For the parents of public school students in New York City, Judgment Day has an actual date: the sixth of March. That’s when they find out what high school their kids will attend. Eighth graders turn in their high school applications in December. They rank their school choices, up to 12. A computer algorithm that takes into consideration factors like test scores and location will match them to their schools. Then they wait. In early March, the official envelopes are opened: One child is elated; another is crushed.
Guido, a tall, handsome 13-year-old from Paraguay who had been in the United States less than a year, was recently one of these students. When his school choice forms first came, he and his mother, Blanca, a naturalized immigrant, were at a loss. The 2014-2015 Directory of NYC Public High Schools is nearly 600 pages long, with overviews of more than 400 public high schools. Its introduction to the admissions process runs 14 pages. Many of Guido’s school-age peers, and their parents, were strategizing about how to get into the schools they wanted. Guido and Blanca didn’t even know what schools to want.
The idea behind school choice is that parents can choose a school—including both public and charter schools—that best fits their child’s needs. But such a choice can be a burden, even a danger, when children and parents don’t know how to judge their options. That can be especially true for immigrants, many of whom have a hard time navigating the rules or finding the people to help them. Even for the middle class, talismanic terms like “zone” or “charter” or “IEP” can be confusing; for new arrivals, they can be incomprehensible.
It might seem obvious that newcomers would have a harder time understanding public school systems. What’s less obvious, however, is how high a price they pay for it. We know this much: In New York City high schools, only 37 percent of English-language learners graduate within four years, as opposed to 73 percent of students for whom English is the first language. Nationwide, foreign-born students make up 9.6 percent of the school population, but they account for more than 20 percent of dropouts. For most, academic performance lags when compared to that of native-born youth. These are complex problems, certainly, and many of them can be traced to factors beyond lack of bureaucratic know-how. (Some new immigrant kids even have certain educational advantages over their American peers: greater optimism and better academic habits.) But for a group already working at a disadvantage, an opaque and labyrinthine educational system is a costly additional hurdle.
The number of kids affected is large and getting larger: By 2040, more than 30 percent of school-age children in America will be living with at least one immigrant parent. Public school officials, particularly in big cities with large foreign-born populations, are scrambling to keep up.
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For 10 years, Guido lived with his grandmother in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, while his mother labored in New York taking care of other people’s children. Blanca made $15 an hour and sent $800 in remittances via Western Union back to Paraguay each month. Two hundred dollars of that went to private school for Guido, who enjoyed the constant attention of his grandma and belonged to a thriving soccer team. He was part of what the sociologist Robert C. Smith calls “the remittance bourgeoisie,” kids who are relatively privileged thanks to the money sent by their overseas parents.
Yet, like so many immigrants who leave their children behind to work in the U.S., Blanca didn’t understand that coming here would be so hard or that it would take so long to bring Guido to live with her. The decision to leave Guido when he was young made Blanca hazy with unhappiness, but she believed her sacrifices would help her only son.
I first met Blanca when I was reporting on caregivers who, like Blanca, are looking after American children while their own children are brought up at home in another country. On the day Guido arrived in Queens from Paraguay, a year and a half ago, I went to the airport with her. Blanca had been worried about her mother’s physical endurance, and Guido had been apart from his mother long enough. When Guido stepped into the arrivals hall, Blanca screamed his name and looked exuberant. Guido looked like a nonchalant-seeming tween, successfully masking any excitement.
Blanca quickly got Guido enrolled in Leonardo da Vinci Intermediate School, a 2,270-student local middle school—the largest in any of the five boroughs—that is eligible for Title 1 federal funding because of the student body’s high poverty level. At Leonardo da Vinci, the hallways are crowded and noisy with the shouts of students communicating in a dozen languages. Teachers roll trolleys overloaded with schoolbooks while students fill the corridors, heading in all directions. (In ironic juxtaposition, sections of the school are named after the embodiments of educational luxury: Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and Harvard.) The school is only a few blocks from Blanca’s apartment, in the working-class neighborhood of Corona in northern Queens.
