NYC DOE Phones Homeschoolers About High School Applications

Elsa Haas, PAHSI’s director, has written this account of a phone call she received yesterday (December 27, 2013) from the NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) about the HSAP (High School Application Process):

The phone rang. The caller I.D. read “Unknown”, but I answered anyway. A woman said that this was the NYC DOE calling. She asked for me by name and told me that this was about a high school application for my child. She began to launch into some kind of prepared script.

But since she had asked for me by name, I interrupted her to ask whom I was speaking with.

She restarted the script by saying that this was the NYC DOE calling, so I said that I understood, but that I’d like to know her name.

She was pleasant about this, and gave me her first name.

She then said that she had a lot to get through, so if she could just go through it and I could wait until the end to ask any questions, that would make it easier. I agreed. (I admit that I could have saved her some time by just saying that we homeschool and that our son has decided not to apply to public high school this year, at least not in Round 1. But I was keenly interested in hearing the whole script, on behalf of PAHSI.)

She began by saying something about the importance of considering various factors when deciding what schools to apply to. I didn’t have any paper handy for the very start of the script, but then I grabbed some. So I don’t have notes on the first few factors she mentioned, but the last two were the high school’s “mission” and its “admissions method”.

Then she asked whether I had access to “the website”. I asked her to give me the exact address so that I could be sure we were both talking about the same thing.

She gave me: www.nyc.gov/schools/choicesenrollment/high/directory . Somewhere in the middle of that, she asked me whether I wanted her to spell it, and I said no, but asked whether “choices enrollment” was all one word. She said it was.

She went on to say that at that website I could find information about the schools in all boroughs, the timeline, the data, and the analysis (she just read these things off as if they were on a list, with no explanation), and that I could see the directory (of high schools) there, too.

She said that it was important to learn the process, make your choices, rank the schools, and return the application to the school (she meant the middle school my child presumably attends – again, this was just rattled off as a series of items from a list).

She said that if the application had already been sent in, that was fine, but if not it should be submitted as soon as possible.

She added that it was important to be careful about “how to write the schools”. (I think she meant that when you write the high schools’ names – or the names of the programs within each high school – on the High School Choice form, they should be exact.)  

She said I should feel free to talk to the child, “the family” (that would be the rest of our own family, I guess), and the guidance counselor, and if needed contact the school or the district office.

She then paused, seemingly done with her list.

Since she had asked me to wait until the end to ask any questions and this seemed to be the end, I now asked her whether she was aware that my child is homeschooled.

She said, “No, not necessarily.” She added that she had simply been given a list of names to call.

I asked whether it was a very long list and she said, “Very!” and added something about how long she had been working on it. (I think she said “all day”, but I didn’t write that part down. The call was in the morning, and it was only two days after Christmas and during a public school break. So maybe this was the first day she was working on it, or maybe not.)  

I asked whether anybody she was calling ever told her that they were homeschooling.

She said yes, then added (and it can be hard to get tone right, but she sounded to me slightly defensive, though entirely polite) that this phone call was “just an opportunity to explore the high school application process” and that “if your current situation is still -” (there’s a missing word in my notes, or maybe she cut herself off) “- then that’s your option and that’s fine.” (In other words, she was making clear, without my having complained about it, that she wasn’t trying to talk me into putting my child in high school.)

I felt the extreme urge to interrogate her in all sorts of ways, but I confined myself to double-checking that she just had a list that might include both homeschoolers and the parents of kids who are in public school, and that she didn’t know whose child was where.

I speculated that she must be calling not from the Office of Homeschooling but from somewhere else in the DOE, and she said yes.

I then offered to tell her something about how things work for homeschoolers, since it’s different from the usual process, and she said that would be fine.

I said that when she gave all the information at the beginning of the phone call, a homeschooler might be completely confused, because for example when she said that you should feel free to talk to the school or the guidance counselor, we’d be inclined to think, “What? My child doesn’t go to school and we don’t have a guidance counselor!”

I then said that the director of the Homeschool Office does help with high school applications, though, and he even pulls someone else in from elsewhere in the DOE to work on that during the busy season for applications.

She seemed interested in this, and asked, “Oh, so you mean there’s a point person for this in that office?”

