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It's a particular fact of life in New York City that parents in possession of children must be in search of a school.

Talk of where to send your kids often dominates parental conversation—even pre-conception. And it tends to go on all the way to high school—except for the elite minority who get into and thrive at some of the city's highly coveted pre-k–12 private schools that can now cost close to $43,000 annually.

In my family's case, both for financial and philosophical reasons, neither suburbia nor private options were considered. So when my first child was born in 1995, and there was no popular elementary school or publicly funded pre-k in my neighborhood, the search began early—and often.

Fast forward 20 years. If my youngest son manages to pass gym (please don't ask how one fails gym ... it has to do with showing up), I will be the proud parent on June 24 of two New York City public school graduates.

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by Clara Hemphill and Halley Potter

This op ed was originally published in the New York Times on June 12, 2015.

The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, campaigned on a promise to provide free universal pre-k classes to more than 70,000 4-year-olds. The city is now poised to meet this ambitious goal.

"This is a proud moment for us all," Mr. de Blasio said earlier this week. " 'Pre-K for All' is the centerpiece of our agenda to confront inequality in our city."

Mr. de Blasio is right to be proud, but more must be done to ensure that pre-k classrooms deliver the results the mayor wants. Unfortunately, in cobbling together different funding sources and different types of preschools, the city has unintentionally reinforced barriers that keep rich and poor children apart, even in economically mixed neighborhoods.

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“I learn so much that I can’t even stop,” says a giddy 4-year-old in a promotional video just released by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. “There are no monsters here. It’s not scary,” explains another. “Maybe if you try school, you might like it.”

This year, more NYC families than ever before seem willing to try pre-kindergarten, and, for the first time, they are guaranteed a seat in a full-day program. About 70,000 children will attend free, universal pre-kindergarten this fall, a majority at their parents’ top choice program. The city reported that 70 percent of families received pre-k offers to their first choice school, and 82 percent got one of their top three. Many families are willing to travel, with 16 percent choosing a site outside their district as their first choice. Early childhood centers and public school programs seemed equally sought-after: Half the applicants listed an early childhood center first on their application; the other half listed a public school, according to the Department of Education

If you’re a policymaker, things are looking pretty good. Larger issues aside—like increasing and measuring diversity, say, or creating permanent and suitable pre-k spaces—the improvement in enrollment numbers seems like the just reward of this year’s more streamlined registration process and the DOE’s massive outreach effort. But what if you’re one of the families whom the stats didn’t favor?

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by Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — Local education leaders are looking to combat school overcrowding and increase classroom diversity by creating a "super zone" — in which students from one part of the district would have a choice of three schools to attend instead of one.

Elementary school students in District 3 are assigned to a school based on where they live, a geographic designation known as their school zone. Each zone typically has only one corresponding school.

Community Education Council 3 leaders, who have ultimate control over zoning lines, are considering shaking up that structure in the southern section of the district, which is experiencing overcrowding and what some have deemed racial segregation.

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Two inquiries came in this week from parents wanting to know how the type of high school their children attend will affect their college admissions. The scenarios are different but the answer is pretty much the same, so I'm answering them together.

1. How important is the choice of high school on college options? We have been happy that our children are doing well in middle school and even happier that they are enjoying it so much. This school will transition into a grade 6–12 next year. But we have heard that, coming out of a new school without an established reputation, they will be seen as less appealing to colleges. Many, if not most, parents around us are in a frenzy preparing for the specialized high schools exam, saying that one of these schools is the only pathway to the best college opportunity.

2. My daughter is a happy freshman at one of the specialized high schools. Her grades are in the low 90s in the humanities and in the 80s in math/science. But at her high school, 92 is like the edge of a cliff: 92 and up means you get to do electives, APs, and have a range of college options. Below 92, you do not. It really seems that binary. Ironically, it seems that her chances at a future with choices would be higher elsewhere. Should we seek to transfer out?

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Sixty-six percent of eligible students who applied to G&T (gifted and talented) programs in 2015 received offers today, up from 2014 when 60 percent of applicants received offers. Fewer students applied this year: 7,242 students in grades k–3 applied for a spot, a decrease from 8,010 applications last year.

