I spend all spring and summer telling people not to procrastinate, to consult in the spring or summer or book me for the fall,” Joyce Szuflita says when his face fills my Zoom screen, looking like a high school football coach who warned everyone to run 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 get two hours with Brooklyn’s most coveted advice giver, a celebrity known simply as “Joyce” from Ditmas Park in Greenpoint. She is booked for the next three weeks. Customers are flooding his inbox to book one of the few remaining slots in November. For the better part of two decades, Szuflita has demystified the public school admissions process for some of Brooklyn’s most overwhelmed and self-optimizing parents. (About a quarter of his clients are interested in private options, but his specialty and enthusiasm is elucidating what New Yorkers can get for themselves. free.) Admission to pre-K and elementary largely depends on where you live. But the game becomes much more Byzantine in middle school and even more complex in high school, with its level of “selected” institutions that have traditionally required students to take tests, audition, or undergo other high-stress assessments. The process of getting into some schools – and make no mistake, everyone wants to get in – has long been brutal. Until it gets a little easier. And then brutal again. Or maybe a medium level of brutality? That’s why parents need Szuflita.
This fall, she is handing over all consultations for young children to another consultant she trusts so she can focus on clients whose children are entering upper grades. On September 29, Schools Chancellor David C. Banks abruptly announcement 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 — the kids Banks calls “working people,” a loaded description in a city with one of the nation’s largest wealth disparities — and reverses the strategy of the previous mayor, who aimed to get more low-income students into New York’s Best Schools. It looks like a big upheaval. Brooklyn’s parents are overworked, and even though Szuflita’s rate is steep, it’s no more than an hour of therapy — and they only have to go once.
At 63, she’s obsessed with the city’s complex admissions process since successfully navigating it for her own children in the late 1990s. Once they were happily enrolled in a small Brooklyn Public School, she found herself sharing her wisdom with so many other parents that she eventually realized she could monetize the information. Since starting her consultation in 2008, Szuflita says, she’s been called everything from “the school-choice dominatrix” to “a big Valium”: the former for the way she verbally whips her (mostly) white, affluent, highly educated and anxious clients so they don’t make stupid mistakes, the latter for how she allays 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 a cozy vibe, so will you. can be as quiet vibrations. Behind her, I see a worn striped sofa, a hodgepodge of framed prints, and two side tables topped with crystal candlesticks and ceramic and wooden bowls. “The pendulum is swinging back a bit,” Szuflita says of Banks’ announcement, insisting the changes aren’t as drastic 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) assigned to each student works as a tie-breaker to enter pre-selected high schools and can sometimes be a major factor when families submit their ranked choices of preferred schools.
Customers often panic about their lottery numbers and want to change the ranking of their roster, which Szuflita doesn’t recommend to anyone except those with exceptionally high or low numbers. Trying to thwart the process, she says, is pure “wishful thinking.” She constantly tells parents to trust the fairness of the city’s sorting algorithm, whose authors literally won the Nobel Prize, and to rank themselves in true order of preference. (Or, as she tends to say in emails: “RANK IN TRUE ORDER OF PREFERENCE!!!!!!!”) Despite this, customers sometimes persist, asking: How do we use the algorithm to our advantage? How do we develop a ranking strategy for our list? “That’s where I yell at people in the nicest way,” she says, because they don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re wasting her time. “Like, ‘No, shut up. Shut up and listen to me. You won’t get everything you need to know.’ But most of her consultations last two hours, she says, and don’t involve a lot of back and forth. “They talk to me about their kids and then what follows is usually a quick two-hour dump of information from me. There’s not a lot of expression of concern, because I’m already anticipating their concerns. The download is extremely specific, tailored to each family, and covers individual schools, principals, teachers, and facility upgrades that few know about. It checks the rumors (or sets the record straight on time) 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”, meaning a privileged white woman helping privileged white parents optimize a system that struggles for parity. She knows that many people who need her services cannot afford them. So she has a free blog and a free newsletter that goes out to 11,000 families, and she gives group talks online that cost $30 to access. But most of her day is spent meeting wealthy, frantic, pandemic-hardened parents trying to calm their last salvageable nerve by buying the closest thing to a VIP admission pass: her.
Reprimands aside, Szuflita has empathy for her clients. They want the best for their children, and what parent doesn’t? “There’s a lot of anxiety floating around in the whole fucking world. When you can focus that anxiety on your child’s school placement right now, that’s that laser beam, because it’s imminent. She also doesn’t blame them for being neurotic, even though their own parents roll their eyes at the fact that they hire a consultant to help them get into public school. “College parents are afraid
of everything, including their own children,” she said. “It’s a time when everyone’s anxiety skyrockets. It’s not necessary because I actually found the teenagers to be quite adorable and most of them aren’t awful, but the parents are afraid that without any warning, things will change and things will go wrong.There is a big, gaping fear cave unknown in middle school.
And that — a willingness to recognize the emotional stakes — is a starting point, Szuflita noted, between parents in public schools and private schools. “It’s not like private school parents are cavaliers, but they tend to be very focused and calmly stressed. Private school parents need to hold on,” she says. “Public school parents are very, very vocal in their stress. They are happy to show off the boobies.