I said that there is during the busy season, but that I really wasn’t sure that person was still there, since Round 1 was over as far as I knew. (The deadline for making sure our applications arrived at the Homeschool Office was December 2, but I didn’t say that to her.)  

I added that it’s possible the director might bring in someone to help with Round 2, but that I didn’t know that for sure. I explained that the budget and staff for that office is small, so that’s why they bring extra people in for various big projects like these applications.

Then I decided to tell her something about the problem with the High School Choice form. [PAHSI has been at odds with the Office of Homeschooling over a certain issue with the forms for a year or two, though lately we haven’t been working on it because of a lack of people power.]

I told her that a homeschool parent gets the High School Choice form and a cover letter for it in the mail from the Office of Homeschooling.

I said that the cover letter (which was written specifically for homeschoolers) does say something about how the parent is entirely responsible for contacting each high school directly to give it all of the child’s records, since it won’t necessarily have access to them.  

On the other hand, I said, the form is just the standard form (for public and private school students), and on the form itself it looks like the parent is supposed to fill in certain information like course titles and grades.

The cover letter doesn’t specifically say not to fill that information in, so the form tends to “overpower” the cover letter. Some homeschoolers go ahead and fill in that information and send the application back to the Homeschool Office, thinking that all the information on the form will now reach all the high schools they’re applying to – but it doesn’t.

She seemed unsure of what I was saying, and asked a couple of questions.

I explained that nothing a homeschool family enters on the form (except for the actual preference ranking of the high schools that the child wants to apply to) will be entered into the computer.

I said that this is because of the general operating principle at the DOE that the computer record for a homeschooled child shouldn’t include anything that wasn’t generated by the DOE itself. [Except for grade level for first-time homeschoolers, which the parent initially chooses and the Homeschool Office might or might not object to – in certain cases it can get complicated to say who really came up with the grade level, or whether the one in the DOE computer or the one on the child’s paperwork in a DOE filing cabinet is the “official” one.]

So, for example, some homeschoolers choose to take their kids to the local public school for testing (the English Language Arts – ELA – test, the NYS Math test, and sometimes others). If they do, those scores automatically appear in the computer record for the child. [Exceptions: PSAT scores don’t appear in the NYC DOE computer record for a homeschooler, even if the test is taken at a NYC public high school, and we assume SAT scores don’t either.]

But, I continued, homeschoolers have other options – for example, hiring a certified teacher to test the child. I added that I once had my son’s test proctored at a library by librarian. [See “New Testing Options for Homeschoolers”, Parts 1 to 3 – Part 1 was the very first post on this blog, in January of 2013.]

I said that when homeschoolers do something like that, the results are sent to the Homeschool Office and that’s how the parents meet their assessment requirement, and the paperwork goes into the child’s official file in that office – but those scores never get entered into the computer.

Then I said that the same is true of letter or number grades (for the various subjects, like Math) – except that in this case there may not even be any grades for the child to begin with, because one of the options for homeschoolers under the Regulations is to use narrative evaluations for individual subjects instead of giving the child any grades.

So then, if the parent knows that one or more of the high schools that the child is applying to really wants grades (some schools don’t insist on them once they know the child is homeschooled), the parent might get the High School Choice form in the mail and see a blank space where it looks like they’re supposed to fill in course titles and grades, and they might come up with grades (sometimes from outside classes or tutors) and put them on the form.

They think that information will now reach the hands of the high schools – but it doesn’t, because the Homeschool Office doesn’t do anything with it. These are grades that were not generated by the DOE itself, and so it’s the parent alone who’s supposed to vouch for them in the High School Admissions Process (even though they are considered official for the purpose of meeting the requirements of the NYS Regulations on Home Instruction).

So then if the Homeschool Office gets the form, sees the course titles and grades and/or the test results that were written on it by the parent, and contacts the parent in time to clarify that the parent has to contact each high school individually to give all that information to the admissions person, that’s fine (except, of course, for any wasted time the parent spent agonizing over how to grade the child).

