Why White Parents Were at the Front of the Line for the School Tour


There is a trick to getting to the front of the lines that clog sidewalks outside New York City’s top public high schools each fall.

Parents who pay $200 for a newsletter compiled by a local admissions consultant know that they should arrive hours ahead of the scheduled start time for school tours.

On a recent Tuesday, there were about a hundred mostly white parents queued up at 2:30 p.m. in the spitting rain outside of Beacon High School, some toting snacks and even a few folding chairs for the long wait. The doors of the highly selective, extremely popular school would not open for another two hours for the tour.

Parents and students who arrived at the actual start time were in for a surprise. The line of several thousand people had wrapped around itself, stretching for three midtown Manhattan blocks.

Tens of thousands of eligible families were not there at all.

Many New Yorkers cannot leave work in the middle of the afternoon, and some students surely did not know that the open house — or even the school — existed in the first place.

Beacon’s admissions rate is roughly akin to Yale’s: there were over 5,800 applicants for 360 ninth-grade seats last year.

The lines that surround Beacon and other elite high schools are a living symbol of the anxiety, competition and inequality that define New York’s segregated public school system. High school admissions are seen as perhaps the most egregious example of how city policies end up dividing privileged parents from vulnerable families.

That dynamic was on display outside of Beacon’s two fall open houses.

“I am my son’s administrative assistant, that’s the best way to put it,” said Laura Kosik, who lined up early with her son, thanks to a tip from the newsletter, created by the consultant Elissa Stein.

Ms. Kosik, who is white and lives in Manhattan near Union Square, had also met with a different schools consultant who charges $240 an hour to dispense advice about the process. “I feel like this is a job,” she said.

“You only get one chance to figure out four years of your kid’s education,” said Alisa Kriegel, who joined Beacon’s line early after reading Ms. Stein’s newsletter. She waited with three other white mothers who met at their children’s TriBeCa middle school.

The four women had created an informal admissions support group, complete with a shared Google calendar, a robust group text and the promise of company on long waits to tour schools. “We’ve been going through hell,” Ms. Kriegel said.

“The Department of Education should be doing what Elissa Stein is doing, for free,” said Jill Taddeo, who was part of Ms. Kriegel’s crew.

Ms. Stein said about 500 families have signed up for her newsletter this fall, but noted that about 80,000 students are currently applying to high school. Ms. Stein said she offers reduced rates to low-income families and has signed some people up for free. “It shouldn’t be this hard to go to high school,” she said.

Under a school choice system created by Michael R. Bloomberg when he was mayor, the city allows students to apply to up to 12 high schools anywhere in New York, and an algorithm matches children with one school. Some parents said the ranking process was so daunting that they turned to YouTube for strategies.

Though there is no penalty for students who do not attend a tour, Beacon’s two open houses provide the only opportunity most families have to see inside the school. The Department of Education said that school also organizes small student tours that are not advertised.

Beacon, unlike Stuyvesant, does not have an admissions test. But to win a spot, students must have high standardized test scores and grades, along with a strong portfolio of middle school work and admissions essays. Students are much less likely to be accepted if they do not list Beacon as their top choice.

A teacher at the school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some at the school believe that enrollment, “reflects income, and where kids grew up, and not necessarily academic ability.”

The teacher also said that the school’s administrators brag about the huge open house lines, and consider the turnout “a source of pride.”

Beacon is not the only selective school that makes it difficult to take a tour.

Bedford Academy, a high-performing, mostly black school in Brooklyn, holds its open houses on Saturdays.

The free-for-all lines at Beacon and at LaGuardia High School, a competitive performing arts school, felt intimidating for some parents.

Joan Bann and her son shuffled past a taxi inspection depot near the West Side Highway to join a line of at least 1,000 people outside Beacon last month.

“I’m saying, ‘What is it about this school that you have this long line?’” said Ms. Bann, who is black and lives in Harlem. “What are my chances, how many seats can they possibly fill?”

She added, “I should be able to get a good school in my own community.”

Many families echoed the sentiment that there were not enough good options. Ms. Hemphill said the city could take action by expanding the number of seats at high-performing high schools that do not have strict academic requirements for admission. “It’s a no-brainer,” she said.

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