After enrolling my daughter in middle school earlier this year, I wrote a piece about how difficult it can be to get your child into a good school if you should happen to arrive in the city around the start of the school year. My daughter ended up in a school that was far from our first choice: a "turnaround" school, once slated for closure.
As it turns out, our less-than-optimal enrollment experience is hardly unique in New York City.
A new report from Brown University shows that many of the 36,000 "late-enrolling" high school students are disproportionately being sent to the city's lowest performing schools.
The fact that the students are late enrolling isn't the issue so much as many of these students—labeled as "over-the-counter" (OTC) students who did not go through the regular high school choice process—are among the school system's "highest need students," according to the report.
Many are special needs students, previously incarcerated youth or are not on grade level, which makes their placement in struggling schools all the more problematic.
"This inequitable assignment may exacerbate a school's challenges and accelerate a downward spiral toward closure," according to the report, issued by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and titled "Over the Counter, Under the Radar: Inequitably Distributing New York City's Late-Enrolling High School Students."
Indeed, even at the middle school level, my daughter, who earned mostly A's and B's, had been advised that getting into the best schools could be difficult even with her grades.
So it's not hard to imagine how much more difficult it would be for a student with lesser grades and a less stable family life.
The report found that late-enrolling or so-called OTC students were disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students, English Language Learners, and dropouts.
"The higher a high school's eighth-grade test scores for the incoming freshman class are, the lower their OTC assignment rate is," the report stated.
It recommends that the city Department of Education study the demographics of late-enrolling students to find out which schools serve them best so that those practices can be emulated.
It also calls for a halt to assigning late-enrolling students to problem schools.
In fairness, the DOE recognized this problem a year or two ago and has been setting aside some seats in the better schools for kids who come after the school year begins. DOE spokesman Devon Puglia says just about every school now enrolls at least a few students over-the-counter.
Puglia said the report "ignores the fact that many parents exercise choice in the over the counter process and opt for their zoned or local school."
Which is technically true. I guess you could say that I "exercised choice" when I decided that it would be better to enroll my daughter in a turnaround school than it would be to risk having her be considered as truant.
As a newcomer to New York, I won't pretend to know what it takes to give parents better choices when it comes to finding a good school. But it seems evident that any policy or practice that allows the kids with the most problems to be concentrated in the lowest-performing schools will undoubtedly lead to even more problems in the future.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a 2013-14 Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. He can be reached at [email protected].