NYC’s high school admissions maze

I had always heard that applying to high school in New York City was complex, but nothing could have prepared me for how overwhelming, exhausting, and unsettling this process is for our eighth-graders and their families.

My son is one of the roughly 80,000 New York City students going through the process, with tomorrow being the deadline. It works like this: Each student is assigned a random number and put into a tier from 1 to 5 based on their grade point average, with tier 1 the highest. They are then told to go to MySchools, a clunky Education Department website, look through more than 400 schools and make a list of 12, in order of preference. They have eight weeks and are given next to no guidance.

The choice is overwhelming, as are the admission requirements. Some schools screen applicants based on grades. Most only accept students in tier 1, and only if the student has a good random number. Other schools screen based entirely on essays. A group of “consortium schools” conveniently use a common essay. But all the other schools require their own. Some screen based on essays and grades. Others require interviews or video statements.

A few Educational Option schools, called Ed-Opt, take an equal number from each tier. Others select students solely based on their random number. The specialized high schools look only at a student’s score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, a grueling 3-hour exam. Art schools require auditions or portfolios.

Most eighth-graders, even the most motivated, will have trouble navigating this system. The truth is, it’s up to their parents. And only those parents with the means, the sophistication, and a certain amount of wherewithal are likely to figure it out.

More than 9,000 of us are in a Facebook group, Applying to High School in NYC, which has been an invaluable resource. Parents have shared information about open houses, pointed out hidden gem schools, and answered questions about portfolio submissions.

Some have hired consultants to advise on schools. Others have sent their kids to SHSAT prep classes or hired art tutors and drama coaches. Many are coaching their children on essays — all of which perpetuates the glaring inequities that have long made New York City one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

You never really know how the Education Department will determine who fits into which tier. This year, tier 1 is a grade average of 94 and above. In previous years, it was as low as 85. This year the department looked at final grades from seventh grade, though in years past it included the first semester of eighth grade. Before COVID, it also looked at state test scores and attendance.

Most schools offer open houses but there is no central calendar. You need to go to each individual school website and sign up. Popular schools fill up quickly, so if you miss the window in between the school posting the open houses filling up, you are out of luck.

Our 12- and 13-year-olds are supposed to weigh their interests with admissions requirements and the quality of their random number, a 32 digit string of letters and numbers that is itself hard to figure out.

At open houses, they are supposed to ask questions about teaching methods, AP courses, the quality of college advisory assistance, intellectual rigor, and after-school clubs. My son was mostly interested in how much homework there will be, how long the commute is, and whether any of his friends would go there. He is 12, after all. He did get excited about a couple of schools and is now finishing up his portfolio and essays, which are due tomorrow.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Have clear guidelines on admissions standards and keep them the same year after year.
  • Consolidate the process with a common application.
  • Provide a centralized list of open houses, and provide more weeks to visit them.
  • Provide meaningful help at school in navigating the process, including SHSAT prep, now mostly only available to families who can pay for a prep course.
  • Create an app that would let a student plug in their interests, their random number, the distance they’re willing to travel, their grade tier, and generate a list of possible schools.

I appreciate the choice New York City offers our children — but finding the right school needs to be made easier, more consistent, and more equitable.

Sullivan lives in Brooklyn and is the parent of a 12-year-old currently applying to public high school and a 10-year-old currently applying to public middle school in New York City.

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