She was crying when I picked up the phone.
“Miss Klein, I do not know what to do. I am thinking that maybe I should not have brought her here to this country. This is a big mistake. I cannot understand why no one will listen to me. I am not sending my daughter to that school — that school has no uniforms! It is too far from home. I need her to go to another school!”
She had spent her summer dragging herself from one office to another, speaking in broken English, begging that her daughter be allowed to change high schools. She was sent away, time after time, told that there was nothing that could be done. Time after time, she felt confused and dismissed and helpless.
Her daughter, Maria, a student at the middle school in the Bronx where I teach, chose her high school the way that all other children in New York City choose.
She was given a thick book, organized by borough. She flipped through it, analyzing summaries of the schools’ offerings, their scores on the past year's progress report and, most important, whether kids get their own lockers. (This is of utmost importance to my students, matched only by the importance of living in a dorm if they go to college.)
She listed the schools she wanted in order of preference. She brought her list home and someone signed off on it, perhaps without taking the time to double check the schools selected, or without understanding the magnitude of this little piece of paper.
After students submit their sheets early in the eighth grade, months pass before the computer magically generates matches between students and schools. How this happens, I have no idea.
Last year the top eight students in my school were matched with no school at all, and were left to reapply in the second round. This included the valedictorian and other students with great averages and no history of discipline problems.
The schools still available in the second round were limited, and these top students felt that they had been cheated while somehow others who were known to be less motivated ended up in coveted schools.
Maria was matched to a school that her mother promptly declared unfit; it was too far from home and it had no uniforms, both of which very much mattered to her.
She immediately appealed the decision, saying that she did not feel safe having her daughter take buses in the Bronx at night, and that her daughter was the only person home at night to care for her little brother. (The mother frequently works until midnight.) She felt that uniforms represented order and rules.
She was distraught over the differences between Guyana and the United States, and was determined to keep her daughter’s childhood protected for as long as possible.
She was also supporting her family alone, and uniforms are much less expensive for a parent than trying to keep up with the ever-changing fashion trends in a school.
The appeal was shut down: unless there is a documented safety concern, or a commute of more than an hour and a half, the city sees no reason to change what the digital matchmaker has done.
Each day that summer, Maria and her mother went to district offices, and to different schools, begging to be allowed to change. Maria called me in tears many times, feeling that she had let her mother down, and that she had made a huge mistake.
“I ruined everything,” she sobbed, again and again. “I’m so stupid.” Through her tears, I could scarcely make out her words.
Her mother called many times, frustrated and defeated and, most of all, confused. I had always been able to help them with their problems in the past, but this was a maze that I could not navigate.
Maria is an extremely motivated student. She came to me reading at a second-grade level and left reading at a sixth-grade level.
I am no miracle worker. Maria was determined. She was proof that we can demand a lot of students no matter how far behind they are, and that they have the capacity to meet our expectations if they work their hardest.
I saved every paper she wrote, because she so painstakingly edited and corrected them, following every direction, wanting the best for herself. She begged that I test her reading level each month, feeling that her improvements needed to be documented.
Nothing got in her way, and she took extreme pride in her work ethic. She was an inspiration.
She ended up having to stay at that high school. It was a school with low ratings, high reports of violence and a low graduation rate. Nevertheless, in New York City, students have no opportunity to transfer until the end of their freshman year.
There are good reasons for this: money has been allocated based on the projected number of students at a school, and after all, you had to pick the school in order to have been assigned to it.
But it seems to me it is a system that makes unnecessary demands on children and parents — first complicated beyond comprehension, then unreasonably leaving the final decision to chance.
I am sure that there are a lot of things that I do not know about the high school choice system in New York City and what went into making it what it is. What I do know for sure is that it leaves my eighth graders at a loss, year after year.
They do not know enough about the schools to make an educated decision, and often their parents are busy and equally uninformed. They choose based on the names of the high schools, or where their cousin went or where the boy they have a crush on is going. And, with one piece of paper, the next four years of their lives are decided.
They may end up at a school without extracurricular activities, or Advanced Placement classes, putting them at a disadvantage when it is time to apply to colleges. They may end up at a vocational school, when that is not their intention. They are children, and often they are making decisions without the parent involvement that such a complex process requires.
Does it have to be this way? Why force adolescents to go through the upheaval of leaving all of their friends to go to high school? A fresh start is not easy when you are 14 or 15.
Why must they have so many options, and why do we expect that students should be able to make this choice at all, based on such limited information?
And is it not strange that a child’s performance in middle school seems to have no bearing whatsoever on what school he or she ends up in?
Yet this is a system that people continue to accept, even when there are good reasons for simplifying it.
Parents take more of an ongoing interest in a school, and have more of a stake in its success, when it is the one their child is zoned to attend. And families inherently have more of a connection to it: siblings follow after each other, and parents are more likely to know teachers.
New York City is huge, as is its school system. Rather than finding ways to streamline the system, we keep attempting to navigate the jungle.
It is a map that is hard to draw, and even harder to understand. Wouldn’t it be easier if we created a road?