By S. Mitra Kalita

My daughter graduated from high school last week, after 11.5 years in NYC public schools. She initially spent a half-year in Universal Pre Kindergarten (UPK), then we moved to Los Angeles for sixth grade (also enrolled in public schools there) and returned to finish seventh through 12th grade in the city. 

I often joke that I have a PhD in New York City school admissions because we’ve come and gone so many times, and the rules keep changing. Over these last few weeks, as I’ve run from one end-of-year activity to the next (my eldest graduated from high school and youngest from elementary school), our time spent in this system has flashed before my eyes. Sure, we’ve gotten shut out of selective schools and classes. But mostly I’m filled with gratitude to the countless people, janitors to lunch aides to teachers to guidance counselors, who have helped raise up my children. I’m sharing some things I know now that I wish I knew way back when with a big upfront warning that this list admittedly relies on having money and a flexible job; keep reading for ways to check the privilege. An important part of our work at Epicenter and The Unmuted is sharing this knowledge throughout the year with our communities. What advice do you have? Write to us at hello@the-unmuted.com with your takeaways. Here are mine: 

The best thing about New York City public schools is that they are big. The worst thing about New York City public schools is that they are big. Out of this magnitude, massive opportunity awaits. It can mean not being noticed among the hordes. I recently interviewed an entrepreneur behind a comic-book startup. As he reflected on his time in New York City, he mentioned how easy it was to skip class. “It was a system guaranteed for some people to slip through the cracks,” he told me. On the other hand, it’s a system set up to scale – there is every type of sports team (even cricket), debate club, every form of music (gospel to vibraslap), teachers who are published authors and obsessed with Winston Churchill. It is chaotic and messy and bureaucratic but somewhere in there, a place for your child emerges. 

Get involved. When my eldest was just a toddler, a mom of six children told me the secret of why she was a class parent and a coach and a troop leader: “This way, everything is on my schedule.”

Her words stuck. For the first few years of my daughter’s elementary school years, I volunteered to be a class parent. Sure enough, despite working a full-time job and releasing a book when she was in first grade, I got to plan activities, holiday parties to teacher potlucks, around the times that I could be there. I also became acquainted with teachers so if I ever wanted to give a presentation on, say, Diwali, it was instantly green-lit instead of going through administrative approvals. 

Go to all the things you can. The principal often makes news at those morning coffees. I did not know this in the early years, mistakenly thinking the PTA meetings were our domain. As time has gone on, I’ve tried to prioritize these sessions that principals hold with families to update them on grading policies, recess time, homework loads. In recent years, they turned into public-health forums as we discussed safety protocols around Covid-19. Whereas PTA meetings can feel cliquey to me (admittedly in the years I am less involved and I don’t know anyone), I always found the sessions held by the principal to be worth attending. I also found these to be a good way to meet people when we switched schools or entered a new one. 

Other ways to understand what really happens at your child’s classroom: Open School Week. These are dates the school allows you to observe instruction as it really unfolds; I appreciated the flexibility of these, too, where I couldn’t necessarily take the morning off work but could escape for an hour at lunchtime. I found watching teachers actually interact with students fascinating and hope Open School comes back after an understandable hiatus, thanks to Covid. 

Parent-teacher conferences are key. In the same regard, we prioritized attendance at parent-teacher conferences. In the elementary years, they are all but mandatory. But the middle-school and high-school years are more complicated for a few reasons. For one, they can be awkward. Sometimes, the teacher might not even know your kid that well and so you sit there trying to figure out who’s supposed to be initiating conversation. After a few of those, I learned to start asking my child for ideas: What do you do in class? Do you like this class? What do you want to know? Are you struggling with anything? 

Because my daughter attended a competitive high school, the parent-teacher conference nights often felt like a zoo. My husband and I finally devised a system whereby one of us would sign up and the other would stake out where we fell in line and text the other when it was close to the time to go in. By high school, I learned that it was most important to talk to the teachers where your child is struggling–as well as those subjects they love. I never knew partnership with teachers, albeit in quick and subtle interactions, is vital as kids get older to convey feedback and affirm your belief in their potential. 

