(This is a guest post by Erma Pfeffer. She lives in New York City and is best known as a loving Mom and an Advocate for her two children, eight and nine years old. She is grateful for the opportunity to share her experiences and opinions regarding New York City’s public education system.)
I submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the New York City Department of Education (DOE) in 2021 to obtain records of my child’s audition to the Special Music School (SMS), PS 859, after learning she was not admitted. Submitting a FOIL request was the only way to review her audition records. When I approached the SMS’s Lower School about receiving feedback regarding my child’s audition, I was told: We’re not able to provide individual feedback about student auditions. However, based on [my child’s name] audition, we are not able to offer acceptance to SMS, as her piano performance is not at the SMS grade level.
When I received the audition record, I learned that the judges who assessed my child did recommend admission.
The SMS is one of few public schools in the nation to offer a rigorous program for musically gifted children at the elementary level. The SMS may even be the only public school in the nation to offer a program for child pianists. Admission is highly coveted and competitive.
The DOE has significantly restructured the admissions process for its gifted and talented elementary programs and selective middle and high schools to be more inclusive. The SMS is one of the only gifted schools in New York City to mostly maintain an admissions process geared towards exclusivity, with justification. It is a school that intends to serve musically gifted children. Children who are admitted need to be able to keep up with the program.
However, having viewed my child’s audition records, I think that the SMS engages in unfair admissions practices. Rather than limiting their response to not providing individual feedback, the SMS Lower School went on to say that my child’s performance was not at the SMS grade level. But that was not true because my child was recommended for admission. While subtle and friendly, the SMS Lower School made sure to encourage me to explore musical resources provided by the Lucy Moses School, a private for-pay music school closely associated with the SMS, in their response to me; We welcome you to reapply to SMS in the future. Additionally, if you would like more information about piano lessons and music study in the meantime, there are many wonderful resources and programs available at Lucy Moses School.
Why encourage programming at the Lucy Moses School rather than provide transparency regarding the judges’ decisions? Also, why specifically encourage programming at the Lucy Moses School rather than encourage my child to keep up her musical studies with the teachers that honed her skills well enough to earn a recommendation for admission at the SMS?
These circumstances imply that the SMS may be evaluating applicants based on reasons other than the skills demonstrated during the audition, perhaps like a connection to the Lucy Moses School. This is less than ethical and excludes deserving children of certain socio-economic backgrounds. My child does not attend the Lucy Moses School and to the best of my knowledge, there are no resources that provide financial assistance for her to consider taking lessons there. I say that because I reached out to the Lucy Moses School at various times before my child’s audition to the SMS to inquire about financial aid opportunities to enroll in lessons. I never received a reply, by email, phone or letter.
As part of the DOE’s mission to create fairer opportunities for New York City children to access selective programs, it should review the admissions process for the SMS and at least change one important aspect; disclose the decision from the judges. This is fair to the student and good practice for the SMS. Reviewing my child’s audition record proved that the SMS uses a numerical grading system and a narrative. This can be disclosed to applicants and their families, without identifying the judges. Seeing my child’s audition record helped me understand why another applicant may have been admitted rather than my child. While both judges recommended admission, I would not describe them as strong recommendations because of my child’s numerical score, which was not the highest. I also noted that the judges were asked to disclose if the auditioner was a student of theirs on the assessment form.
However, the response from the SMS’s Lower School and my child’s audition record indicates that other factors may compel acceptance to SMS more than the audition performance. It is unmistakable that a recommendation for admission was provided, so dismissing my child as not being on the SMS grade level was not in line with the audition record – or fair to my child.
A response from the DOE’s Office of General Counsel regarding my FOIL request and concerns indicated:
We have passed your concerns regarding how best to communicate admissions decisions along to the DOE office that oversees enrollment and admissions decisions, and we have reviewed your concerns regarding a conflict of interest as it relates to the recommendation of private tutoring. However, our office has determined to take no further action regarding this item.
Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.
I have not observed any stated changes in the SMS’s admissions process, particularly communication about admissions decisions, for the 2022-2023 school year.
(Ed Note: The Special Music School had not responded to our request for a comment on the above by press time.)