If there is one thing Joyce Szuflita wants parents to understand about the public schools, it’s that the more parents know, the more options they will have.
“The two absolute places that you can tell what zone you live within [are] the office of enrollment and your local school,” she told about a dozen Brooklyn parents of pre-kindergarten children who gathered recently at a children’s store in Clinton Hill.
Ms. Szuflita (pronounced, “chef-lita”) is an animated speaker. Throughout the talk she used her hands a lot, and pointed to an easel with a homemade flip chart that used circles and arrows to explain the different zones, districts and sub-systems within the city’s massive school system. She praised the city’s Department of Education Web site, but also warned parents that its zoning information isn’t always up to date. And she enjoyed busting some favorite myths.
“Families hear gifted and talented, that must be better,” she said, using a favorite example. “It must be harder, it must be more challenging, it must be -- you must get some extras.”
In fact, she said, children use the same curriculum and may not have smaller classes until the upper grades.
New York City parents interested in private schools often pay for consultants to help them navigate the complicated admissions process. But while the city’s public schools are free and open to all, that doesn’t mean they are any easier to understand.
Educated parents who are well armed with information can buy or rent apartments in the best school zones, or find a special program that’s a good match for their child. But it’s all street by street, and school by school. That’s where Ms. Szuflita's NYC School Help comes in.
The parents at Ms. Szuflita'a talk paid about $25 each to hear her, and they were hungry for information. Anjali Sharma, whose son is 3, says it’s hard getting answers even with various Web sites about the city schools, including the Department of Education’s own site.
“There’s just not a clear, like, this is what you need to do; this is how it works,” she said. “It’s not really spelled out in kind of an organized or linear fashion anywhere.
“So I thought rather than spend hours and hours and days and weeks trolling through all these different Web sites, maybe I could just spend an hour and a half and get basic information.”
Ms. Szuflita, 52, from Park Slope, is the mother of twins who graduated from public schools this year. She says she was always good at staying on top of the education system and what she calls the “small bore” things.
“My neighbors started to come to me for information because they knew I was happy to talk about it,” she laughed. “And when they started sending their friends to me, I knew that this was a possible business.”
Ms Szuflita’s territory is brownstone Brooklyn. She says she keeps up to date by visiting public and private schools, reading Web sites, crunching data, and knowing the local parent associations. She doesn’t put too much stock in test scores alone. And she will never label a school as “bad,” she says.
“If you are interested in a school that I think is less than worthy I will give pros and cons about the program,” she explained. “But it is not up to me to tell a parent not to tour or think about a program. And usually their parameters are much smaller than mine. I’m usually trying to convince them to take a look at many more interesting programs that they may not have ever have heard of.”
Ms. Szuflita says she’s been able to make a “comfortable income” in the past four years since she started consulting full-time. She used to work as a scenic artist for Broadway and feature films. She credits a Manhattan woman for coming up with her business model.
At her Upper West Side apartment, that woman, Robin Aronow of School Search NYC, sat on a sectional couch one morning in late August talking to a client who lives nearby. A laptop on the coffee table had the latest test scores for local schools.
The client didn’t want to give her name because she hadn’t yet told her son’s private school that she’s planning to take him out next year. She said she and her husband can no longer afford the $35,000 a year tuition. She said she’s also less than thrilled with it.
‘There continue to be, have continued to be, signs based on the research that we’ve done that public school will be able to meet all of his needs almost as well as private school,” she told Ms. Aronow.
Ms. Aronow’s three children attended public and private schools (she won’t say which). She says she was a social worker in public elementary schools in the East Meadow school district on Long Island before switching careers over a decade ago. She serves as a consultant to her Manhattan clients on private and public schools, but is now seeing more interest in public schools because of the weak economy – and because parents are intrigued by some highly desirable schools.
But there’s a flip side.
“Class sizes have gone up,” she said. “Schools are sort of bursting at the seams.”
That means waiting lists in some neighborhoods for kindergarten, which explains why families are willing to spend about $300 to meet with a consultant for a couple of hours. Ms. Aronow acknowledged that cost is out of reach for most New Yorkers. But, she said, “I don’t think that you need money to get into a good public school in New York City. I think you just need to know there are choices out there and how to navigate those choices.”
Ms. Aronow notes that many community groups offer free workshops about the schools. And there are Web sites, including Gothamschools.org, the city Education Department's site and Insideschools.org that provide information. Insideschools even does school visits and assessments. But overall, parents who can’t speak English or don’t have regular access to a computer remain at a disadvantage.
For those who feel overwhelmed by the school system and can afford a little extra hand-holding, Ms. Szuflita said she’s happy to fill that need. She recalled the best compliment she ever got from a client.
“He said ‘you’re a great big Valium!’”