BY DARRI STEPHENS
October 8, 2004
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?
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!
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
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
- student and
- student applications
- student work
- a videotape
of interview practice
- 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
with key administrators
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”:
- Read this directory
carefully. It will guide you through the choice process. See “How
to Use This Directory” on page 14.
- 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
- Visit the
schools that interest you the most. Call the middle schools for
an appointment as soon as possible.
- USE THE PARENT-TEACHER
CONFERENCES IN NOVEMBER TO DISCUSS YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOL CHOICES WITH
YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER AND GUIDANCE COUNSELOR.
- 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
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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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
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…
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):
seats filled (55%)
(81) 98/273 seats filled (30%)
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:
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
rock! Here’s a picture of your school.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.”
suggestions ranged from the general to the practical:
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
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.”
you are ten, your parents are working an awful lot these days, and
the guidance counselor is overwrought with paperwork.
Provided that the choice model will not be eradicated in favor of
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)
parents, students, teachers, and administrators as key stakeholders
- invite middle
school representatives to give presentations to students and parents
- schedule group
- create workshops
for parents and students, allowing them access to the Internet
- hold monthly
meetings to support students
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’
- encourage middle
schools to demand a more thorough application & interview process
how “not to overburden schools with children who are very
- recognize the
limits of choice
would you want to try to play again?
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.
School Directory 2003-2004 Community School District 2, Instructional
Leadership Division 10, p. 9
School Directory 2003-2004 Community School District 2, Instructional
Leadership Division 10, p. 11.
students’ names have been changed.
taken from Fall 2003 Parent and Student surveys.
from Middle School Choice meeting at P.S. 191 on April 22, 2004.