Do NYC Parents Have to “Game the System” in Order to Find the Right School for Their Child?

Last month, the New York City Department of Education finally made it easier for students to switch public schools, which should, in theory, remove some of the existing barriers to parents and students exercising their right to choose where – and how – they are educated.

Previously, transfers, especially in high-school, were reserved for documented safety concerns, medical limitations and/or commutes deemed “extreme.”

Which isn’t to say that savvy parents didn’t play the system for all it was worth. For instance, in 2013, a student was assigned to his 5th choice high-school. Considering that there are 12 slots on the application, this kid got a school that he listed in his top half; not ideal, but hardly catastrophic. Except that the family suddenly decided it was. They were able to appeal on the grounds that his placement made the teen “deeply depressed,” and got him assigned to a different school, jumping the queue ahead of kids who were presumably merely “bummed out” by their placement. Or maybe just kids whose parents didn’t know the right strings to pull, or that they even had the right to pull any.

As of 2016, however, families less adept at manipulating the DOE to their advantage can now also request a transfer on the grounds that their child is is not progressing or achieving academically or socially.”

On the one hand, those terms are pretty darn vague. They leave themselves open to all sorts of interpretations, many of which will probably come down to the creative writing skills of the family’s doctor or lawyer. In other words, those who figured out how to game the system before will continue to do so, especially now that they have such new and better tools at their disposal.

On the other hand, if that means that even a fraction more families will get the chance to move their children out of schools that don’t work for them – for a variety of reasons that might have nothing to do with transportation, safety or medical issues, then it’s a victory for all families, current and future.

The fact is, it’s impossible to predict what sort of school will be optimal for your child before they are actually attending it. And even then, what worked well at the start may not by the finish. With elementary school, what you thought your child needed at 4 years old may turn out to be not at all what they need at 8 or 12 years old. And when it comes to high-school, visiting a school, sitting in on a class, going through the admissions process and hearing from current and past students is still no guarantee that it’s the right place for your particular teen.

For instance, this past summer, students, parents and faculty at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High-School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (yes, that’s really its full name, though most people think of it as the “Fame” school) launched a petition to relieve the current principal of her duties, arguing that she was prioritizing academics over the arts, accepting new kids based on test scores rather than their audition scores, and thus undermining the entire purpose of having a specialized arts high-school that demands applicants demonstrate exceptional ability in drama, dance, vocal or instrumental music, fine arts or theater tech. As of press time, over 10,000 interested parties have signed this petition.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, over at the Professional Performing Arts School, which also requires a talent audition, but is a “Screened,” not a “Specialized” high school (welcome to New York, good luck figuring all this out!), parents have an alternate complaint: They charge that this school is too focused on the arts and that almost half of their students are graduating non-college ready!

Which just goes to show that, no matter how historically well regarded, selective or Irene-Cara-theme-song-famous, no school is going to be the right fit for every child who gets in. It’s even worse for kids who are assigned to a school they never so much as listed on their application – yes that can and does happen. The new regulations making transfers easier are more important than ever. Because no school should be a life sentence.

What do you think?

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