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Middle school admissions season kicks into high gear this week for parents of 5th-graders. You can meet school representatives at evening district fairs beginning Tuesday, Sept. 30 in most districts. Middle school directories for 2014-2015 are online and hard copies are available at elementary schools.

Now is the time to sign up for school tours and open houses! The Department of Education website lists some open house dates here. If you don't see the school you want to visit listed, check its website or call the school to find out. In some popular schools, especially in Manhattan where there is active school choice, many tours are already fully booked. If you're shut out, try contacting the parent coordinator to see if additional tours will be added. Be sure to ask about admissions requirements when you visit schools. The directory listings are not always specific.

In addition to fairs, some districts hold informational nights where principals talk about their schools. Check with your district's family advocate to see if one is scheduled. (You can find their names and contact information on our district pages.) So far we've heard about forums in District 3 on Oct. 16 and District 1 on Oct. 29. District 21 is offering a middle school admissions workshop on Oct. 22

Applying to high school in New York City is a confusing process. Here's a summary of our Sept. 23 panel discussion busting the myths. You can also view the entire discussion on video at the bottom of this page.

MYTH: The specialized high schools are the best and only ones worth applying to.

BUSTED!
There are dozens of other city high schools that are academically challenging and prepare kids for top colleges.

MYTH: There are only five good schools in the city.

BUSTED!
Good high schools are not like unicorns; there are many good schools that are under-the-hype-radar. (Insideschools pointed out one example: Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics.)

MYTH: It doesn't matter where I go to school as long as I'm a good kid who works hard.

BUSTED!
School graduation rates do matter. Attending a school with a 90 percent graduation rate versus a 55 percent rate means that you are more likely to gain access to better options for the future. That said, the valedictorian at the worst school would have great college options. Use your judgment when picking a school-–make sure it offers the best choices and opportunities for you. 

MYTH: I can tell what courses the school offers by its name—like "medical science."

BUSTED!
Themes can be really cool, but there are schools with a themed name that have nothing to do with what goes on once you are in the building. Do research beyond the name of school; try to get as much detail as possible, and this will help you make the right choice.

MYTH: Charter schools are better than ordinary public schools.

BUSTED!
Some charter schools are great. Some are terrible. Just like the public schools.

MYTH: I must rank a popular school "No. 1" on my application or I won't be considered.

BUSTED!
The schools don't know how you rank them. It is very important that you put your true first choice as your first choice on your application. Don't try to game the system.

MYTH: If I apply to only a few schools it increases my chances of getting into my top choice.

BUSTED!
The number of schools you apply for does not affect your chances of getting into your top choice.

MYTH: I must fill out all 12 slots on the application.

BUSTED!
If you are smart, you will use all spaces on your application because that will maximize the potential for you to get into a school you are happy to attend. That said, do not put a school on your list that you would not be happy attending.

MYTH: If I have a 90+ average, I'm safe applying only to a few top schools.

BUSTED!
Ninth-grader Martha Sanchez says she always had a 95-97 percent average so she thought she would not have a problem getting into any schools, but found that she needed to show interest at the interview process and know about the school in order to be a desirable applicant. Another thing to look at is admissions rates: How many seats are there? How many students are applying? That tells you a lot about how selective the schools are.

MYTH: If I don't get one of my top choices, I'm out of luck. Appeals never work.

BUSTED!
The appeals process works best for students with genuine hardship. Appealing won't get you a seat in an extremely competitive school that rejected you in the first place. But if you are matched to a school that is truly inappropriate, go ahead and appeal. Some 40-45 percent of appeals are granted each year.

Sign up now for free middle school programs

Written by DNAinfo Wednesday, 24 September 2014 12:06

(This artiicle first appeared on DNAIinfo.com on Sept. 18, 2014. It has been edited slightly)

 Jayden Todman, an eighth-grader at East Harlem's PS/IS 7 Samuel Stern school, had the same routine every day after school last year — he went home, did his homework and watched television.

His mother wanted him to be more active, but couldn't afford to send him to programs that charged fees.

But this year, Jayden's school was one of hundreds across the city to add free after-school seats under a $145 million expansion spearheaded by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Now Jayden will spend his afternoons learning about robotics and 3-D animation.

"I like robots," Jayden said with a smile after a game of kickball at his new program on a recent afternoon. "I want to be an engineer."

Our 15 favorite elementary schools for math and science

Written by Lydie Raschka Wednesday, 17 September 2014 17:05

Which elementary schools offer a great education in math and science?

We scoured the city for schools that give ordinary kids an extraordinary education—zoned neighborhood schools, not gifted programs or schools with a special application process. We picked schools that are willing to open their doors and share their knowledge—in the hopes that these might serve as models for others. We chose schools with good test scores, but we avoided ones with too much test prep or paper-and-pencil drills. Most of all, we picked schools that foster a love of math and science while giving children the skills they need to be successful later in life.

Here are our favorites.

MANHATTAN

PS 171, East Harlem
Why we picked it: Where else do little kids use words like "heart valve?"

