MANHATTAN — Parents and students going through the stressful high school admissions season hear it over and over from schools — if you don't rank us first, you won't get in.
But according to the city, schools don't control who gets in, an algorithm does — yet the incorrect information still continues to be disseminated by high schools across the city, to the frustration and confusion of all involved.
“The DOE makes it clear that high schools cannot use student choice information to make ranking decisions or determine priority,” DOE spokesman Michael Aciman said, adding that all high schools use a blind admissions process, whether they're screened — and have access to students' grades and other data — or not.
But schools continue to tell parents and students — “with a wink” — that they may be penalized if they don't list their school first, according to one high school admissions consultant who has launched a petition to the Department of Education demanding they crack down on the practice.
“Even though the city is very clear, families don’t want to believe a city agency,” said NYC School Help founder Joyce Szuflita — a Brooklyn-based school admissions consultant. “They think it’s inside information from the schools.
"My parents are being tortured because of this misinformation," added Szuflita.
She said parents are inclined to believe the schools because they're often still reeling from a stressful — and notoriously opaque — middle school admissions process in which many schools get access to applicants' rankings before they make a decision on whether to let them in.
“Because of the middle school process, they think, ‘We’re screwed again,’" Szuflita said. "The city has trained parents to be twitchy about the first and second rankings.”
“This is a blind match,” Szuflita wrote in her petition. “The schools never know how a student has ranked them and it is in the student's best interest to rank schools in order of their true preference without being disadvantaged.”
The DOE’s algorithm for admissions, similar to the one used to match medical school graduates with hospital residencies, was designed by a Nobel prize-winning economist. As part of the application — due by Dec. 1 — students can rank up to 12 schools.
The statistics can be confusing for parents, because it's true that ranking a school No. 1 does boost a student's odds of admission under the logic of the algorithm. Roughly 48 percent of applicants last year were matched to their first choice, according to DOE data.
However, Szuflita said parents trying to game the system will often rank high schools in an order that doesn't match their child's actual preference because they think it will increase their odds. Others may entirely leave out schools their child is actually interested in because they don't think they have a shot at going there, she said.
As a result, low-income kids in struggling schools without enough guidance counselors might be hearing the misinformation at high school fairs, and giving up on their dreams in favor of putting their “safety” school first.
“They should reach higher,” Szuflita said.
According to a 2013 study from NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, low-achieving students were matched to schools that were lower performing, on average, than other students — because they listed those lower-performing schools as their first choice.
Parents say the whole public school admissions process is enough to make anyone's head spin — and that the answer to admissions questions is different every time you ask.
“It’s hard to get authentic information. As a parent, it becomes this black hole,” said Julie Weintraub, a Kensington mom of twin eighth graders.
Another Kensington mom, who has two children in high school and asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said she visited about 10 schools between her two kids and only two of them — Leon Goldstein High School in Manhattan Beach and Millennium Brooklyn in Park Slope — explained that they don’t see how students rank them, so families shouldn’t base decisions on that.
Meanwhile, the mom recounted, at a Flatbush high school, the person running the open house said — erroneously — that kids wouldn’t get in unless they ranked the school No. 1, while an Upper West Side high school tour giver told a "semi-truth" that "So many kids rank us No. 1, that you have to rank us No. 1 in order to get in."
Some school officials may simply misunderstand the process themselves, Szuflita said. Some may give out the wrong info because it serves their interest, she believes.
Szuflita would like to see the DOE give schools a script to read at open houses and on tours explicitly stating that families should rank schools in order of preference and will not be disadvantaged by doing otherwise.
At school fairs, she’d like an announcement to be made every 15 minutes reminding families to rank schools in the order of preference.
“At least giving schools unified information will help them understand how to do it,” she said.