go to high school, which plays a key role in where you go to college, which helps increase your potential to have your desired career. Want to play?

An invitation usually signifies a choice; a choice, usually signifies the idea of free will. Yet in this game, you have to play. You have no choice. You will play. Supposedly though, you don’t have to play alone. You have your family and your school to help you. Yet your parents are working an awful lot these days, and the guidance counselor is overwrought with paperwork. Good luck!

 

Context:
Since 1990, District 3, a component of Region 10 in New York City, has utilized a “choice” model to send its fifth grade students onto sixth grade in middle school. In the “Middle School Choice” process set forth in District 3, students do not exit elementary school after fifth grade to enter a neighborhood middle school, nor is this neighborhood middle school an automatic option. In this choice model, the students and their families have to select a middle school. There is no choice about making this choice; parents of 1,700 fifth graders have to select to send their children somewhere since a placement is not given - each to choose four of the 27 middle schools programs available in 2003-2004 school year. 1

Like most educators, New York City’s Region 10 Superintendent, Lucille Swarns, recognizes that “this Middle School Choice is important in that it will heavily impact later educational decisions.” 2


After experiencing this process last year as a first-year teacher in New York City, I was perplexed as to how the process could be made more effective and equitable in light of the fact that many students and parents were not well informed. Thus my research questions were formed:

Can the middle school choice process be effective and equitable if students and parents are not well informed?

I also wondered how the schools could aid parents and students to make the middle school choice process more equitable. Armed with this research question, I began the year with heightened awareness. This year, I decided to take a more active role in guiding my students and parents through the pitfalls of this game, the Middle School Choice program. Despite these documented efforts by me and my students, 20% of my students still were without a school placement as of April 2004. Their academic careers, never mind their confidence, were in jeopardy. Such a choice model should promote equity, yet this particular model fails child after child.

Research tools:

  • observations
  • student and parent surveys
  • student applications
  • student work
  • a videotape of interview practice
  • home-school correspondence
  • anecdotal remarks
  • field notes charting the students’ progress through the various steps and stages of this process
  • notes from Curriculum Night, Parent-Teacher Conferences, and Middle School Choice meetings
  • interviews with key administrators

Data & Analysis:
Beginning in September, students learn that the Middle School Choice process is an important part of their fifth grade year. On October 1st, the students receive The Middle School Directory published by the Instructional Leadership of Division 10 and approved by Lucille Swarns, Regional Superintendent, and Roser Salavert, Community Superintendent. This directory (published in English and in Spanish) is accompanied by a letter from our guidance counselor who underscores the families’ responsibility by stating that “this is the booklet that you and your child will use to select a middle school.” This directory outlined the school programs that had seats available for Fall 2004. The book explained in seven steps how to make a choice in the “Parent Guide to Choice”:

  1. Read this directory carefully. It will guide you through the choice process. See “How to Use This Directory” on page 14.
  2. Attend the School Fairs. The fairs will give you an opportunity to meet the principals and teachers of all our middle schools. Check page 3 for details.
  3. Visit the schools that interest you the most. Call the middle schools for an appointment as soon as possible.
  4. USE THE PARENT-TEACHER CONFERENCES IN NOVEMBER TO DISCUSS YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOL CHOICES WITH YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER AND GUIDANCE COUNSELOR.
  5. Fill out the Middle School Application (page 41). Please follow the instructions carefully. Your completed Middle School Application is to be given to your child’s classroom teacher no later than Monday, December 1st.
  6. Interviews will begin after January 1st. Your child is encouraged to bring a portfolio of his/her best work to the interview. If your child can not attend an interview, please call the middle school immediately. Failure to attend interviews may cause your child to be rejected from all his/her choices.
  7. An acceptance letter will be sent to you as soon as your child is accepted to a middle school. Please contact your school’s guidance counselor if you have any questions or concerns.3

These seven steps revolved around reading the book, attending the school fairs, touring schools, meeting with teachers/guidance counselors, filling out the application, attending an interview (should one be granted), and waiting for an acceptance letter. Upon handing out these directories, I stressed the students’ responsibility in the process. I also walked them through the book and highlighted those nine schools which had excellent academic records, longstanding reputations based on merit, and/or strong community support.

