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HS Hustle: Can we simplify admissions?

After two New York City public high school searches in as many years, I've had lots of ideas about what might make the process a little easier on overtaxed parents: virtual tours, excuse letters for employers, more clear and transparent information from the schools.

I've recounted tales of falling asleep on tours, frustration and fear over tryouts, and concerns about preparing for the SHSAT exams that determine entrance into specialized high schools. I sought out advice from parents, and got an earful about similar frustrations.

I wondered whether anything had improved since my search last fall. When I read a father's plea in the New York Daily News for popular city high schools to do a better job accommodating parents, and his description of enormous lines and long waits for limited open houses, I realized it had not.

I checked in with a few of my frenzied friends in the midst of their searches hoping not to hear the same old complaints, especially since my real life work (which has increased substantially now that I'm no longer spending hours on high school tours) focuses on solutions oriented journalism.

I could not resist asking what might be done to improve the system.

''It could not be more broken,'' one friend told me.

A Brooklyn mother of twins confessed that finding a high school for her two very different children ''is the hardest thing I've ever done.'' Here are her suggestions on what should change.

1. Make the process transparent. No one seems able to tell us how the kids are ultimately matched. Most schools have said that they have no idea where a kid ranks them, but still say that if you don't rank them first, your child probably won't get in. It feels like we're being scared into picking the "safe" school over the "reach" school. The kids have a right to know how the process really works.

2. If we're calling it school choice, then give everyone the same choice. Schools shouldn't be able to limit choice to specific districts or boroughs. Until all the districts have a sufficient number of good schools, the kids who live outside District Two in Manhattan will have far fewer choices.

3. Create touring days for 8th graders so they can miss school without having to figure out how to make up the work -- especially since they have all those extra essays to write.

4. Require all schools that require an essay to use the same question.

A second friend has been particularly frustrated by schools that don't respond to voice messages or email. She's been further put off by schools that let you know via their website that their tours have been ''sold out.''

''It's a level of arrogance I'd expect from a private school, not those funded by taxpayer dollars,'' she points out. ''I think some of these schools forget they are responsible to the public, not rich parents. If they don't have the staff to respond, pull in more. ''

This same mom, who travels a great deal for work and is going it alone, is irked that all of the tours take place during her work day, rather than on weekends or at night. ''It's a ludicrous assumption that parents can repeatedly abandon their jobs and responsibilities to traipse around the city in the middle of the workday for tours and tests,'' she noted. "How does this hurt the kids of parents who simply can't miss work?

She also expressed frustration that admission to the specialized high schools is based on a single test, disadvantaging kids whose parents cannot afford to hire tutors for will.

The concerns are very real. High school admissions in New York City seems broken to many, even though the concept of choice is greatly appreciated. Yes, it's a supply and demand problem – there aren't enough seats in high quality public high schools for all who want them – but that does not mean there are not some ways to make the ordeal better for all.

Suggestions welcome!

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 November 2011 14:17

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