I spend the whole entire spring and summer telling people not to procrastinate, to do a consult in spring or summer or to book me for the fall,” Joyce Szuflita says when her face fills my Zoom screen, sounding like a high-school soccer coach who warned everybody to run in the off-season. She doesn’t say the words, but her tone conveys the message: These people never fucking listen.
It’s a rainy Wednesday morning, and I’ve managed to secure two hours with the most coveted dispenser of advice in Brooklyn, a one-name celebrity known simply as “Joyce” from Ditmas Park to Greenpoint. She is booked solid for the next three weeks. Clients are swarming her inbox to reserve one of the few remaining slots in November. For the better part of two decades, Szuflita has demystified the process of public-school admissions for some of Brooklyn’s most overwhelmed, optimization-prone parents. (About a quarter of her clients are interested in private options, but her specialty and enthusiasm lie in elucidating what New Yorkers can get for free.) Prekindergarten and elementary admission are largely based on where you live. But the game gets significantly more byzantine come middle school and more complex yet for high school, with its tier of “screened” institutions that have traditionally required students to test in, audition, or undergo other high-stress assessments. The process of getting into certain schools — and don’t kid yourself, everybody wants in — has long been a brutal one. Until it got slightly easier. And then brutal again. Or maybe some middle level of brutal? This is why parents need Szuflita.
This fall, she’s handing off all consultations for younger children to another consultant she trusts so that she can focus on clients whose kids are entering higher grades. On September 29, schools chancellor David C. Banks abruptly announced that some of the city’s most prestigious middle and high schools would move away from an open lottery system and increase their use of merit-based admissions. The approach prioritizes students with an A average — children Banks calls “hardworking,” a loaded description in a city with one of the greatest wealth disparities in the country — and reverses the previous mayor’s strategy, which aimed to usher more lower-income students into New York’s top schools. It feels like a big upheaval. Brooklyn’s parents are overwrought, and even though Szuflita’s rate is steep, it’s no pricier than an hour in therapy — and they only have to go once.
At 63, she has been obsessed with the city’s complex admissions process since she navigated it successfully for her own children in the late 1990s. Once they were happily enrolled in a small public school in Brooklyn, she found herself sharing wisdom with so many other parents that eventually she realized she could monetize the intel. Since starting her consultancy in 2008, Szuflita says, she’s been called everything from “the dominatrix of school choice” to “a great big Valium”: the former for how she verbally whips her (mostly) white, affluent, highly educated, and anxious clients so they don’t make stupid mistakes, the latter for the way she placates their worst fears.
Szuflita usually conducts her $260-an-hour sessions from the Park Slope apartment she’s lived in for 32 years, but today she’s talking to me from her family home in Kingston, which has warm, you-too-can-be-this-calm vibes. Behind her, I see a worn striped couch, a hodgepodge of framed prints, and two side tables topped with crystal candleholders and ceramic and wood bowls. “The pendulum is swinging back a little bit,” Szuflita says of the Banks announcement, insisting that the changes are not as sweeping as they might seem. “The algorithm is still exactly the same.” Contrary to how some have read the news, the old lottery is still partially in use. The random number (a hexadecimal, actually) that each student is assigned works as a tiebreaker to get into screened high schools and can sometimes be a major factor when families submit their ranked choices of preferred schools.
Clients often panic about their lottery numbers and want to change the ranking of their list, which Szuflita doesn’t recommend for anyone except those with exceptionally high or low numbers. Trying to outsmart the process, she says, is pure “magical thinking.” She’s constantly telling parents to trust the fairness of the city’s sorting algorithm, whose authors literally won the Nobel Prize, and rank in true preference order. (Or, as she tends to put it in emails: “RANK IN TRUE PREFERENCE ORDER!!!!!!!”) Despite this, clients sometimes persist, asking, How do we work the algorithm to our advantage? How do we strategize ranking our list? “That’s when I yell at people in the nicest way,” she says, because they don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re cutting into her time. “Like, ‘No, shut up. Shut up and listen to me. You’re not going to get everything you need to know.’” But most of her consults take two hours, she says, and don’t involve a lot of back-and-forth. “They tell me about their children and then what follows is usually a rapid-fire, two-hour information dump from me. There is not a lot of airing of concerns, because I already anticipate their concerns.” The download is intensely specific, tailored to each family and covering individual schools, principals, teachers, and facility upgrades few people are aware of. She verifies rumors (or sets the record straight) and knows things you can’t find on the internet.
Szuflita is aware that she is, by her own description, “the elephant in the room,” which is to say, a privileged white woman helping privileged white parents optimize a system struggling for parity. She knows that many people who need her services can’t afford her, so she has a free blog and a free newsletter that goes to 11,000 families, and she gives group talks online that cost $30 to access. But the bulk of her day is spent meeting with frenzied, pandemic-weathered parents of means who are trying to calm their last salvageable nerve by purchasing the closest thing to an admissions VIP pass: her.
Scolding aside, Szuflita has empathy for her clients. They want the best for their kids, and what parent doesn’t? “There’s plenty of free-floating anxiety in this whole frigging world. When you can focus that anxiety on your particular kid’s school placement in this moment — it is this laser beam, because it’s imminent.” She also doesn’t blame them for being neurotic, even if their own parents roll their eyes at the fact that they’re hiring a consultant to help with getting into public school. “Middle-school parents are afraid
of everything, including their own children,” she says. “That’s a time when everybody’s anxiety goes through the roof. It doesn’t need to be, because actually I have found that teenagers are quite lovely and most of them are not awful, but parents are afraid that without any warning, things are going to change and it’s going to become bad. There’s a big unknown yawning cavern of fear at middle school.”
And that — a willingness to acknowledge the emotional stakes — is a point of departure, Szuflita has noticed, between public-school and private-school parents. “It’s not like private-school parents are cavalier, but they have a tendency to be very focused and quietly stressed. Private-school parents have to hold it together,” she says. “Public-school parents are very, very vocal in their stress. They’re happy to show the crazy.”
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