Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.
As the founder of NYC School Help, Joyce Szuflita helps Brooklyn-based parents of preschool through middle school-aged children, and parents of high schoolers in Brooklyn and Manhattan, navigate the rocky terrain that is the NYC school system. There are thousands of public and private schools across the five boroughs, and hundreds of public elementary, middle, and high schools to choose from in Brooklyn alone; needless to say, many families feel overwhelmed with options. Here, Joyce shares her insights on NYC schools, her process for demystifying the school choice process, and her favorite things about being an urban parent.
Can you provide a little bit of background on your company and the services you provide?
I am a consultant for families who are searching for public and private programs, nursery school through 8th grade in Northwest Brooklyn — the neighborhoods that I refer to as “Brownstone Brooklyn,” “Industrial Brooklyn,” and “Victorian Brooklyn,” which are closest to the city — and then public high schools for families in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Because there are so many private high school programs in the New York City area, and because many families are also looking at boarding school options, I only cover public schools at the high school level.
You share on your website that you got into this work after going through the process with your own kids. Can you talk a little bit about the experiences that inspired you to start your company?
I’m the mother of twins, and we lived in a relatively small co-op in Brooklyn. The kids were in middle school, and we were searching for high schools for them, and over the course of just a couple of years we had 11 babies born in the building. So my neighbors kept coming to me and saying, “Stop talking to us about middle school, we need to know about nursery school!” And a light bulb went off — I realized that people really need help with this. I began to assume a role as a translator and a guide for this stuff, a bit of a life coach for education. I let families know the range of options for schools, the big picture, and how the pieces fit together, providing the missing link in the information. Because I’m covering both public and private for everything except high school, I try to be as objective as possible. I have opinions, but I don’t have an agenda.
The New York Public School system is pretty unique! The School Choice program means that enrollment is not entirely defaulted to a student’s neighborhood, as it is in many other U.S. school districts. Can you talk a little bit about what that means for kids and parents?
In New York, students apply for public middle school and public high school, which is different from most other places. But even in elementary school, where there is a school every quarter-mile, there is a certain amount of choice for public school kids. Students do have a zoned elementary school, but many, many families are looking at un-zoned schools, or charter schools, or magnet programs, or G&T programs that are not located in their school, or other programs at neighboring schools that they can access if there are seats available. So, it’s complicated even at kindergarten for elementary school entrance. But then at middle school, we have district-wide school choice, and very few families in my region will have a zoned middle school. And at high school, we have citywide school choice, and students are faced with a directory of 700 programs that they can apply to. It’s a job.
From what you’re saying, it sounds like there are a lot of options for New Yorkers aside from private school.
If you do your research, yes! This is the golden age of urban parenting; there are spectacular choices here. Look, there are a million kids in the New York City school system. There are horrible, dangerous, failing schools. But there are also spectacular, famous, high-performing, interesting and diverse schools that families are regularly, actively, thrilled to send their children to. The variety is extraordinary.
You know, often families in New York dream of the ease of suburban life: “If I could just live in one place and go to the school that I was zoned for!” And yeah, that would be nice. But… the fact is, you don’t. And the benefit of living in New York City is the extraordinary variety and quality of options available. It’s not easy, but it’s awesome.
Are there some questions that you typically ask parents the first time you meet?
Yes; mostly for the younger families, I ask “Where did you grow up?” and “What was your experience in elementary school?” Meaning, did you go public or private? This is just to get an idea of the parents’ expectations. And then I ask, “What do you know?” This is to determine how much information (or misinformation) they have already, and where in the exploration process we’ll need to start. And we also talk a little bit about “What do you want?” Of course we go much deeper into that question as we go along.
At the middle school and high school levels, the first question is, “Tell me about your child.” And then we get to, “Tell me what you know,” and “Tell me what you want.” So it’s a little bit different from when the kids are two, or three, or four, because by middle school the parents are not only more experienced, but the kids are usually displaying their interests and gifts and challenges a little more clearly.
You mentioned that you pose most of these questions directly to the parents. Are parents involved throughout the process? Are there times when you tell parents to step back and let their child take the lead?