Yet the child alone does not choose the school. The letters home and the directory itself address the parents and guardians. However, little effort had been made by our school or the district to work with the parents collaboratively; no effort that was until October 15th at Curriculum Night. At that time, Walter Freidman, head of the Middle School Choice Program, came to P.S. 191 and introduced our parents to the process. He spoke to the parents of all three classes, who were so few in number that all were seated in one room. Only five of my twenty students were represented by their parents. Walter Freidman reviewed what he claimed were the three ways to learn about the Middle School Choice process:

  1. He recommended that parents look at the Middle School Directory, but quickly rescinded by suggesting, “The description part you can kinda gloss over…” The Middle School Directory contained descriptions of each of the 27 schools/school programs including but not limited to information such as location, administration, possible transportation options, a brief description about the schools’ philosophy and goals, special features, admission requirements, and the selection process. Of these 27 programs, only 20 were listed for choice on the actual Middle School Application.
  2. Walter continued by encouraging parents to go the two school fairs. One of the fairs had already passed and the other was only three days away.
  3. Walter also encouraged that the students and their families go on school tours. The tours were supposed to be available until November 26th. However, many schools’ tour schedules filled up quickly.

On October 20th, I surveyed the parents and the 20 students in my class. Of those who responded, 100% of the parents said the process was “CLEAR.” (see Appendix 1 - Sample Parent Response) They claimed to understand how to gather information and how to make informed choices. Almost 90% of the students thought that the process was “FAIR.” They were prepared to embark on this choice process, spirits high. (see Appendix 2 - Sample Student Response)

Go ahead, roll the dice…

Some of my students jumped into the process and 1/3rd went to one of the School Fairs. However, most complained that the event was too crowded to learn more about the schools. Few students only gathered pamphlets or literature from the schools. Our guidance counselor had touted the school tours as a way “to see the curriculum in action, as well as the environment and the general decorum of the school.” (see Appendix 3 - Letter from Guidance Counselor) I encouraged my students to go on school tours as the best way to learn about something is to experience it. Yet, the school tours required parents to take time off from work and accompany their children during the school day to the middle schools. Only 1/4th of my students went on school tours. Several more had tried to make appointments only to find that the tour schedules were fully booked in advance. As much as possible, I tried to group students together for tours when one obtained an appointment. Yet, since 3/4th of my students were unable to make or secure tour appointments, our class decided to create a rating form for those able to take tours. Those students became our reporters.

The children brainstormed all the factors of the schools’ environments that could potentially influence their decisions. From cafeteria conditions to the quality of student work to the cleanliness of the hallways, students would rank the school’s environment. The students had space to write comments and notes before giving the school an overall ranking. These forms gave the students a sense of responsibility; they became the chief stakeholders in this process for the first time. I made these reviews available to the class. We shared the information as a community of middle school applicants. We discussed how the reviews were based on opinions, but that the checklist might help the applicants to weigh their options independently. I also hoped that the middle schools would take note that these mature students were reviewing the schools and not just being reviewed. (see Appendix 4 - Sample Middle School Review)

Due to the rate at which the school tours were becoming unavailable, our guidance counselor invited a representative from one of the popular choices, The Community Action School, to come introduce her school to our students. After talking about the school’s goals, the curriculum, the schedule, and some of the special features, she handed out a photocopied flier which promoted “Building Leadership.” She then opened the meeting to questions. One student wanted to know how many students went to a rival middle school - she could not answer his question. Another student asked, “Does your school have a pool?”

For me, this one meeting emphasized the youth of our players in this choice process. Their understanding of “choice” was not grounded in foresight.

… oops - lose a turn.

