As I planned to relocate to New York City to begin a fellowship at Columbia University this fall, a housing specialist advised me to move into School District 3 because it had “better options” for my 12-year-old daughter.
By the time I established residency — a prerequisite for enrolling in the city’s public schools — the “better options” in District 3 had been filled to the hilt.
On our third visit to the makeshift enrollment center in the auditorium of the High School of Fashion Industries on 24th Street (the first time we were turned away because we lacked a lease; the second time there was a “transmission error” as my daughter’s records were being faxed over) we secured a referral to Community Action School.
But after an interview with the school’s assistant principal, my daughter — who earned almost entirely A’s and B’s at her last school — was rejected in favor of another student for what was purportedly the last remaining seat.
We went back to the enrollment center on 24th Street for a fourth time, and were referred to Frederick Douglass Academy II. The school is located on an unusually dark, litter-strewn block with a history of drug dealing and turf wars.
People smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze congregate on the front stoops of the five-story public housing buildings that line the street. The other day I observed a group of men hunched over on one of the stoops shooting craps.
At the school sign-in desk visitors are likely to encounter half-a-dozen school safety officers. It almost feels more like you’re entering a police precinct than entering a school building.
The principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie, says the presence of the school safety officers has been positive. While the school used to rank among the most dangerous in the city, he says, now it’s nowhere near the top of the list.
As I asked about the academic skills of the students, Mr. Afriyie candidly stated that significant numbers of students at FDA II were not on grade level, although he added that that’s true for every school in the city.
I liked Mr. Afriyie’s forthrightness. Other school officials I met during our quest came across as evasive. I attended the school’s curriculum night and was impressed with the teachers.
Another thing that impressed me is that FDA II is working with Teachers College at Columbia to do some interesting afterschool activities. It’s kind of hard to knock a school that is partnered with the very university where you’re doing your fellowship.
We ultimately settled on FDA II, and I’m relatively happy with the decision, but it wasn’t as if we had much of a choice. Officials at my daughter’s previous school were threatening to report her truant once they discovered she wasn’t yet enrolled.
And since one New York City school had already rejected us, we didn’t want to risk being rejected again when the doors of FDA II were open.
Ultimately I don't understand how a public institution can interview a child to decide whether he or she is a good "fit," when in reality schools are mandated to provide a public education. Parents and students;are the customers, and the power of rejection should rest with us.
But based on my experience trying to enroll my daughter in a middle school in District 3, I got the sense that students with the top grades were being ushered into certain schools, forcing students with lesser grades to be concentrated in other schools.
Sometimes the practice was blatant. For instance, when I asked about The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, the counselor said the school only accepts students with all A’s.
My daughter astutely pointed out that perhaps some schools were only accepting top-performers so that they can get credit for providing a good education when in reality “the kids were already smart.”
By the end of her first full week at FDA II my daughter had been selected as “Star of the Week” in both her math and science classes.
Ordinarily this would be something to celebrate. But my daughter says that she didn’t do anything special to deserve the recognition.
If basic student compliance merits special recognition at a school, then it doesn’t bode well for the teachers as they seek to present new material and lead the kinds of intellectually engaging discussions that constitute a world-class education.
I can see how principals might be tempted to screen students, especially at a time of increased attention on performance reports. The problem is, what happens at the schools that end up with all the students who have been turned away?
Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a 2013-14 Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University.