Well because my service is at the front end, and very informational, I’m usually not following families through the whole application process. So at the point where I might tell them to step back, I’m generally no longer involved. In the beginning, if the family is very nervous, and a lot of families are, I will tell them not to be nervous. Because if you only focus on how crazy the process is, you’ll miss the forest for the trees: you’ll miss all of the great opportunities that are available. I advise those parents to pivot 180 degrees. Instead of panicking, talk about how amazing the choices are. We do whatever we can to minimize the stress on both parent and child.
You know, I was a hyper-involved parent myself. And there were times when my kids told me that I … kind of needed to chill. So I have great empathy for families who are nervous! I don’t want to encourage it, but I understand it.
Families normally come to you for information at the beginning of the process. Why is it so important for them to go outside of their friends and neighbors to access unbiased information?
For the most part, people’s friends are only going to know about the popular schools. And a lot of the public is just wildly misinformed about the options. It’s really difficult to get clear and honest information, and especially difficult to not feel like it’s too much information, since there are really so many schools to sort through.
NYC’s specialized public high schools require students to take the SHSAT. Can you talk a little bit about your perspective on the SHSAT and test prep in general?
The SHSAT is a very long and unusual test, and a big, big aspect is time management. When you’re taking a three-hour test, and you are in control of how long you take on each section, your time management strategy is paramount. And you can’t just walk in as a smart kid and know exactly how to handle that. So, in my opinion, while there are many things that kids can do to prepare for the SHSAT, the number one thing is to take a practice test under real test circumstances. You also need to get support on content, strategy, that sort of thing, but just practicing taking the test is really, really important.
Generally, the majority of the families that I talk to are all doing some kind of prep for SHSAT — whether it’s a class or private instruction — because it’s such a particular and important test. And for specialized high school admittance, the test is the only factor. That said, my advice is to remain calm, understand how the test is scored, and be organized with your time management. Good time management and having a real understanding of the test can make the difference between a very high score and not getting in.
Also, this is just for the so-called specialized high schools. There are many other schools that do screenings, or auditions, or use other criteria to select students, and don’t use the SHSAT — only eight out of the over 700 programs are testing schools. The others have a whole variety of criteria, including the 7th grade transcript. So attendance, punctuality, grades, and test scores from the 7th grade year will all be important for high schools that don’t use the SHSAT.
This is just so much information. How do you keep yourself up-to-date on everything, and keep track of all of these varying requirements?
I have an associate who does a ton of research and just keeps mining the data to make sure it’s accurate, and then I have a very wide network of educators and parents of all ages who are happy to share their own experiences with me. I also personally tour the schools and stay up-to-date on any education news or policy changes. So the information comes from a number of different places — it’s the data, and the parents and educators, and my own observations and experience.
In your experience, is there one big misconception that causes this panic for parents and kids when it comes to school selection?
It’s not an easy job to search for middle schools and high schools; it takes a lot of time to really vet them. And that’s a legitimate fear. Finding the time to vet the large number of schools you will need to look at is a real concern. And the city is trying to address that by making the touring season longer, and giving families more access to schools, and being more thoughtful about the criteria that they’re using for students. But there is still a fear for parents that their child isn’t going to get a placement, or isn’t going to get in to school he or she really wants, and this drives a lot of conspiracy theories and irrational expectations and just general unhappiness.
Everyone’s got the school that they want, that they’ve fallen in love with. But it’s so important to remember that there are a lot of other great programs. And in the end, the important thing is that your child will be going to a safe school that is filled with educators of integrity. Whether it was your favorite school or not, if your child brings their best, they will be wildly successful.
The last question, which you might have just answered, is what is your advice for families who are desperately worried that they won’t get into their school of choice? What can they do?
My advice is that your success is on you. And sometimes, the best thing for you is not necessarily the thing you originally wanted.
You know, when kids are disappointed because they didn’t get into their favorite school, I tell them that they just don’t know what’s going to happen at the school they’ll be attending. It could be the place where they’ll meet their best friend for life. Or where they’ll fall in love for the first time. Or where they’ll meet that great teacher who will show them an area of learning they never understood before, and will build up a brand new passion in their lives that will shape their whole future. And maybe if they went to the school that was their favorite, maybe none of that stuff would have happened. So it’s your job, in the school that you’re given, to find those people, and to find that passion. It’s on you. If you are proactive and energetic and ingenious and creative, you will find what you need anywhere.
Are you interested in working with Joyce Szuflita? Reach out via the NYC School Help website.
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