On December 1, 2003, the middle school applications were due. The directions for filling out the applications explained how to make four choices in order of preference and asked the students to write about their talents and interests. Out of 20 students in my class, 11 handed in their completed applications on time. Of those 11, only 8 were filled out correctly; i.e., with completed factual information (correct name, address, etc.) and the four ranked school choices. (see Appendix 5 – Students’Of the remaining 9 students who handed in their applications late, 8 had to make changes to their applications. In all, only 50% of the applicants had completed the application correctly. Information on the applications was missing. Information was crossed out despite the Directory emphasizing that “neatness counts!” School choices were checked instead of ranked. Some of the worst schools in the district were chosen due to lack of information. (see Appendix 6 & Appendix 7 - Sample Middle School Applications) Sections A, those in which the students write about their talents and interests, were filled with incomplete sentences and lacked personal insight. (see Appendix 8 - Sample Section A of Middle School Application) In one case, a parent filled in Section B, that section “To Be Completed By The Classroom Teacher.” (See Appendix 9 - Sample Section B of Middle School Application)

My fall survey had asked parents and students to predict the schools to which they would apply. The survey also asked why they had made these choices. One parent bluntly responded that parents have a “fixed amount of information and you have to work with what you have.” Students’ responses again emphasized their immaturity in handling such a weighty process (one that will impact their academic careers):

I pick the Computer School because you don’t wear uniform.”
“…and for Crossroads it got three gym.”
“Can you make friends fast?”

I spent time with each child reviewing the applications and the choices. Likewise, we worked on Section A. I asked my student thought provoking questions so that their responses would show reflection and true personality. Together, we typed their responses on the computer and pasted the neat paragraphs over the meager six lines provided. (see Appendix 10 - Sample of reworked Section A of Middle School Application)

Personally, I took just as much time to complete Section B. The first part of Section B consisted of a table listing three categories: effort, work habits, and attendance. I was asked to rank each student by placing a check mark in the “needs improvement,” “satisfactory,” or “superior” column. Due to this incomplete picture, I took great care in typing detailed comments about my students’ strengths and character to paste over the four lines provided for “additional information.” (see Appendix 11 - Sample Section B of Middle School Application)

Wait for months in anticipation to pass go…

By the end of January, the interview process had commenced. Our guidance counselor saw fit to meet with groups of six students at a time to practice interviewing skills. She would question only one student from each group. At this time, she also handed them a packet of interviewing tips. I had decided that my students needed further preparation for what many would be their first interview. In class, we practiced the rudimentary skill of shaking hands, giving a firm and confident handshake. I had my students respond in writing to common interview questions. (see Appendix 12 - Sample Interview Questions) With practice, I hoped that they would become more confident in their responses. After the written exercise, we then practiced interviewing one-on-one in front of a video camera. Recognizing the severity of the upcoming situations, the students were still excited. Hector 4 cried, “I’m so excited! I can’t wait!” Considering that they were in front of a familiar interviewer, myself, and a familiar audience, the class, we still were able to make critical comments during the playback. The students had displayed common nervous behavior - lack of eye contact, vague answers, excessive hand gestures (“nervous hands”), rambling and wordy answers, etc.

Later, Freddie and Douglas would tell the class, “We were the only two to shake hands!” when they interviewed at their first choice school. We all had watched the videotape of Maria wringing her hands and playing with her fingers. The lessons hit home. After Maria and Shawn’s group interview at their first choice school, Shawn told me, “We told Maria not to do this…” referring to her nervous hands. It is striking is that not one of my students had a one-on-one interview with any of their first choice schools.

Also in preparation for the interviews, the students compiled portfolios. They practiced explaining the significance of each piece of work by writing their thoughts and talking about them with me (see Appendix 13 - Sample Portfolio Work Questionnaire). They practiced presenting the exemplary work samples. Not one student was asked to show his/her portfolio.