But if the Homeschool Office doesn’t contact the parent (or does so too late), then each high school admissions person goes to the computer and sees only extremely basic info about the kid – just things like the parent’s contact info and the grade level (that the kid is in seventh or eighth grade). No course titles or grades, and no test results unless the kid was tested at a public school. [Again, note that PSAT and probably SAT scores don’t show up in the computer, either.]  

She thanked me for all this (bless her heart – given her assigned task, she could easily have seen me as someone who was just wasting her time). She said that she’s not a guidance counselor herself, though she’s “in guidance”. I offered to send her something if she gave me her email address, and she did.

The call lasted 12 minutes (of course, it could have been much shorter if I’d wanted it to be). 

I think she was just doing what she was told to do, and I don’t blame her if the phone call seemed vexingly unproductive in the end. The sum total of the intent and design of the call ended up a little, hmmm, what adjective shall I choose? I think I won’t choose an adjective and we can analyze all this later.

I’m also confused about the timing. I mean, the deadline for Round 1 is long past, right? Isn’t the only option at this point either entering Round 2 (whose deadline must be after the results of Round 1 are released in March) or resigning oneself to a guaranteed placement in the zoned high school (if there is one)? Does the phone call have to do in part with the DOE’s stats? (Like the percentage of kids who get one of their top choices, which is a number that gets reported in the media each year.) Are kids (whether homeschooled or public-schooled) going to be admitted to compete in Round 1 even if they’ve missed that deadline – and is that fair? Or is it in fact necessary to start calling certain parents as early as late December in order to get them to fill out the form in time for Round 2? It’s all a mystery to me so far.   

When Elsa’s son didn’t end up applying for high school last year (he decided he’d rather continue homeschooling), she got a phone call or email from the Office of Homeschooling (she doesn’t remember which – she thinks she probably got a brief voicemail).

That call was from the director’s assistant, and Elsa thought (though she was never sure) that it might have come because PAHSI had been raising the issue of how to fix the High School Choice form, and this had led to some tension between her and the director. (See the two blog posts about our FOIL – Freedom of Information Law – request: “Freedom of Information – NYC DOE Drags Feet” on 02/19/2013 and “Two Updates and One New Issue” on 03/18/2013.) Elsa thought that the director might be concerned that it be clear that Elsa’s own son had been given every opportunity to apply. So she emailed the assistant, reassuring her that he had decided not to apply after all, and that was that.

Because of this, Elsa thought at first that the phone call yesterday was also an individual one, but quickly realized that the woman calling was just working her way through a list of names.

We don’t remember from past years any accounts by NYC homeschoolers of getting a phone call like this, and we’re sure it would have been a topic of discussion. (Some homeschoolers are offended even by a brief letter offering information about applying to school – that’s why in recent years the director has made sure to include in such letters a mention that applying is of course entirely voluntary.) We think these phone calls are probably something new.

As always, if you have any information or opinions, please contact us at comments@pahsi.net , or post something in a venue you know PAHSI follows.

We’re especially interested in hearing from you if you’re among those who (either this year or in the past):

• submitted the High School Choice form after (erroneously) filling in course titles, grades, and/or test scores, or

• would have done so, but for knowing that you shouldn’t because of what we (or some other homeschooling website or group) had told you.

One reason we’re gathering anecdotes on this is that the Office of Homeschooling was claiming at one point that the information sessions they had done for homeschoolers were entirely sufficient to warn them not to put that information on the form – but we know offhand of one parent who had attended an info session and hadn’t picked up on that. He would have gotten it wrong and filled in the information if he hadn’t been warned by us that it would never reach the high schools that way.

In any case, relying on the info sessions to inform everybody seems dodgy, since not all parents go to them. (And some don’t go because they’re disabled, which raises the question of whether we should quote from the ADA – Americans With Disabilities Act – when making our case in the future.)  

We’d be happy to discuss any of this with the DOE. (We’re trying not to hold a grudge after that FOIL fiasco last year.)

In the end, the simple truth is that the High School Choice form arrives in the mail already preprinted with certain information like the child’s name and address, and whether s/he is homeschooled. So it seems technologically feasible to fix the flaw that we’re pointing out. More on possible ways to do this in another blog post, perhaps, at some point before it becomes too late to negotiate a fix for 2014-15. (Or for Round 2 of 2013-14?)