By Julie Shapiro
The letter announcing a fifth grader’s middle school placement has the power to reduce both child and parent to tears.
The letter, awaited for months, determines the direction of friendships and the fate of private-school deposits. The letter sends lucky families out to celebrate, while disappointed parents hire lawyers.
And this year, the letter was late.
“I can’t overstate it,” P.S. 234 parent Elizabeth Hovey said of the stressful wait. “We were really hoping to know.”
In past years, District 2 parents found out about their child’s middle school in April. This year, the Department of Education delayed the notification until May in an effort to put the whole city on the same schedule.
But May turned to June and parents were still rushing home from work to check their mailboxes, still finding no word.
“I became fed up,” Hovey said. “You can only pace yourself for so long.”
Kathy Sussell, parent coordinator at P.S. 234, fielded a steady stream of calls from parents in the weeks leading up to the middle school notification.
“Parents are anxious about where their kids go to middle school,” Sussell said. “The longer wait time certainly didn’t do anything to quell their anxiety.”
For P.S. 234 parents, the wait ended last Friday, when Sussell released the information to families who still had not received their letters.
Hovey and her son, Jake Jiler, got good news: Jake’s first choice, Manhattan Academy of Technology, offered him admission.
But for scores of other parents across Downtown, the letters brought unwelcome news and sent them into another frenzy as they figured out what to do next. Several days after parents finally got their letters in the mail, Sussell’s phone is still ringing off the hook now with parents who want to appeal the decisions.
Because of the delayed schedule this year, parents are filing appeals as the school year winds down, and they may not hear until after graduation. Citing the delay, parents and school staff alike are criticizing the D.O.E.’s attempt to centralize middle school admissions. In District 2, the D.O.E. pushed every step of the process four to six weeks later than the year before and reduced the amount of time schools had to review applications.
“The system wasn’t broken,” said Ellen Foote, principal of I.S. 89. “I don’t know why they changed it…. The delay was inexcusable. It’s inhumane and really unfair.”
In past years, I.S. 89 had time to interview students for both the first and second rounds of the five-round admissions process, but this year only students in the first round got interviews and even that was hard to schedule, Foote said.
“We weren’t sure whether we’d be able to do it,” she said, “and we had to do it very quickly.”
Adding another layer of complication this year, the D.O.E. pioneered a new database system to compile the information in fifth graders’ applications.
In the past, each middle school received a hard copy of the applications, which included test scores, attendance record and teacher recommendations. This year, the D.O.E. was supposed to enter all that information into a database and give the middle schools the database instead.
But Foote heard that the database crashed several times as the D.O.E. tried to get it up and running, which delayed getting the information to the schools. And once Foote finally got the database, a month and a half later than last year, it was missing key information for two-thirds of the students, including teachers’ comments about student behavior and work habits. Foote said she requested the original applications, which the D.O.E. took another week to provide.
The database created an “unnecessarily complicated process,” Foote said.
Barry Skolnick, a P.S. 89 parent who has been criticizing the delayed timeline since last fall, was furious about the D.O.E.’s failure to plan.
“The way the process was implemented shows a lack of concern and consideration for both parents and students,” Skolnick said. “I give them an ‘A’ for ideas and an ‘F’ for implementation.”
Andy Jacob, a D.O.E. spokesperson, said the city’s decision to centralize admissions made the process fairer overall. For some districts, the early June notification was an improvement over past years, Jacob said. Next year, the D.O.E. plans to move the timeline up and get notification to parents earlier.
One snag the D.O.E. hit this year was that it took longer than expected to put together the middle school directories, Jacob said.
Next step: Appeal
For many fifth graders and their parents, receiving the letter did not put an end to their worries.
Matthew Weldon, 10, did not get into his first choice, Manhattan Academy of Technology, and he did not get into his second, third or fourth choices either. The letter from the D.O.E. told him he would be going to Baruch, the zoned middle school for District 2 and a default for students who do not apply or are not accepted elsewhere.
“I’m fine about it now, but I wasn’t fine about it when I heard it,” said Matthew, a fifth grader at P.S. 234. “It’s been a lot of suspense and very frustrating.”
Erica Weldon, Matthew’s mother, filed an appeal last Friday for Matthew to get into M.A.T. She likes M.A.T.’s small size and warm atmosphere, while Matthew likes the sports and technology. Baruch is a good school, Weldon said, but it’s far away on E. 21st St. and feels much larger than P.S. 234.
Staff at P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 said it seemed that more students were going to Baruch this year than in past years. Neither school would release a breakdown of where students were accepted.
Weldon wishes the D.O.E. had handed out the decisions earlier, so she could have appealed earlier. Appeals are due June 13 and the D.O.E. hopes to release decisions before school lets out.