At first, the new life was difficult for Guido. He missed his grandmother, now 92, who had raised him since he was two. They still spoke every day, and he kept photographs of her on his phone. In his favorite one, she was seated in a housedress, looking lovingly into the camera.
He sometimes despaired, Blanca said. Every day after school, he would walk home to an empty apartment, in a building that was layered, almost favela-like, with crowded rentals full of immigrants cooking and talking. There, he’d watch the hours tick by, listening to the din through the thin walls, until his mother got home.
Things got better in increments. Blanca bought Guido a puppy, a purebred shih tzu. Guido began to make friends. He grew tall and good-looking, with a thick wave of hair. He was also good at soccer, an invaluable skill that could turn a kid into a monarch in a school of immigrant students. One day, when I visited him at school, I watched Guido’s friends gather around him as he kicked the ball and blocked his opponents. He was wearing chinos, new red Nikes, and a polo shirt, and he towered over the other kids. The cool teacher who supervised recess, Shone (with a perfect Macklemore hairdo), told me that the girls liked Guido best. His friends—Dilan, from Colombia; Juan, from the Dominican Republic—clearly looked to him for his judgment on social matters.
* * *
As the eighth-grade year progressed, the tittering between students began to focus on high school. What would it be like? Which ones would people be going to? In one of Guido’s classes, a girl with turquoise nails, styled with meticulous designs that she found on the Internet, leaned over to a friend who was putting on lip gloss. Forest Hills High School, Flushing High School, they murmured. That’s what my mother found out. That’s what my cousin says. The girls occasionally glanced to the desk where Guido sat, refined and contained.
In his math class that same day, Guido took careful notes. Occasionally, he translated the teacher’s words into Spanish for his more recent immigrant friends. Guido’s energetic teacher, Samantha Heuer, who sported leopard-print boots and stylish ombre hair, taught linear equations. The keys, Heuer said in a bright and commanding voice, were indeterminate and determinate variables. “In the equation involving the boy Juan,” she said, “the Y variable is indeterminate and X is determinate.”
Heuer asked Guido to solve a problem for the class at the board, and he did it with ease. Guido was a cherished rarity for Heuer: a student who would come to her after class and ask how he could improve his grade. Guido did best at math. Yet for all his efforts, his grades were mediocre, topping out at low Bs, and he had just received a 54 on a science test.
Guido’s life itself resembled a linear equation, with determinate factors and indeterminate ones, Y and X variables, like in math class. The good determinate factors were his inherent physical grace and the love of his mother and grandmother. The bad determinate factors were the language barrier, the near poverty, and the fractured family. And the indeterminate factor was luck.
* * *
When poorer New Yorkers like Blanca and Guido are seeking spots at the city’s more desirable schools, they’re often competing with middle-class New Yorkers. The match isn’t set up to be even.
The most privileged parents can hire tutors and send their children to expensive prep courses. Others hire coaches who have built careers out of helping parents navigate public school choice. I once saw a mother buttonhole a principal and insist that he rank all the public schools in the mother’s catchment area in descending order. As she took up the man’s time and ignored the line of other parents waiting to speak to him, the phrase “will to education” popped into my mind. (On one tour, a parent had the temerity to ask if the public school lunches were organic.)
Most parents I know spend a lot of time decoding school statistics—from test scores to absenteeism—for indications of a school’s strength. I have tried to read between the lines about whether one school or another would be “good” for my daughter. I have also scoured school and parent websites, sometimes startled on the latter when parents itemize local public school failings for one another or half-boast about what their seventh graders are doing for “extras” to add to their appeal on their New York City public high school applications. These include activities like “cell replication” and learning Mandarin.
* * *
One night last winter, as Guido was gearing up to write out his list of high school choices, I paid the family a visit. The streets were dimly lit; the brightest lights came from barbershops and bakeries displaying giant, garishly colored birthday cakes. The residential blocks were mostly multifamily houses, some new, many built in the 1920s. Guido and Blanca’s home was between an NSA supermarket and a parking lot.