Incoming kindergartners—the first entry point for gifted programs—had the best chance of gaining a seat: nearly 80 percent of the applicants received an offer, as compared to only 36 percent of 3rd-graders.

As in previous years, admission to one of the five citywide G&T programs eludes most eligible students. While more than 1,500 kindergarten test-takers scored high enough—97th percentile or better—to qualify for a citywide seat, there are only about 325 slots. Most offers go to children who score in the 99th percentile, or to eligible siblings of current citywide G&T students. The DOE has not yet released figures for how many were offered a citywide G&T seat this year, but last year roughly 300 earned a spot. 

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With all of the hoopla that accompanies G&T testing for rising kindergartners every spring, it’s easy to forget that there are opportunities for older elementary school students too. If you have a rising 4th- or 5th-grader who is ready for more of an academic challenge, this Friday, May 22 is the last day to apply for a gifted and talented program for fall 2015.

Unlike applications for the younger grades, the RFP (request for placement) for 4th- and 5th-graders must be made in person at a Family Welcome Center. There is no special test; instead a student’s eligibility is based on three main factors, all weighed equally:

1.         The 2015 NYS English language arts and math exam scores
2.         2015 report card grades
3.         A form, "Descriptors of Exceptional Characteristics,” filled out by the child’s teacher

After you submit an RFP for your child, the Department of Education will collect all the information including test scores, grades and teacher recommendations and will notify families of their child’s eligibility in late summer. Student’s who qualify will receive an application to submit, along with a list of all G&T programs with seats available for 4th- and 5th-graders. 

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Eighth- and 9th-graders who applied to high school last fall but were not matched to any school, or who wanted to apply to a different school in a second round of applications, learned the results of their new application this week, the Department of Education said.

In the first round of admissions, about 8 percent of 8th-graders applying for 9th grade got no match, forcing them into a second round. Other students chose to re-apply to different schools that still had open seats in March.

Students who are unhappy with their high school assignment, or whose circumstances have changed since they applied, now have the option to appeal and try for a different school. Appeal forms are available from school guidance counselors now and are due back on Wednesday, May 20.

Will an appeal be successful? It depends on the reason. See our advice on how to appeal. And, for a look at the number of appeals granted in recent years, and which type of appeals were most commonly approved between 2011–2013, read "Kids win one-quarter of high school appeals."

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Should the city's specialized high schools reserve some spots for top 8th-graders in every city middle school, regardless of the child's score on the specialized high school admissions test (SHSAT)? A recent report cited that as the change most likely to increase the number of black and Hispanic students at the schools but panelists at a forum Friday disagreed over whether the city should take that step.

The panelists also differed over whether an exam should continue to be the sole means of selecting students for the schools, but they concurred that New York needs to provide more outreach and preparation for the exam, particularly in black and Latino communities.

The forum, sponsored by the Korean American League for Civic Action and Asian American Bar Association of New York and moderated by Clara Hemphill, founder and senior editor of Insideschools, came after admissions figures for the schools once again show few spots going to black and Latino students. Of the 5,103 students admitted to one of the eight specialized exam schools for next September, 5 percent are black and 7 percent Hispanic, while Asians account for 52 percent of offers and whites 22 percent. Only about 1 percent of students admitted to Stuyvesant are black.

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Q: I am a junior and all I hear about is how impossible it is to get into popular colleges. A lot of my friends who are seniors did not get accepted to their first-choice colleges and are going to have to attend other schools. This has made me very nervous about what's going to happen to me next year. What do you suggest?

A: As I am sure you have heard, part of the problem is the Common Application, which is both a blessing and a curse. The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple schools, and the blessing is that it enables students to do this while saving them the bother of writing the same information (except for the essay supplements) over and over again. The curse is, the larger volume of applications sent as a result of the Common Application makes being accepted to any school much more difficult.

Another part of the problem is that students persist in applying to the same colleges as their classmates. They have been advised to diversify the geographical scope of their applications, but they don't listen.

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