Not all of my students were invited to the first round of interviews. The process was supposed to be designed to spare students’ from rejection. If a school did not desire to interview or accept a first round applicant, s/he would not hear “yeah” or “nay” from the school. In this case, no news was not good news. Daily, students would ask when they would hear, why hadn’t they heard, if I thought they could still hear…

Roll again…

By February 24th, first round of interviews were completed. Out of 1696 students, 911 received acceptance letters to their first choices (54%). These district numbers were represented in my classroom. Fifty-five percent - 11/20 students - were accepted to their first choice school. Noteworthy is the fact that the top four schools were filling their empty seats for Fall 2004 quickly (these top schools only consider those students who score 3s or 4s on the citywide standardized tests, and additionally those student must have chosen their particular school as choice number one on the middle school application):

Anderson: 64/116 seats filled (55%)

Computer School: (81) 98/273 seats filled (30%)

DELTA: 197/251 seats filled (78%)

Mott Hall II: 110/223 seats filled (49%)

Out of the 740 seats still available elsewhere, the Office of School Choice estimated that 785 seats were still needed. (see Appendix 14 - Community School District 3 2/24/04 Acceptance Count) The office admitted that there were “not enough schools to accommodate” the applying students.

Yet students held out hope with fingers crossed. Maria, not having been accepted into her first choice school, went as far as writing a thank you letter to the principal of The Community Action School after her second interview:

3-9-04
Dear Mr. Curry,
Thank you for interviewing me. It was really nice to talk to you. Even though you’re the principal, I started to pretend you were Ms. Stephens with the video camera, interviewing me. After that interview, I got so proud of myself. I really love that school and it’s gorgeous! Ms. Stephens told me to write this letter to make you proud of me. You’re the best principal I ever met!
from,
Maria

P.S. You rock! Here’s a picture of your school.

Thankfully it worked for her on the second round of this arduous process. (see Appendix 18 - Maria’s letter)

By April 21st, eleven of the twenty-one district middle school programs were filled. Seventy-nine percent of the district’s fifth grade students had been placed. (see Appendix 15 - Community School District 3 4/21/04 Acceptance Count) Again, my classroom statistics reflected the district at large - 2/3rds of my students received their first or second choices. Of these students, ¼th had connections to the middle school (either through siblings or personal connections to school staff) or were deemed “set asides” (students taken by higher performing schools despite lack of admission credentials). Although over 3/4ths of the students had been placed district wide, 350 children remained unplaced. Five months after they had handed in their applications, these 350 had not heard a positive word from anyone.

By May 1st, 1/5th of my students had yet to be placed. (see Appendix 16 - Acceptances as of 5/1/04) This twenty percent never was invited for 3rd round interviews, nor for 4th round interviews. Walter and his office explained during a meeting that the process now went into the “recruitment stage” - a reluctant form of outreach. Those schools that still had seats available were allowed to call the homes of those unplaced students. Four of my students were placed in this fashion completely disregarding their original four choices.

Welcome to the Land of the Leftovers…

One of these four students, Derrick Rodriguez, fell through the cracks of this flawed choice system. Despite average fourth grade scores and a stellar recommendation:

Derrick is such a wonderful student! Derrick is kind, cooperative, and hard working. He exemplifies politeness and is sensitive to other’s feelings and opinions. He takes pride in his work, and will not settle for second best. He is an avid reader whose creative skills are beginning to flourish in our writing. He tackles math problems by focusing on each step, and does not shy away from a challenge. With such diligent work habits, Derrick will continue to go far! I look forward to his cheerful greeting each and every day. He will be a welcome addition to any middle school community.

He was placed into one of the district’s worst schools. His first choice, The Computer School, scored four stars, the highest score, in both Math and ELA in 2004 on the independent ranking website: www.insideschools.org. The school’s percentage scores have risen since those reported in 2002 by the NYC DOE. The school received noted praise from parents and students alike commending the “interdisciplinary study,” the “amazing and talented” teachers, and the “consistently good leadership.” Only 34.7% of the diverse student body received free lunch. Yet, disregarding his first, second, third, and fourth choice, he was “recruited” by the School for Academic and Athletic Excellence. This year, the school acknowledged the misnomer and now refers to itself as MS 256. MS 256 received only one star in both Math and ELA, and ranked 21.4% in Math and 16.2% in ELA scores according to the 2002 NYC DOE report. Of the 99% minority children, 83.3% receive free lunch. By February 24th, only 13% of MS 256’s seats had been filled compared to 100% of The Computer School’s seats - a mere 38% of its applicants. MS 256 admitted that in their school, “There is a lot of emphasis on behavior…” (see Appendix 17 - ratings from www.insideschools.org).