Get comfortable with multiple platforms. If I have any criticism of NYC public schools, it’s that there are too many ways they communicate with families, from MySchools to Google Classroom to Facebook groups to teacher-run email newsletters. I find myself toggling among multiple platforms to figure things out – I have yet to hear of a school that has solved for this. Committing to one way of communication would help immensely, even as I know the limitations of interactivity, language and digital access. Countless times, I was saved or told about something I missed from fellow parents. Find those people and befriend them; they were an essential part of my support system during entire years where work was so busy that it made it harder for me to show up. 

Everyone you need to know, you meet in kindergarten. The friendships from elementary years really matter. I just spent the past weekend hopping from one graduation party to another. Significantly, the gatherings I prioritized were the families I’ve known since my daughter was in kindergarten or the earlier years of elementary. We met at school celebrations, PTA meetings, auctions, the playground, birthday parties, even Facebook groups or direct messages. I found that as the kids got older, the friendships I maintained tended to be other families of color, where socializing across generations is more common. I also found parenting a high schooler could feel lonely sometimes. If I could do it over (and thankfully, I do get one more chance), I would have tried to make or maintain more friendships in these years where NYC kids’ ability to roam and ride the subways curtailed meetups with other families. I delighted in seeing other parents at prom, awards nights and graduation, and actually found it cathartic to compare notes on the heartbreak of these last few months of senior year, the weird zone before independence where kids still need us but really just want to hang out with each other. 

Host everything you can. It’s hard to host in NYC. Besides the size of our apartments, it’s like herding cats. Our New York City kids traverse all five boroughs to attend school. Still, I pushed them to invite friends over and over, if only so they had somewhere to hang out besides the parks, subways, Chelsea Piers or the Queens Center Mall (it could be worse; I heard they hang out at Target in the suburbs). Especially as the seniors contemplated leaving each other, these gatherings became more coveted and crowded. 

Tell the school counselors (and teachers) what’s happening at home. I grew up in a home that revered teachers but kept them somewhat at a distance as a result. As an adult, I tried to keep teachers and counselors abreast of key moments of our family’s life — miscarriages, moves, a grandparent’s death. In multiple cases, counselors pulled my daughters out of class to see how they were doing. New York state requires every school to ensure public-school students have access to a counselor and we are so lucky for this. In many cases, children need multiple affirming grownups and perspectives. Before our move to LA, the lunch aide told me she had been talking up the exciting adventure we were about to embark upon because my then-middle school daughter was so tearful over it. I remain so grateful for her wisdom and nurturing. 

Privilege comes with great responsibility. I offer all the aforementioned advice with awareness of great privilege. It takes time and resources to be involved, and the majority of New York City school children do not grow up in households with either in abundance. Early on, we struggled to figure out how to reconcile our comfort that came on the backs (and discomfort) of others. For my eldest, we vowed to spend an equal amount of tutoring dollars, for example, on programs to increase access to Black and Latino schoolchildren. I donated anonymously but one nonprofit tracked me down and invited me to its gala. There I met some of the children we had “sponsored” and I asked where they would be attending school, hoping it was one of the specialized high schools. “Exeter,” one child told me. “I was prepping for the SHSAT – but then so many private schools offered me a full ride.”

I quickly learned what’s best for my kid is not best for another. But enabling opportunity for others feels the unspoken part of benefitting from NYC schools. 

Fight for diversity in all aspects of our education. For all the focus on equity in the classroom, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the composition of whose teaching. What does the school’s faculty look like? Who are the students chosen to be the faces of the Instagram/Tik Tok/Facebook updates? Does the PTA only order pizza? 

Semantics matter. A few years ago, my friend responded to someone who said, “Nobody goes to that school.” 

Nobody?” she said. She’s Black. He’s white. 

The offender apologized but the damage was done. Watch your words. Phrases like “good schools” and “bad schools” can be loaded and offensive. Remember, and repeat: What’s best for your kid is not best for another.

Share knowledge. In NYC, because our children compete against each other, it can feel like an incentive to be secretive and not share the things we know. Don’t be that person. So much of getting into NYC public schools, from gifted and talented kindergarten to the specialized high schools, is impenetrable to most parents. Offer up what you know. Pass it on. 

Tell us your tips for navigating New York City public schools. Email us at hello@the-unmuted.com.

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