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Fixing a Failing System

By Reva P. Minkoff

Rejection: a typical part of the college process and something Harvard is known for being particularly good at inducing. However, in New York City—as in many other cities across the country—rejection has become a large part of the high school application process as well. This year, according to The New York Times, nearly 15 percent of the eighth-graders applying for admission to New York City public schools were not admitted to any of their 12 choices, amounting to between 12,000 and 14,000 students. While the number is down from the 35,000 students not admitted last year, it is part of a large problem in the American school system. Consistently, students are placed at a disadvantage from the beginning and never given the opportunity to rise above it. But things don’t have to be this way. By focusing more on improving their advising and counseling programs, educational institutions will be able to counter the low graduation rates plaguing students—particularly minority males—across the nation and improve the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

While some of the rejected students had high grade point averages and took the honors courses offered by their schools, rejection still brings with it a loss of confidence—which in some cases can be permanent. Despite their accomplishments, the rejected students were instead offered a choice in one of 91 public schools with available spaces. However, according to The Times, 12 of these schools were listed as failing and 10 were deemed so dangerous that New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered an influx of police officers and security guards.

The New York City public school system gets worse by the year. Of the 396 schools in New York State that were labeled as failing, 328 were in New York City. The result is that desirable high schools, such as Beacon High School in Manhattan and Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, were forced to accept a hundred more students each this year than originally desired—leading to increased overcrowding in even the “smaller” public schools.

This initial rejection sets the stage for further problems. The poor advising systems in place in many inner-city high schools throughout the country result in many students choosing not to continue on to college—even if they graduate from high school. Some guidance counselors do not provide students with adequate preparation for college, condoning actions such as a student taking four gym periods in his or her schedule. At the same time, there are guidance counselors who actively discourage students from attending college. Even if they do encourage them to apply, it is not a rarity for guidance counselors to leave students with large piles of applications and no idea how to go about filling them out. The ineptitude of these counselors can be countered by setting aside more money and more resources for advising, and putting more supervision in place to make sure guidance counselors are doing their jobs. If we want to provide all students with the opportunity to succeed then they need to have access to all the benefits that good advising can offer. It is crucial to the future success of the system that changes be made.

Advising and counseling are two of the most important things a school can offer—and two areas schools often neglect. Role models are crucial to helping students remain motivated and eventually succeed. At the same time, the knowledge that teachers and counselors possess—on standardized tests and the college process, for example—is essential for students. The same can be said in regards to course selection. It is crucial that students be placed in the proper level of classes, with access to extra help and honors level and advanced placement courses.

As it stands, the lack of confidence induced by both rejection and poor advising can have an overwhelming effect, and all too often does. Disproportionately affected are minority students. In the New York City class of 1998, according to a report published by Jay P. Greene at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, only 42 percent of African American students and 45 percent of Latino students graduated—compared to 80 percent of their white peers. Furthermore, nationally, according to The Times, barely a quarter of all black men between 18 and 24 are enrolled in college.

Even inner-city students who do make it to college often find themselves at a disadvantage. Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn is working to deal with this problem. It created a new freshman orientation for black male students, taught by the college president and his assistant. The goal of the program is to encourage students to stay in school and finish college—a major concern, as only 35 percent of black men who enrolled in NCAA Division I colleges in 1996 graduated in six years, compared with 59 percent of white men and 46 percent of Hispanic men. At the end of the semester, all but two of the students of Medgar Evers had registered for the next term.

The most important thing advisors and counselors can give students is the belief in themselves. Confidence is one of the most crucial skills to success at any school—college or otherwise. The initial rejection from high school can send an early message that they are somehow inadequate, and more programs like the one at Medgar Evers College will be crucial to changing this.

While these programs are an important way for students to gain the skills they need to succeed in higher education, they are not the only solution. Teachers should be prompted to take more steps to encourage their students and instill confidence—in the same way guidance counselors must. Ultimately, it is confidence that will be the key to success in the long run, and this is something that all schools can and should be able to provide. While not all students can get their first choice when it comes to high schools, if they can still be given the tools to succeed regardless of the situation, high school will only be one step along the road as opposed to the defining step at the end of the road.

Reva P. Minkoff ’08 lives in Canaday Hall.

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