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not just tea at the airport

maura @ 2:21 pm

Fair warning: this post will be extremely boring to most humans. It may perhaps be slightly interesting to folks who are parents of children under the age of 18 and/or live in NYC, but YMMV.

The kid is in 8th grade this year, which means that we as a family are thoroughly immersed in the high school application process. Recently I’ve been surprised at how much less stressful I’m finding this process than I expected, especially based on our middle school application experience. But I also feel like it’s taken up lots of headspace, room that I can’t really afford to allot to it right now. So this post is the HS purge, writing it out to free up those braincycles.

Over the course of I don’t know how long because I wasn’t really paying attention since it didn’t really affect me — maybe 10 years? — the NYC public high schools have transformed from (I think?) mostly zoned, mostly biggish, neighborhood schools into schools that are more or less available for any NYC kid to apply to and range in size from 300 to 5000 students. There are definitely some advantages to this. Some of the schools are truly excellent, some have a specific curricular focus for the non-required courses, and some have pretty small class sizes (20-25 students). On the other hand, applying to a small focused school is essentially asking a 13 yr old to decide what they want to be when they grow up, which for many kids is much much too early. On the third hand, going to a science-focused high school doesn’t mean that you can’t go to an arts-focused college, or the reverse, so lighten up! (I tell myself.)

Applying to public high school in NYC can be complex and labor-intensive. The numbers give you a sense of it: across the 5 boroughs there are 400 high schools, with 700 programs (some schools have several different curricular programs and you apply to the program rather than the school), and each program uses one of 8 (eight!) different admissions processes. The book that I call the Giant Book of High Schools that got sent home at the end of last year is 3″ thick:


Like with middle schools, students and parents are encouraged to go to the open house or tour for each school they’re interested in. For us that is shaping up to be 9 schools, maybe 10. We are not considering anything that’s more than a 45-ish minute commute, which keeps us in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The biggest division is what are called the specialized high schools — there are 8 of them spread throughout the city, and admission is via one standardized test called the SHSAT. High-stakes testing is stinky, though I admit it makes the process more straightforward. Basically any kid who wants to go to a specialized school takes the test, which is held on one weekend in the fall, chooses which of the 8 schools they’re willing to go to and lists them on the test form. The kid with the highest score gets matched with the school she ranked #1, the kid with the second highest score with her #1 choice, and so on down the list until all of the seats in each of the 8 schools are filled. We’re touring 2 of these schools, and have also signed the kid up for the test prep afterschool course at his middle school. I’m not a big fan of test prep, but a combination of factors wore me down: most kids seem to take it, the SHSAT is a strange, one-off test that’s not like any tests the kids have taken before or will take again, and the course (which is really just doing practice tests with a teacher) seems like it’ll reduce anxiety about the process.

The rest (and vast majority) of the schools are the “unspecialized” schools, and they use any one of the remaining 7 admissions methods. Some of them have geographic preferences, and will take kids in the school’s neighborhood or borough first. Some have grade or standardized test score requirements. Some require their own test, or an interview, or a portfolio, or an essay, or a letter of recommendation from a teacher. The schools with performing arts programs often require an audition (that’s not for us). Whatever the admissions method, the end result is the same: there’s a form that comes home from middle school that we fill out by ranking *all* of the schools he’d be willing to go to, then we send the form back in and the DOE feeds it all into a special machine which spits out the high school matches. There are 12 slots on the form, and it’s recommended that you list no less than 6 schools because while there is a round 2, it’s much more challenging to get into schools during round 2 as most of the schools have already filled their seats.

We’re looking at 8 unspecialized schools. Three are easy: take the tour, rank the school on the form (because the kid meets their admissions requirements, which are published in the Giant Book, and the school can look at the DOE system to see his grades and test scores). Two each require you to bring your 7th grade report card and take a specific test for just that school, and one of those also requires an interview (if your test score is high enough). One requires an “admissions activity” — we don’t know what it entails because it isn’t live on the school’s website yet. One requires a short essay as well as a copy of your 7th grade report card. One requires a portfolio of work from 7th grade and an interview. (Is that all 8? I think so.)

