Thursday, October 11, 2018 was the last day New York City parents could sign their children up to take either the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) or audition for LaGuardia School of the Arts. It was also the first day when NYC parents could sign their children up to take the Gifted and Talented test for Kindergarten through 3rd grade entry.
This year, families can rank their choices for all levels of the traditional public school admissions process, including Universal Pre-K (UPK) and 3PK, Kindergarten, Gifted & Talented, Middle School, and High School, online, via a brand new Parent Portal called MySchools.
Almost immediately, I started getting emails about the systems malfunctioning. (I set a personal record around noon, receiving over 65 requests for help in two minutes.) Some parents couldn’t register. Others could register, but weren’t being allowed to pick a date, time, or place. Others were given a place and told they’d be contacted about the date and time… eventually. One mom was instructed to change her chosen location, but when she tried, kept receiving an error message until the site crashed. Still others wondered if they’d actually been registered as they never received a confirmation.
But I’m not here to talk about how the Department of Education’s (DOE) brand new, state of the art, multi-million dollar website wasn’t up to the task. For goodness sake, the new website didn’t even have referring URLs from the old website! If you search for a topic online, you’re as likely to be sent to a dead page as you are to a useful one. With that kind of shoddy architecture, I expected the new system to fail the first time parents tried to access it in any significant numbers.
I want to talk about how confused the parents were who reached out to me about what they should do, and how they should do it.
The literally hundreds of parents I communicated with last week ran the gamut from highly educated professionals — I saw lots of doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers in the signature lines — to parents who explained that they’d recently moved to the United States, English wasn’t their first language, and could I please help them make sense of all this! (Yes, the portal is very proud to note that it offers instructions in English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, Korean, Arabic, and several other languages. I suspect they were all equally as difficult to follow.)
I heard stories ranging from preschool directors giving parents erroneous advice, such as that you should list your G&T program choices on your Kindergarten Connect form, to parents calling schools and being given the wrong instructions on how to apply to their own Dual Language programs, to hearing about middle school guidance counselors who didn’t adequately communicate about whether or not the student had been signed up for the SHSAT/LaGuardia audition, then not picking up their phone on the last day of registration.
This is bad, DOE. This is very, very bad.
Every time the Mayor and School Chancellor trumpet some brand new initiative that will finally be the magic bullet that fixes NYC’s multiple school woes, I always wonder about information distribution and ease of access for all, especially the already underserved populations.
For instance, Mayor de Blasio claimed there was overwhelming demand for his UPK, which is why he needed more and more money to open more and more centers. Yet the program has been over-budget and undersubscribed from the start, despite city workers literally going door to door, begging for sign-ups. In addition, UPK serves less children from the lowest income quartile than any other.
There are two possibilities: Either families don’t want what the Mayor is giving them, or they don’t know about it.
Earlier this month, while asking the question Who Will (And Won’t) Benefit From Unscreened NYC Schools, I wote:
The new plan calls for extensive outreach so that underserved Brooklyn families can be informed that they can now apply to schools previously unavailable to them… There are only a few months left in the 2019 application season. Is that enough time to get the word out in any meaningful way?
After seeing the disaster that was online registration last week, I am even more concerned. Not only do I think many families won’t know when, where and how they can register for G&T and Specialized High-School tests, but they’ll find the actual process so daunting that they’ll either give up or make a mistake that will shut them out.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and School Chancellor Richard Carranza can’t stop talking about diversity. They want more diverse schools (as defined by them via a method that should make math — and English — majors weep), and they’re tossing out idea after idea – get rid of the SHSAT, get rid of screening, get rid of G&T, get rid of school choice that includes charter and unzoned schools, set aside seats for low-achieving students in high-achieving schools.
But, in all of that, have they considered making the application process easier to understand and execute? And, perhaps, also, if it isn’t too much to ask, maybe a Parent Portal that works well enough and doesn’t make NYC parents rip their hair out and start planning their move to the suburbs? Because, oh, yeah, I got those emails, too….