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Where’s the Transparency? Behind the Scenes With NYC Public School Waitlists – And What Families Can Still Do To Get In!

This past May, I wrote a post called, How NYC School Waitlists Work – And How They Don’t. What I should have called it was How NYC School Waitlists Are SUPPOSED To Work. Consider this post to be the And How They Don’t part (with tips on what you can still do about that).

2021 was an unusual year. Because of changes to the public high school, middle school, and elementary school Gifted & Talented admissions process, many more families than usual found themselves shut out from the schools of their choice.

At the same time, due to families leaving the city, opting for private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling, traditional public school applications went down across the board, at all grade levels. This led to some waiting lists moving deeper than they ever had before.

When it came to highly coveted General Education elementary programs, schools that in past years were forced to waitlist even some zoned students, and schools that previously never took out of zone, much less out district students, were both admitting new kids.

At popular, progressive unzoned elementary schools, waitlists moved to accept students with numbers nearly in the three digits. That’s almost unheard of!

Meanwhile, district G&T programs, facing defections right and left, were taking kids from out of district at all grade levels, suggesting that they’d already made offers to all the qualified in-district students first — though parents claimed that wasn’t the case. For Kindergarten, students were supposed to be accepted into G&T based on their placement in the lottery. For grades 1-3, schools were supposed to accept only those applicants who’d been waitlisted the previous year. And all were supposed to go in strict numerical order.

Yet, in multiple cases parents informed me about, G&T programs accepted students who hadn’t even applied the previous year — if you happened to call up and inquire about availability. Others took siblings of newly accepted Kindergarten students, including those who hadn’t tested the previous year and so couldn’t be considered qualified. While still others reassured parents that their child was on the roster for September — even though their official waitlist number in the Department of Education’s parent portal hadn’t budged. (Not really new, just at a way greater scale than in previous years, when some families received calls even before the lottery to let them know they’d been accepted.)

The NYC public school system is unabashedly, unapologetically corrupt, with every school operating under their own self-selected rules. Here’s how you, too, can take advantage of it:

If your child was not placed at the traditional public school of your choice at any grade level, reach out to the parent coordinator to let them know you would still accept a spot… even after the start of the school year.

NYC public schools receive funding based on how many students are enrolled prior to October 31 (that’s most years, the timeline could shift this fall due to the pandemic). 

Every year, even without a pandemic, a certain number of registered students simply don’t show up on the first day/week of school. 

Why? Because there’s no penalty for never bothering to withdraw your registration. This isn’t private school, where you’d lose a deposit or maybe even a year’s tuition. If you decide to be inconsiderate in public school, there’s no mechanism in place to punish you for it.

When the above happens, the school which, all summer has, in response to your phone calls and emails, been offering a variation on “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” is suddenly desperate to fill the newly empty spot — or lose the funding that comes with it.

Now, they’re calling you. And all the other parents who’d been begging for admission. Only now, they’re just as likely to hear, “No, thank you, my child has already started at a different school, and I’m not going to move them, it’s too disruptive. Besides, turns out this school isn’t all that bad.”

The people in charge of making those calls are… people. And people are predisposed to making their own lives as easy as possible.

Why is this relevant to you? Because, people who are predisposed to making their own lives as easy as possible, when faced with an enumerated waitlist, are much less likely to go strictly down the line, only to hear, “No… No… No… We’ll think about it… We’re still thinking about it,” than they are to scan the list, spot a name which previously told them they’d be happy to accept a spot even after the school year has started, even in October, and just call them, instead. This shortcut turns what could have been a multi-day slog into a few minutes of work.

How do I know this happens? Because I’ve been doing this job for a long time. Because, every year, I get delighted emails from families who got accepted into their dream placement on the first day of school. In the first week of school. Yes, as late as the morning of October 31.

It happens. All. The. Time.

So don’t give up hope. Until the DOE actually gives us true transparency in the process, the system will remain unabashedly, unapologetically corrupt.

And now you too know how to take advantage of it.

What do you think?

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