I fully acknowledge the advantage that our privilege affords us in this process. We are fortunate enough to have the time and energy to devote to researching schools, booking tours and tests (some of which fill up almost as soon as they’re listed on the schools’ websites), paying for a SHSAT prep course, and schlepping around to all of this stuff, most of which happens between 8am and 5pm on weekdays. It’s true that there are many schools that don’t require anything other than listing the school as one of the 12 schools on the form, provided that your child meets the grade/test score requirements. But the system definitely privileges those families with both the resources to spend on the admissions process as well as those with children in high-performing elementary and middle schools (which, of course, is another privilege).

While I can’t say I’m in love with this system, it’s the system we have. For us we’re using a google doc and calendar to keep track of things, and since my brain likes learning about and keeping track of minutia I’ll admit to a certain amount of satisfaction that we have gotten everything scheduled for the fall. But I will still be happy when it’s all over. And wow, that’s over 1,100 words — hope that works to clear out my brain!

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5 comments on “not just tea at the airport”

Anne (20 October 2014 at 12:49 pm)

Crazy! That is more work than I did to apply to college.

We have magnet schools here. One school (elementary), all the parents camp out for a fortnight or so on the lawn. This is bad for a lot of reasons, the main (for me) one being it makes it seem like these schools are too hard to get in to. (Other reasons: how many people are able to do this? What kinds of people do this and why? Is it worth it? Magic 8 says: answer appears hazy.)

The one my younger guys go to does not allow camping out. It is connected to a city rec center, the line doesn’t open until 5 p.m. the night before registration, and parents can stay inside the rec center gym overnight. Plus, we bring them baked goods!

The high school for Max — you have to take an entrance test. If you’ve been lucky enough to go to a good elementary school, the test is not too hard. However, it is like the U of C in that the hard part is staying in! Latin is required for grades 7-9, for example. He does more work than I ever did.

The non-magnet schools are less favorable, though. I have no experience with them and we’ve been lucky enough not to have to worry about it.

The whole public school thing is like jury service. I used to work in that subject area and once saw a slogan, “It’s not fair if you’re not there.” That’s why I dislike the Ohio vouchers available to people in failing districts — why is it OK to pay the competition (usually the local Catholic school)? It’s a good deal for each individual, but overall it only makes a bad situation worse. Schools need the diversity, and I do not need to be keeping parochial schools above water (which is the result — many of these schools would be gone but for vouchers).

Well, I can’t say I understand the NYC process, but good luck to you & G.!

maura (26 October 2014 at 3:52 pm)

It is kind of ridiculous, I have to say. On the plus side, we’re more than halfway there, and the specialized test is done and dusted. At least there’s no sleeping out though — too much! Some of the schools we’re considering have Latin, J+I are trying not to nerd out on that too much. :)

Anne (4 November 2014 at 3:25 pm)

Yeah I saw the sleeper-outers today. Tents all around. Occupy Fairview!

Latin is good in some ways but pretty bad for the GPA, at least in this case. His teacher this year is also an archaeologist! They do cultural/history topics, too.

Thank goodness for band…omg he got promoted (?) from trumpet to tuba, bonus being they need him in marching band & band is going to Paris next year!!! (Oh, and would you like to buy cheese?!?)

mike (13 November 2014 at 3:12 pm)

We have a few years to go before we have to start thinking about this – older daughter’s only in fourth grade right now – but I’m sure glad we’re in the St. Louis burbs and dealing with it. Whether our kids go to the local junior high or one of the private schools remains to be seen…but at least no one’s camping out for two weeks on any of their front steps.

(Also, hi Maura! Was going through some ’90s music memorabilia and thought of you. Whatever happened to Peggy?)

maura (13 November 2014 at 9:18 pm)

We are almost finished! 1 more test and 2 more interviews and we might bail on the last tour because it seems like high school-brand high school and tours on weekday evenings are hard. Then there are 2 “online admissions activities” and that’s it, woo!

Hi Mike! How’s it going? We’re all fine here. Funny you should mention Peggy — we *almost* saw her last weekend because our mutual friends were in town, but then it didn’t work out. She’s spoused + enkidded + moved away from the city, but doing well as far as I know.

Anne, omg, tuba! So very cool. Gus almost wanted trombone but I’m glad we were able to convince him to take trumpet instead, he walks 30 minutes each way and those things are heavy.

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