Unlike eighth graders in most parts of the country, New York City students must apply to go to high school â€“ and not just Stuyvesant or LaGuardia Arts or the other well-known specialized schools. In many neighborhoods, including all of Manhattan, there is no neighborhood school to which students are assigned. So every fall, parents and students, with the help of teachers and counselors, try to navigate a system in which they must list up to 12 schools in order of preference in the hopes of getting into one high on their list -- or, indeed, on their list at all.
Even younger students are not immune to the city’s selection processes. Although most elementary school students attend a neighborhood school, some parents look for other public alternatives, particularly gifted and talented programs. At the middle school level, some local school districts have eliminated neighborhood schools, requiring students to apply to specific programs. And with many middle schools seen as academically questionable, many parents seek out programs for their children far from home.
While the specifics vary from grade to grade and from borough to borough, one principle drives the whole system. As school officials admit, there are simply not enough good, or even acceptable, schools in the city for all 1.1 million public school students. And so competition can be stiff for the good programs.
The scramble creates a high level of anxiety among parents and students -- after all, many of us did not have to confront rejection from a school until we were 18, not five. But it has implications beyond that, exacerbating the split between good schools and bad ones and inevitably favoring English-speaking affluent students, whose parents can unravel the intricacies of the system, take time off to attend meetings and information sessions, and know how to make their displeasure known if they fear that their child has been left behind.
But whatever their level of sophistication, many parents are often overwhelmed by the Byzantine system that they will confront in the weeks ahead.
Most five years olds still enter kindergarten at their local school. “If you have a good neighborhood school, chances are your child will do just fine there, even if he or she is very bright,” Inside Schools advises. “However, if your neighborhood school is disappointing, your child may be happier at a gifted program that attracts children from across the district or the city."
For now, getting into a gifted and talented program varies from program to program. The Daily News reported that some programs require children to take tests administered by private companies that may charge a lot for the service. The city plans by February 2007 to institute a uniform test for four and five year olds seeking admission to gifted and talented programs.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has repeatedly said he wants good schools in all neighborhoods. The city has begun adding gifted and talented programs in areas -- notably poor and minority sections -- that have traditionally not had many. And it has tried to strengthen instruction in traditionally weak schools. While experts disagree over how successful this has been, the administration points to recent test scores as an indication that they are on the right track.
Klein and others believe that allowing parents to bail out of their neighborhood schools weakens those schools, since families who leave are likely to be among the more committed and involved.
In 2004, the Center for Immigrant Families released a report finding that, while only 19 percent of student in District 3 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side are white, kindergartens in the sought-after schools had a majority of white students. "Admission can depend on parents’ connections, letter writing, phone calls, ability to fundraise or take time off work to attend meetings,” City Limits reported. “According to [the center], parents living outside a school’s zone or even the district use these skills to take spots what would otherwise go to children of immigrant families.”
In response, the city considered instituting a lottery for the popular programs but backed away from the plan under pressure from some parents. ''We cannot accept this notion that we are somehow out of bounds for trying to find the best schools for our children,'' Mark Diller, co-president of the parents association at Public School 87 told the New York Times.
Upon graduating from fifth grade (the end of elementary school in New York), many students stay in their neighborhoods, attending a school that accepts students from several surrounding elementary schools. But, over the years, some parts of the city have done away with neighborhood middle schools, requiring students to apply to middle schools in their area. The schools provide different approaches and programs -- one might emphasize arts, while another science -- and vary widely in quality. Some of the schools allow applicants from outside the district and or even the borough.
In some cases, students must simply submit a list of schools they would like to attend, but some schools require an interview, audition or special essay. The fourth-grade standardized test scores loom large in deciding who gets in where.
With so many bad middle schools in the city, the competition for spaces in what are seen as good schools can be fierce. “Look beyond the super-selective schools,” Inside Schools advised parents last year. “There are more options than you might imagine.”
But many parents jamming the fairs and information sessions might not agree, leading the Web site to concede, “The fairs to introduce parents and children to programs can be nerve wracking. These tend to be jam-packed events, seemingly designed to raise your blood pressure."
Some students do not get into the school they want. Last year in District 15, which includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope and Sunset Park, many students who had test scores high enough to get into one of the area’s top schools were rejected anyway. The reason? The district had about half as many slots for the schools as they had students qualified to attend. One school, MS 51, had 1,700 applicants who exceeded standards on the fourth grade test, but could offer only 300 seats. The district added places, while some parents gave up in disgust. “Each year more high performing students stay in the district through middle school,” Councilmember David Yassky, who represents part of the area, told the Daily News. “This year the dam finally broke.”
With the new small high schools, academically selective schools, schools that require a talent and others that few students want to go to, the high school selection system resembles not so much a patchwork as a crazy quilt.
Take three examples:
--Many schools that are even remotely desirable tell prospective students, that, if they want to get in, they should list the school as their first choice. But the Department of Education advises listing as many as 12 schools in order of preference.
--Applications are due in December, but new small schools are routinely hatched a couple of months later. Even though students are allowed to amend their applications to include these new schools, it is often too soon to know anything about the school other than its name and its good intentions.
--A number of the high schools are so-called Educational Option schools. Under a city formula, 16 percent of students admitted must score above average on a seventh grade test, 68 percent average and 16 percent below average. This, counselors readily admit, creates a paradox where a low-scoring student may have a better chance of getting into one of these schools than a top scorer. (The program was instituted as an integration measure in the 1980s but some critics say that in a system that is more than 70 percent black and Hispanic, it has outlived its usefulness.)
To apply to high school, some 90,000 eighth graders are now preparing a list of up to 12 schools, ranked in order of preference. Some schools also require students to take tests, have interviews, submit portfolios or audition.
The process is so complicated that the city issued its directory of high schools several months earlier than usual, offered summer workshops and fall fairs, open houses and tours. A huge citywide fair at Brooklyn Tech last month featured dozens of schools boasting of their programs.
In April, most students will be admitted to one, and only one, of the schools. This eliminates the situation several years ago in which some students got admitted to several schools, while others did not get in anywhere.
For many students, the system worked last year, with almost two-thirds being admitted to one of their top three choices. But another 10,200 (out of about 90,000) did not get into any of their choices. Those students then have to apply all over again, choosing among a limited number of schools that still have spaces.
Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the system,some kinks have been smoothed out. Students get material earlier now, there is less confusion and by all accounts, there were fewer students without high schools this September than there had been a year earlier.
But the problem remains of too many students chasing too few places. “We’ve got a crisis in supply and demand in our city. And we should not kid ourselves about it,” Klein told the City Council last year. The chancellor admitted that, based on the number of applicants, 86 percent of the high schools are “not highly desirable.”
As Clara Hemphill of Inside Schools put it: "Any method of allocating kindergarten seats will be unfair as long as what should be a right -- a decent elementary education -- is treated as a rare privilege.”