Accountability · Blog · Finding the Right School

The Privilege (and Cost) Of Being “Well-Rounded.”

About a year ago, I asked: Is an ‘Unenriched’ Spring Break Worth Living? I confessed that, despite offers flooding my inbox to sign my kids up for coding camp or a writing workshop or test prep, I was tired. So, over Spring Break, we did… nothing.

In New York City, admitting you let a child enrichment opportunity pass by is tantamount to admitting child abuse.

This year was different.

This year, over the same time period, my 6th grade daughter went to a rhythmic gymnastics competition in Boston while my 9th grade son traveled to Cuba for a ballet intensive.

“Oooh,” my fellow parents remarked, “that’s going to look so great on their college applications!”

I’m not thinking about college applications while my kids are in 6th and 9th grade. We’re not building resumes. We’re helping them pursue their interests.

And the reason my kids can pursue their interests is because their father and I can afford them.

My daughter takes gymnastics at The Wendy Hilliard Foundation. Wendy Hilliard was the first African-American woman to compete on the US rhythmic gymnastics team. Her foundation was created to bring low-cost, high-quality gymnastics instruction to inner-city kids. Not only can we afford the fees, but, because of my flexible work schedule, I’m able to take my daughter to the Harlem Armory for practice, multiple times a week. Because my husband is a teacher and had Good Friday off, he was able to accompany her to Boston. Not all families are that privileged.

My son has been dancing at Ballet Hispanico since he was 8. He’s on partial scholarship. For the Cuba trip, we covered the bulk of the cost. But my son also chipped in with money he earned working over the summer as a computer programmer. He’s been coding since he was 7, making money at it since he was 12. Those tech skills are also a privilege. My son mostly taught himself (he complied free, online resources to help other kids, here). But my son had the time and the hardware other kids might not. He was able to work purely for his own enjoyment and to make his own money, rather than needing to help support his family.

I’m not going to lie. Someday, when the time comes, my kids may list these extracurriculars on their college applications.

My son listed them when he applied to high school. Multiple NYC public “screened” high schools don’t just look at grades, test scores, attendance, and perhaps the results of their own tests. They want their students to be “well-rounded.” So, either during one-on-one interviews or via essay prompts and portfolios, they ask applicants to talk about their hobbies, their community service, outside classes they’ve taken, and anything else that might make them stand out.

Not everyone can afford to stand out. Not everyone knows they’re supposed to.

I’ve written before about how nervous “holistic” school admissions make me. Not only are they completely subjective, they’re also just not available to all in equal measures.

I don’t want my kids to get into public school because they dance and code and compete in gymnastics outside of school. I want them to get in because they do well on the academic subjects schools (are at least supposed to) teach.

Mike Mascetti of the Science School Initiative also sees the problem with holistic admissions. He relates that the lower-income students he works with often have a harder time getting into a school that uses multiple criteria for admissions than a school that relies exclusively on the SHSAT. “You would think a kid from East Harlem would have an easier time getting into (a screened school) than Stuy, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

(For the record, my dancing, coding, African-American son did not get into his first or second choice screened school. He got into his first-choice SHSAT school, though.)

A 2015 NYU study found that taking into account factors like grades and extracurricular activities, as colleges do, “would not appreciably increase the share of Black students admitted” to SHSAT schools. Who would it help, though? Middle-class white students.

But SHSAT prep is an expensive privilege, too, critics charge!

That’s true. It’s tragic that a majority of NYC kids, especially low-income and those of color, do not attend K-8 schools which prepare them to take this exam. Maybe someone — like the Mayor, or the School Chancellor — should look into fixing that?

But, at least, the exam is the same for everyone. It’s graded the same for everyone. It doesn’t depend on getting a tester who approves of how you answered a question (like with Hunter High School’s essay). It doesn’t depend on getting a tester who has an opinion on how you spend your free time, or whether your choice of community service lines up with their (or the schools’ stated ) “values.

Colleges, we’re told, are moving away from using standardized test scores for admission in favor of assessing the ‘whole’ applicant.

“If you’re applying to Harvard today, you would not be admitted based on a test score,” Chancellor Richard Carranza has said. “It’s multiple measures.”

So why shouldn’t high schools look beyond test scores, and judge students based on what they do outside of school? You know, like charity work and athletics. The kinds of activities that got the kids of these Hollywood celebrities into college?

The kinds of “whole” child indicators that cost a whole lot of money to fake – or to do legitimately.

The kinds that aren’t accessible to a whole lot of people.

No one is pretending the current system is an even playing field when it comes to admissions at any level, from Kindergarten Gifted & Talented (well, except for this mom), to screened middle schools, high schools, or colleges.

But how can the solution to today’s unequal access be to pile on even more arbitrary, time-consuming, unobjective, and expensive hoops to jump through?

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