“This school would be more of a safety,” Joyce Szuflita explained to the parents. She gestured at the colored paper handouts fanned out between them, and then pointed at another zoned school on a different sheet. “That’s a curated class of parents because they chose to move into the zone of the school that they wanted,” said Szuflita. “So, you don't have to have G&T if you have that," she added, referring to gifted-and-talented programs.
It was early morning at a diner in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood, and the couple had contacted Szuflita for advice. The couple—an academic and a public-health researcher—was moving from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to New York City and was nervous about the schooling of their two-year-old and their not-yet-born child. They knew that securing a spot in one of the borough’s handful of coveted high-performing elementary schools was notoriously difficult.
Szuflita, a cheery, graying blonde woman of 56, wore a necklace of heavy, brightly colored beads, provided soothing information and swift judgments, and directed the couple through the city’s byzantine public system with precision. There were so many questions at sessions like these: zoned or lottery admissions? Regular public or charters? Which schools have families like yours? Which ones have room for kids who live in another zone? What’s most effective in getting a child off a waiting list and into a seat? These parents, as well as those I had observed during one of Szuflita’s frequent public speeches, hung on her answers as if she were a cult leader.