It was a warm Sunday morning, the breeze sweeping aside the last wisps of summer, and 31 students from Pelham Gardens Middle School in the Bronx had signed up to spend the day indoors, at a showcase for New York City’s public high schools.
The annual fair kicks off the city’s high school application season in September, and Jayda Walker, 13, arrived with a plan.
An eager young woman with an easy smile, Jayda wants to be a divorce lawyer, and at the fair, held at Brooklyn Technical High School, she planned to focus on schools with a legal theme, located in Manhattan. She had already looked through the high school directory, an intimidating tome the size of an old-fashioned phone book, and thought Manhattan offered more variety. Besides, she said, she wanted to get out of the Bronx.
She and her classmates arrived early and were at the front of the line, with hundreds of people behind them eager to get inside.
But for many of the students from Pelham Gardens, and others like them, it was already too late. The sorting of students to top schools — by race, by class, by opportunity — begins years earlier, and these children were planted at the back of the line.
Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling them from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities.
There is no doubt that the changes yielded meaningful improvements. The high school graduation rate is up more than 20 points since 2005, as the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has built on Mr. Bloomberg’s gains. The graduation gap between white and black or Hispanic students, while still significant and troubling, has narrowed.
But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school.
Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools — a situation that school choice was supposed to ease.
Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admissions requirements — a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, showing up for an open house. And getting into the best schools, where almost all students graduate and are ready to attend college, often requires top scores on the state’s annual math and English tests and a high grade point average.
Those admitted to these most successful schools remain disproportionately middle class and white or Asian, according to an in-depth analysis of acceptance data and graduation rates conducted for The New York Times by Measure of America, an arm of the Social Science Research Council. At the same time, low-income black or Hispanic children like the ones at Pelham Gardens are routinely shunted into schools with graduation rates 20 or more percentage points lower.
While top middle schools in a handful of districts groom children for competitive high schools that send graduates to the Ivy League, most middle schools, especially in the Bronx, funnel children to high schools that do not prepare them for college.
The roots of these divisions are tangled and complex. Students in competitive middle schools and gifted programs carry advantages into the application season, with better academic preparation and stronger test scores. Living in certain areas still comes with access to sought-after schools. And children across the city compete directly against one another regardless of their circumstances, without controls for factors like socioeconomic status.
Ultimately, there just are not enough good schools to go around. And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control — like where they live and how much money their families have.