“The options in the Bronx are very limited,” said Nathaniel Query, whose daughter, Emma, is an eighth grader at Pelham Gardens. She is an honor roll student with straight A’s, he said.
“In Manhattan there are so many good choices, even if not specialized schools, just good schools,” Mr. Query said. “And Brooklyn and Queens are too far.”
Sukanya Thompson was one of Pelham Gardens’ strongest students. A tall girl with colorful braces — green in the fall, red in the spring — she was born in Jamaica and came to the United States when she was 3. She hopes one day to be an obstetrician, and she had the grades and scores to apply to screened schools, like the Manhattan Center, which has a 96 percent graduation rate. But her mother is a nurse in the northern Bronx, and she wants to be able to attend parent-teacher conferences and other events at her daughter’s school.
“I thought going to Manhattan would be cool, but she said no,” Sukanya said. “She said to put good Bronx schools at the top of the list and good Manhattan schools at the bottom.”
Despite her strong report cards and a confidence that she would do well, Sukanya still described the process as a stressful puzzle. She said she changed her list multiple times, cycling through her sixth version by early November.
“When I move one thing on my list, the whole thing changes,” she said. “It’s like if you take out the middle section of a building, the whole thing will fall down.”
In the spring, Sukanya was matched with her first choice, Eximius College Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, a limited unscreened school, which means all it requires is that applicants visit or sign in at a high school fair. When Sukanya was applying in the fall, the most recent graduation rate for the school was 86 percent. Those figures have since been updated, and the rate at Eximius has dipped to 81 percent.
“I’m excited, it was my first choice,” she said. “I wish it could be higher,” she said of the graduation rate, “but it’s still O.K.”
Experts on the process caution that a school’s admissions method is not necessarily an indicator of quality. There are limited unscreened schools that perform well, just as there are screened schools they would not recommend.
Indeed, there is an enormous range among programs, even if they share an admissions model.
Over the course of three years, none of the children at Pelham Gardens have gotten into one of the city’s specialized high schools, even though Ms. Bryant encourages lots of students to take the test. Still, some students have gotten into very good programs. Ten students have matched at the Manhattan Center, and one has gone to the highly regarded Beacon.
The average graduation rate for the schools to which students at Pelham Gardens were assigned was 72.3 percent, about the same as the city rate. Even so, almost 60 percent of the students matched at schools with below-average graduation rates, including schools where less than half of students graduate.
Sean P. Corcoran, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University, has researched the choice process and how students match. He said that the best option is for students to reach for the best possible school for which they are qualified, and indeed, most students get one of their top choices. But in many cases, students reach either too low or too high.
“I went into this many years ago thinking kids were uninformed and were just making bad choices, but it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Dr. Corcoran said. “People are trying to make good choices based on the obstacles that are there.”
For Jayda, the process ended with an offer from Mott Haven Village Preparatory High School in the South Bronx, which was her sixth choice, she said. Last year, 59 percent of Mott Haven students graduated.
“At first, I was really upset,” Jayda said. She thought about reapplying in the second round of admissions, but the only schools available would be those that did not fill up in the first round. “I thought about it and decided I didn’t want leftover schools.”
At least, she said, it is in a different neighborhood.
In the winter, after eighth graders had submitted their final applications, Ms. Bryant arranged for some of them to speak to the seventh grade about their experiences.
“If I could do seventh grade over, I would change my whole mind-set,” said a girl from behind a pair of glasses. “My mind-set was: ‘Oh, this is middle school; it doesn’t mean nothing. My high school will depend on my eighth-grade grades, so I’ll do better then, but I’ll just slack now.’ If I could go back, I would change everything.”
Dennis Walcott, a schools chancellor during the Bloomberg administration who helped devise the choice system, said information allowed families “to be smart consumers,” and let students go to school anywhere in the city, even far from their own neighborhoods.
“That flexibility was built into the system,” Mr. Walcott said, “and to me that’s how you move away from a segregated school environment and you open up the process.”
The changes the Bloomberg administration made to the system have shown significant improvements. The four-year graduation rate has risen by more than 20 points, and the gap in graduation rates between white and black or Hispanic students has narrowed. But there remains a divide of 14 percentage points between whites and blacks, and 15 between whites and Hispanics.
These improvements make real differences in the lives of students, but they leave plenty of room for children to fall through the cracks. And high schools remain exceedingly segregated. The isolation of black and Hispanic students in high schools is nearly as complete as in segregated neighborhood schools.
Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor for strategy and policy in the Education Department, said that choice and market forces could not be left to mold the system on their own.
Mr. Wallack said the de Blasio administration had tried to make information about high schools more accessible. In the fall, it started a mobile website called School Finder, which allows families to search the high school directory on their phones. It has also taken a range of steps to strengthen the school system over all, like expanding pre-kindergarten and offering more computer science and Advanced Placement courses. He described this as a holistic approach to improving all schools so that students were better prepared, no matter where they landed in high school.
“Choice is a really important part of our system, but it’s not enough just to have choices,” Mr. Wallack said.
“You have to have good systems and personal help in figuring out what the best fit is for you,” he continued. “We know different families need different kinds of help, and that is what we aim to provide.”
Denise Williams, the sharp and energetic principal at Pelham Gardens, said it was too soon to judge how well the system had worked for her students, since only three classes had been matched with high schools so far.
“I like the idea of choice, for students to have the opportunity to branch out from where they’re from,” she said. “On the flip side, it is a huge system. Any time you’re serving this many kids, the process itself is going to be challenging.”
Many educators believe that some sort of preference should be created for low-income students, for example. That way, children whose parents do not have the ability to take them to open houses across the city are not competing so directly with those from families that can make the high school quest their mission. The city is experimenting with that idea now, allowing two Manhattan high schools with high graduation rates, Harvest Collegiate High School and Central Park East High School, to test that idea.
In the meantime, Mr. Wallack said that “as a matter of practice,” the city was not adding any screened seats at this point, and that the number of those seats had fallen by about 675 since 2015. The city is not looking to expand limited unscreened seats, either, he said.