Blanca didn’t return from work until the evening. Nonetheless, she checked in regularly, calling Guido throughout her train ride home, apprising him of her whereabouts and checking to see if he was WhatsApp-ing or playing video games like Call of Duty instead of doing his homework. When Blanca made it home, she gestured around her neat, dark apartment in a tour-guide pantomime. “Welcome to my penthouse,” she said.
Within 10 minutes, she was sitting at the small kitchen table and going over Guido’s homework. She looked at the math problem sheet, less to judge its quality (Blanca hasn’t studied math in years) than to ensure that it was finished. How much time had he spent on it, she wanted to know. Blanca muttered to me irritably that Guido devotes only an hour to all of his homework. While Blanca has a college degree in nursing from back at home in Paraguay, her education took place in a very different time and place, and she was not sure what to tell Guido except that he should follow her example of hard work.
She heated the pizzas she brought back—thin-crust gourmet leftovers from her employer—slice by slice in the toaster oven, which stood in for a full-sized oven. Guido had shed his immaculate preppy uniform, mandatory at Leonardo da Vinci, for an Angry Birds T-shirt, and he was texting up a storm.
After dinner, Blanca reached for The Directory of NYC Public High Schools—“the book,” as she called it, almost reverently, as if it were the Bible. She and Guido looked briefly at the giant tome, then closed it. They seemed to have trouble making sense of it. On the state department of education choice form that was due in a few weeks, Guido had simply written down the schools that sounded best to him, based on his interest in business. His first choice was the High School of Economics and Finance. Further down his list was the High School of Arts and Business. Like a novice bettor picking horses, he went strictly on the music of their names.
What about LaGuardia, Flushing, and Forest Hills? I asked, although I later realized Guido might not even be zoned for them. I turned to Blanca. She told me that she had no idea which schools to push for.
New York City's 2014-15 Directory of Public High Schools:
• is nearly 600 pages long;
• contains overviews of the more than 400 public high schools in the five boroughs;
• has a 14-page introduction intended to be a quick guide to the admissions process;
• until the fall of 2014 came only in English, but now comes in nine languages, including Spanish, Chinese, and Urdu;
• is intended to help students narrow down their options from more than 700 program options to their 12 top choices;
• explains the seven priorities that schools use to determine the order in which applicants are considered and the eight admissions methods that schools may use to evaluate and admit students;
• provides students with a 23-step checklist that begins in June and ends nine months later, in March;
• says that 45 percent of students matched to their first choice of school, 84 percent matched to one of their top five, and 90 matched to at least one of their choices last year.
How were immigrants like Blanca to understand the social-class semiotics of, say, chipper school websites? Blanca and other parents who don’t read English fluently are hobbled by not having enough translated materials about schools. Blanca was also uncomfortable speaking with school personnel. I remembered a night a year or more before when we were at an Italian restaurant celebrating Guido’s arrival. That night she told me how nervous she was about his schooling. “I ask [about] the school nearby, but no one there speaks Spanish.”
And Blanca, like so many people, had precious few hours with Guido, and little work flexibility. She couldn’t take hours off of work to meet with teachers, school counselors, or officials, to visit potential schools, or to lobby for Guido’s admission. Blanca also didn’t know about the many educational services available to her, which would help with school placement or tutoring.
* * *
When Judgment Day arrived in March, I got a text update from Blanca. She wasn’t happy. As I soon learned, Guido had been admitted into his first choice: the High School of Economics and Finance. But Blanca hadn’t realized that the school was in downtown Manhattan, nearly nine miles from their house, and Blanca worked seven miles away from the school in a different direction. While Guido could take public transportation to the school, his commute would take close to an hour. Plus, she worried he might not yet be ready for such a long daily commute alone.
There is something about Blanca that elicits care from those around her. Maybe it’s that her voice rises when she’s anxious, or that she is self-flagellating about her blind spots. A colleague of mine pointed out that there was a fair for kids who weren’t happy with their school assignment and were hoping to be re-assigned. Shouldn’t they go?
So, on a pigeon-gray rainy day in mid-March, Guido, Blanca, and I met up at a Starbucks to make our way to the Round Two High School Fair in Manhattan. “I was so stupid to let Guido apply to that school first,” Blanca told me. “So stupid!” I bought her a latte, a favorite of hers. It was her 45th birthday. Soon we were walking through Lincoln Center. Guido had never seen the grand theaters and plaza. He and Blanca peeked at the giant chandeliers and well-heeled opera aficionados in the stately theater buildings.
