Choosing Schools in NYC

This week applications are due for NYC's public high schools (middle schools too) and anxiety is running high. In this choice-based system, families are scrambling to put together lists, hoping against hope that their kids will be offered a spot if not at their top choice, at least at one everyone will be happy with. That's harder than one might think in this complicated and unwieldy system.

Last year, in the high school process, less than half the tens of thousands of kids applying got their first-choice high school. Eight percent or 6000 or so kids got no offer at all and moved on to Round 2, which has far more limited options. Of the close to 30,000 who take the specialized high school test (SHSAT), 5000 or so will earn seats.

Boroughs operate differently. In Manhattan, for example, there are no zoned schools that guarantee seats to students with no other offers. But, there are districts in Manhattan that give priority to kids who already go to school in them. Which is a nice perk for some, but most other districts and boroughs don't have similar set ups.

When looking at the bigger picture (something I'm not sure many do when contemplating the overwhelming entity that is the Department of Education), there are many other issues in the mix that should be taken into consideration. Things like funding, or rather, the inequity in something called Fair Student Funding (FSF), a system that's been in place for years. It's easy enough to see what percentage of its FSF budget any school is funded at. What's harder is to find out why some are funded in the low 80 percent range while others get well over 100 percent of their FSF budget. At a recent meeting with the DOE on behalf of Brooklyn Tech regarding (un)fair funding, PTA executives were told that there was no current or foreseeable plan to remedy the sweeping disparities in FSF funding levels among NYC schools.

There is interest from the DOE, though, to fund the Mayor's 94 Renewal schools, at a cost of $116 million. And that's great for those schools. But why other schools should remain perennially underfunded is a mystery. The city also just announced it is earmarking $19 million dollars for security guards at private schools. That's nice too. But not all public schools have enough security guards at the moment. At Brooklyn Tech (as mom of two there and PTA co president I speak from experience), there are 12 safety agents when there should be 18 - that number based on 5500 students.

Aside from DOE funding, many PA/PTAs are remarkably adept at harnessing volunteer power and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, helping schools immeasurably. Another terrific thing. For some. But there are plenty of schools that don't have families who have time, who have resources, who are interested, who get support from the school and/or the community to pitch in. At a recent PTAlink meeting, hosted by the Brooklyn Borough President's office, parents told of schools not giving them space to work in, of having zero engagement from families, of getting tied up in bureaucracy which stymied their efforts to help.

Some schools and parent volunteers are also skilled at tracking down alternative funding: corporate sponsorships, external grants, funds from local elected officials. Yet more support but only for those in the know. Unfortunately for most, many schools and families don't have that knowledge base, know-how or initiative.

The disparities in this city's educational system are daunting. Some of our schools are world renowned for excellence in academics. Others for failing to serve all kids at even the most basic levels. The pressure to get into a "good" school is overwhelming. Funding disparities are rampant. Involvement and community building are at times almost impossible to implement. Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture every once in awhile, to see what works, what doesn't, and how things might change wouldn't be a bad idea so that all students in NYC, including those submitting their high school applications right now, receive the education they deserve.