On June 16th, another displaced student, Deena, told me, “I’m so excited. We get this big package of work for the summer.” Knowing that she had not been placed in any of her four choices, I asked her from whom was she getting a package. She exclaimed, “Manhattan School for Children!” - her first pick. When I gently explained that she had not heard from them yet, and that she probably would not since the first round interviews were over (back in February), she was perplexed.
“No, but that’s who I picked,” Deena rationalized.

Congratulations! You have finished playing.


Summary & Conclusion:
Over the past two years teaching fifth grade in New York City’s District 3, I have tried to figure out how to best help my students and their families find success with this Middle School Choice Process. Both my students and parents agree that teachers should work with the district to guide them and give them advice. Students desire more guidance:

“Tell us which one. Give us recommendations.”
“Talk to us a little bit more and have at [least] a [period] talking about it.”

Despite my efforts to better prepare my students, my labors were brought into question by The Computer School. Their admissions office called our guidance counselor suggesting that one of my students sounded “too coached.”

Parents’ suggestions ranged from the general to the practical:

“They can help me by giving me information to help me find the best school for my daughter.”
“…help me set up tours.”
“…[by] walking through the book and pointing to the good schools.” 5

Both sets of responses suggest that all involved parties need to be more informed, more educated. I agree that there needs to be a stronger partnership between the school and the home to make this particular model work. However, during a May meeting, representatives from the Office of School Choice made some remarks which counter this productive partnership. They claimed, “It’s not the job of the teacher to tell the parents about a particular school. It’s not advisable.” They continued by suggesting that teachers often give “bad advice” to their students.6

Furthermore, despite the less than successful placements, not one of my parents has appealed. As of April 22nd, the Middle School Office stated that they had had only about ten appeals, “ten tops,” and had done “very well” with these appeals. When I raised my concerns and suggested parental appeals to our guidance counselor, she dismissed the idea calling it “futile.”

Again… you are ten, your parents are working an awful lot these days, and the guidance counselor is overwrought with paperwork.


Policy Recommendations:
Provided that the choice model will not be eradicated in favor of neighborhood schools,
the schools ought to…

  • formulate a Plan of Action across all of the fourth and fifth grades
  • begin educating students and parents about this process in fourth grade (before the high stakes citywide tests)
  • recognize parents, students, teachers, and administrators as key stakeholders
  • invite middle school representatives to give presentations to students and parents
  • schedule group tours
  • create workshops for parents and students, allowing them access to the Internet
  • hold monthly meetings to support students

The district ought to…

  • recognize teachers as valuable components of process
  • provide teacher training in this process
  • educate parents and students continuously throughout the year
  • make objective middle school evaluations available
  • eradicate the language barrier - provide all correspondence in students’ home languages
  • encourage middle schools to demand a more thorough application & interview process
  • strategize how “not to overburden schools with children who are very needy”
  • recognize the limits of choice

Now would you want to try to play again?

Footnotes:

1. Although twenty-seven are described in the 2003-2004 Middle School Directory, only twenty of the programs are listed on the Middle School Application. A few new options, such as the Wadleigh Performing and Visual Arts Secondary School and The Frederick Douglass Academy, were publicized late in Spring 2004.

2. Middle School Directory 2003-2004 Community School District 2, Instructional Leadership Division 10, p. 9

3. Middle School Directory 2003-2004 Community School District 2, Instructional Leadership Division 10, p. 11.

4. All students’ names have been changed.

5. Quotes taken from Fall 2003 Parent and Student surveys.

6. Quotes from Middle School Choice meeting at P.S. 191 on April 22, 2004.

 

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