“Now we’re all scampering before graduation to do appeals,” Weldon said. “The kids have a lot on their minds.”
The delayed notification also pushed back orientations for incoming sixth graders. In the past, middle schools held orientations in mid to late May, after the appeals process was over. This year, Foote, I.S. 89’s principal, has to hold the orientation in the midst of appeals, because if she waited any longer, she would be holding it after graduation. She usually plans her orientation to coincide with the spring concert, to give incoming students a taste of I.S. 89’s popular instrumental music program, but the concert is long over by now.
Waiting until mid-June for orientations could hurt fifth graders who need to start separating from their elementary schools, said Hovey, a P.S. 234 parent, based on her conversations with the school’s psychologist.
“It’s harmful for kids to not know what’s down the road,” she said.
It can be harmful for parents, too or at least for their pocketbooks. To hedge their bets, many parents put deposits on private schools just in case their children don’t get into the public school of their choice. Those deposits are often non-refundable.
Jake, Hovey’s son, received admissions offers from two selective private schools this winter. He had to tell them whether he planned on attending long before he found out about M.A.T., his first choice.
Hovey wanted to reserve a spot in one of the schools, but the school told her that she could be liable for a year’s tuition if her son withdrew. Instead, in a rare arrangement, the school, which she declined to identify, backed off and she was able to informally reserve her son a spot without a deposit.
Mary Lippi, a P.S. 89 parent, went all the way across the country to secure a backup option for her fifth-grade son. Lippi is weighing a move to Boulder, Colorado, so she and her son, Nicholas Gunther, 10, also visited middle schools there.
The drawn-out admissions process in New York City added another layer of complication to Lippi’s decision about the move.
“College students knew if they were going to Harvard sooner than 10-year-olds knew where they were going to middle school,” Lippi said. “It’s a long process and for educating 10-year-olds it seemed so out of whack.”
In the end, Nicholas received admission offers from NEST and Lab, two of the city’s most competitive middle schools, and he also got into a charter school in Boulder. Lippi will likely move to Colorado, but she extended her lease at Gateway Plaza through July just in case. And while Lippi will turn down the offer from Lab, she and Nicholas will hold onto the coveted NEST slot.
“Until my stuff’s on a moving truck, I’m not giving up my spot at NEST,” Lippi said.
The squeaky wheel
In a climate where students with seemingly perfect qualifications get rejected, parent anxiety runs high and parents don’t always leave the fate of their child up to the D.O.E.
When word spread last week that principals had lists of who was accepted where, parents rushed to the schools and demanded to find out. Some then launched appeals through phone calls, friends and even lawyers, circumventing the D.O.E. and going straight to the middle schools.
NEST, a citywide gifted school on the Lower East Side, runs its own admissions process and notified accepted students several weeks ago. Several children who were initially rejected from NEST later gained admission when, at the behest of insistent parents, NEST agreed to re-score a handful of admissions tests, several parents said. NEST does not have an appeals process.
To Lippi, a P.S. 89 parent, the lesson is clear: “People who challenge the system are at an advantage, while people who believe the system is fair are at a disadvantage,” she said. “That’s a broken system…. It’s unfair to the person who didn’t know they could call the schools.”
NEST’s principal and parent coordinator did not return calls for comment.
Parents also complained that the notification of students was uneven and haphazard. At P.S. 89, staff told some parents where their children had been accepted but refused to tell others, parents said. One teacher told fifth graders he knew where each of them had been accepted a week before the letters went out, but he wouldn’t tell them where they were going, according to one parent.
Connie Schraft, parent coordinator at P.S. 89, said the school did not have that information so far in advance. Several middle schools contacted P.S. 89 because their orientations were coming up, and the schools asked 89 to pass the orientation details on to accepted students, Schraft said.
But Jacob, of D.O.E., said elementary schools had a complete list of the matches early last week, and the city did not forbid the schools from releasing the list.
On Friday, Ronnie Najjar, principal of P.S. 89, sent a letter to parents telling which school they’d been assigned. The formal D.O.E. letters were on their way, Najjar wrote, but they were being sent from Pennsylvania. Parents received the D.O.E. letters as late as last Saturday or Monday.
“Unfortunately, the district had little to do with the centralized process, which is why you are hearing about middle school placement at such a late date,” Najjar wrote.
Skolnick, the P.S. 89 parent who sounded the warning back in October that the admissions process would go awry, was unsurprised by the past few weeks of chaos.
His daughter got into Lab and NEST, but he’s angry over the months of uncertainty and confusion.
“They did everything for the convenience of the system, not the parents and students,” he said.