high-stakes choice

Hurdles still high for students looking to switch high schools

Eighth-grade Jessica Escola said it's hard to choose a high school knowing her interests may change.
Eighth-grader Jessica Escolah, right, said it’s hard to choose a high school knowing her interests might change.

On the first day of school this year, a Bronx high school student watched through the fence as students at the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science played games on the football field. He didn’t attend their school, but he wanted to.

His own school, Christopher Columbus High School, will close at the end of the year, while CIMS, one of six schools in the same building, enrolls high performers and sends them on college trips. The student didn’t want this name used because he is still petitioning the city for a slot at CIMS, even though his time in high school is winding down.

“You know you’re in a bad school and you’re just trying to get out,” he said. “Even in the same building there’s a big gap.”

The Bloomberg administration’s approach to closing that gap has been to push struggling schools to improve and close those that do not. But improvement rarely comes quickly enough for students, whose time in high school is short, and those in search of a better school or just a better fit struggle to find a way out.

The Department of Education declined to share data about how many students apply to change high schools each year and how many of their requests are approved. But even as the Bloomberg administration has increased choice across the city and at most grade levels, it remains difficult for students to change their high schools in all but a few circumscribed situations.

“I have spoken to students who have managed to transfer but it took a lot of persistence — and luck,” said Pamela Wheaton, who helps families navigate the high school choice process as an editor at Insideschools.

The complicated admissions process ends with a single placement for each student, and eighth-graders who are unhappy with their initial placements can appeal. Those who start ninth grade and are unhappy with their schools can go through the high school application process again for 10th grade. But after the application deadline in the first semester of their freshman year (this year, the deadline is Dec. 2), students must have a documented medical or safety reason to change schools, or their commute must exceed 75 minutes each way.

The limits leave students who seek courses or programs their schools don’t offer without many options, even as the city tailors high school offerings more and more narrowly. The hundreds of small, themed schools that the Bloomberg administration opened each offer only a slice of the course and extracurricular options that large schools can boast.

Selecting from among the choices can be a daunting prospect for 13-year-olds and their families. Schools change year to year, and teenagers change at an even faster pace. Jessica Escolah, an eighth grader at I.S. 45 in the Bronx who attended the city’s high school fair with her classmates this fall, said knowing that her interests might change increases anxiety about an already fraught application process.

She said she thinks she wants a school that focuses on theater, but that choosing among schools with themes like “Food and Finance,” “Media Arts,” and “Telecommunications” feels like a high-stakes decision.

“I’m scared and nervous at the same time,” Escolah said. “You might change what you want to be. What you pick to start may not interest you anymore.”

That’s what happened to Hannah Hanrahan, who attends Brooklyn Technical High School. The school is one of the city’s most selective and prestigious, but Hanrahan said she quickly realized that she didn’t want to focus on the sciences and felt anonymous at the 5,500-student school.

Still, she said, she wanted to give the school a fair chance before deciding to leave, so she didn’t reapply by the high school application deadline three months into her freshman year. By the time she decided to pursue a transfer, she said, she was surprised to find that it was too late to choose a new school.

“I definitely think staying at a school for four full years gives you more of a sense of identity with the school,” Hanrahan said. “You may have more school pride and comfort with the school, and you know how things work. I think maybe it’s possible for students to do better grades-wise in that sense. But if you’re unhappy, I think locking them in is so much worse.”

Sophomore Matilda Frendergast, left, advises eighth graders to make their high school choices carefully.
Sophomore Matilda Frendergast, left, advises eighth graders to make their high school choices carefully.

Hanrahan was not technically locked in: After several visits to enrollment offices during 10th grade, the city offered her a spot at another just before her junior year. But it was not Millennium High School, a screened school where she and her mother said staff members had told them she could attend as long as the city’s enrollment office approved the transfer.

Before the city’s admissions system changed in 2003, Hanrahan could have transferred with permission from her principal and Millennium’s. But the new, centralized admissions system, which gave students more choice over which schools they wanted to attend, also limited their ability to switch schools after they enrolled and gave the department’s enrollment offices control over transfer decisions.

A new mayor could change the admissions system once again. Wheaton at Insideschools said she would like to see the department show more flexibility so that securing a transfer doesn’t require quite as much effort.

“We’re looking at a child, a student, a 14- or 15-year-old kid suffering for some reason,” she said. “It shouldn’t be easy … but if a kid presents a compelling case that they should be at another school and the other school has space, I honestly don’t understand why they’re not allowed to transfer.”

City officials say the limits on high school transfers exist because stability is good for schools and students.

Giving city students as much choice in 10th grade as they have in eighth would put additional — and significant — stress on a system that already has to process and assign nearly 80,000 incoming ninth graders to schools each year. High schools already struggle to accommodate students who enter the system outside of the regular admissions process.

Added student mobility would also complicate some of the city’s accountability measures for high schools. The city assesses high schools based on the annual performance of their students, and when students transfer, their successes or struggles cannot be attributed to a single school.

Researchers say the department’s overarching principle is mostly sound.

“The general finding from research is that mobility is hard on kids,” according to Beth Shinn, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University. Students who switch schools must make new friends, get used to new teachers, and adjust to different curriculums and expectations, she said. Those challenges are the same whether students change schools by choice or because of factors outside of their control, such as homelessness or a family move, she said.

But in some cases, a student’s desire to change schools “might outweigh the potentially disruptive effects,” Shinn said. “There might even be circumstances in which the kid could really benefit from having a new peer group and a fresh start elsewhere.”

For now, city students are wising up to the fact that getting out once they’ve gotten into a high school is no easy task. Matilda Frendergast, a sophomore at Cobble Hill School of American Studies, attended this year’s high school fair to represent her school. Her advice to eighth graders: “You’re going to be going to that school for four years, so you don’t want to choose the wrong one.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”