When we arrived at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, on 65th and Amsterdam, we discovered that Blanca and Guido were far from alone in their quest. Long lines of kids and their parents snaked around the block, waiting to get into the fair in the hopes of correcting a school assignment that had been found wanting. After standing in the rain for 20 minutes, listening to bursts of Spanish, Russian, French, Mandarin, and English, the three of us finally got inside. Colored arrows directed students to schools in their boroughs, and, with the help of a translator, Guido and Blanca found the floor for Queens. Throngs of students and parents circled around tables manned by school representatives.
A young man directed us to another floor to get help from a school counselor. The counselors were seated in an auditorium with red, orange, and purple balloons and plastic tablecloths in matching colors—it resembled a prom. The overall effect was disconcertingly festive given how distressed Blanca and Guido were. One counselor said she spoke Spanish, but she struggled to understand as Blanca, frustrated with not being fully understood in English, fell into her native tongue. Blanca’s face flushed. She felt faint, she said. She needed water. She feared that Guido’s education was doomed.
Could Blanca appeal the school decision? The counselor told us that she could, but the deadline to do so was fast approaching. It was the first time Blanca had heard of such a process. Then, the counselor told us about a high school called Newcomers, open only to Queens students or residents who have lived in the U.S. one year or less at the time of admission to high school. There would be a soccer team for Guido, and a media center. And it was pretty close to their apartment. “This could be OK?” Blanca asked, her statement, like so many involving schools, phrased as an open question.
Then the counselor warned us that the representative from Newcomers might not be at the fair. “It’s a school for new Americans,” she said, “and new Americans have often not heard about school fairs.”
We were directed back through the throngs of students and parents to the floor for schools in Queens. The counselor was right: No one from Newcomers seemed to be on hand. We found one school in Long Island City that might have openings, but Blanca was nervous about its reputation. And, while she was given a date to attend a tour of it, Blanca knew she wouldn’t be able to leave work early.
The circumstances of Blanca and Guido are in many ways quite ordinary. More than 37 percent of New Yorkers today are foreign born, and many live on lean budgets. But the ordinariness also conceals what, for all these newcomers, can feel so extraordinary. “By any measure, immigration is one of the most stressful events a family can undergo,” write Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco in their book Children of Immigration. “Most frequently, the cumulative losses of loved ones and familiar contexts will lead to a range of feelings, from mild sadness to depression to ‘perpetual mourning.’”
Guido loves being in the U.S. but Blanca remains worried. After more than a decade here, she has grown familiar with (and has sometimes partaken of) certain tangible luxuries of American upper-middle-class life: good coffee and crepes, Whole Foods, purebred dogs like the $1,200 pup that she bought for Guido (roughly two times her weekly salary). But some of the intangibles of middle-class life, like the savvy required to put your kid on the optimal educational track, elude her.
Carola Suárez-Orozco thinks that the first step is to make the school choice process easier to understand. It is common for immigrants to come to the U.S. “thinking American schools are the best in the world, to come with basic trust, and assumptions about educational authority that are not fully true,” she says. Schools need “to create more-transparent educational pathways,” she adds, “so you don’t have to be a chess master to get your kid through school.”
Until that happens, however, Blanca and Guido and others like them have to rely on that indeterminate factor of luck. One night in early May, Blanca texted me with the latest development: Guido had been accepted into the William Cullen Bryant High School in Astoria. It is a decent school, about three miles from their apartment, and it has sports teams and AP classes. Blanca and Guido were happy. This time, it seemed, the indeterminate factor had come through.
Alissa Quart is the co-editor of EHRP, a journalist, and the author of three non-fiction books, Branded, Hothouse Kids, and Republic of Outsiders, as well as the poetry book Monetized.
Alice Proujansky is a contributing photographer and consulting photo editor for EHRP. She is a documentary photographer who covers birth, education and working motherhood.
Co-published with Pacific Standard.