Teachers at PS 171 know that science lessons build children's vocabularies—and that helps them read better. All children—even pre-kindergartners—go to the science lab three times a week for lessons taught by a certified science teacher. Children build models of cells out of clay and write essays about the use of animal parts in medicine, using sophisticated words like "heart valves" and "livers" to support their arguments. Kids take trips to science museums and study ducks in Central Park, building their general knowledge along with their vocabularies. (Pauline Zaldonis)

PS 42, Lower East Side/Chinatown
Why we picked it: Second-graders learn geometry and physics by studying bridges

PS 42 integrates science and math into well-planned interdisciplinary units. For example, 2nd-graders research bridges of the world, explore bridge geometry and physics, create bridge-inspired 3-D art, hear architects speak about their jobs and take fields trips to Battery Park to see real bridges. Children at the school have outstanding math scores and reading scores that are well above the citywide average—quite an accomplishment since more than one-third of them are learning English as a second language. (Anna Schneider)

Clara Hemphill, Insideschools staff and a panel of experts discussed common mistakes that students and parents make when applying to high school and provide tips on how to make better choices. Watch the live-stream here.

Q: My neighbor's daughter is a first-year student at a large public university, and it seems that most of her instructors are graduate students. She has met few actual professors. Now we are starting to look at colleges for our son. I want him to be taught by experienced professors—but does that mean he must attend only a private college? Those schools are so much more expensive!

A: It all depends upon the school. Part of the answer is in the vocabulary you use: university and college. A university has an undergraduate program and also graduate programs. It is very common for experienced graduate students to teach introductory classes in many departments. More advanced courses should be taught by full-time, permanent members of the faculty. But schools should not use graduate students or other part-time faculty to teach a majority of classes. You will have to do some serious research to learn if this is the case.

It may shock you to learn that private undergraduate colleges do something similar, even though they do not have their own graduate schools. But there may be a nearby university whose graduate students they can employ, or other qualified individuals they can hire at salaries much, much lower than those of full-time professors. So paying the higher tuition and fees for a private college is no guarantee that your son will be taught by professors. Your tuition dollars will be used instead to subsidize the school's other projects.

Going to the high school fair? Here's our advice

Written by Pamela Wheaton Tuesday, 16 September 2014 11:14

This weekend, Sept. 20 and 21, is the Department of Education's gigantic citywide high school fair from 10 am to 3 pm at Brooklyn Technical High School. Prepare for a hectic day, where you will meet teachers, students and administrators and find out about their schools.

You can attend information sessions several times during the day, led by staff from the Education Department's enrollment office. This will be helpful especially if you're a newbie to the process (and it will give you a place to sit down and take a breather.)

Here's the schedule provided by the DOE:

High school admissions basics at 10:30 am and 12:30 pm 
Auditioning for arts schools and programs at 2 pm 

After all the hype and hustle of searching for and getting into a New York City public high school, it can be disheartening to find out that for some kids and parents the search continues.

Not the search for another high school, although there are some who brave the arduous process again and transfer. I’m talking about the search to supplement what is often missing in even some of the most coveted high schools—from advanced math and science classes to art or a foreign language.

Savvy parents and kids will seek out everything from individual tutoring to after school art, music and dance programs to courses at CUNY colleges or elsewhere.

Wouldn’t it be nice if one public high school could have it all?

(Note: Post updated on Sept. 17, 2014)

Mayor Bill de Blasio has hinted that his administration will change the admissions procedures sometime in the future—not this year—at the five specialized high schools established during the Bloomberg administration, which are not governed by state law: Brooklyn Latin; High School of American Studies at Lehman College; High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; and Staten Island Tech.

The changes would address concerns that declining numbers of black and Latino students are accepted at the elite specialized schools that use the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the sole criterion for admission.

No changes are planned for this year, and the SHSAT given on Oct. 25 and 26 will be basically the same as it's always been. 

Even in the future, it's not likely that the SHSAT will be eliminated for the three older, exam-based specialized schoolsStuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science—because that would require action in Albany. Some legislators have introduced bills to change the 1971 law that establishes the exam as the only admission criterion for these three schools, but the chance of passage appears slim. However, it looks likely that the test itself will change. The city's Department of Education has issued a request for proposals "to provide a standardized testing program which is designed to select students for admission into the specialized high schools." The new test would come into effect in 2015 and proposals are due by Oct. 23, 2014. There is a pre-proposal conference on Sept.29, 2014, at 10:30 am at 131 Livingston Street, Room 610 in Brooklyn.

There's been a rush to sign up for pre-kindergarten in the past few days. Yet, under Mayor DeBlasio's huge pre-k expansion effort there are still some good options among a variety of pre-k choices—regular public schools, charter schools and programs housed in community organizations. (These organizations, such as churches, temples, libraries and YMCAs are called Community Based Early Childhood Centers.) And, even at this late stage, the Department of Education is adding new seats.

For a complete list of programs go to the Department of Education website. To find out if a program still has seats, you'll have to call directly.

Here are some promising new programs that still had seats when we called just before Labor Day. Call first, and then go in person to sign up, bringing your child, their 2010 birth certificate, their vaccination card, and two proofs of residence.

Bronx

St. Johns' Chrysostom is still enrolling. Parents rave about the pre-k in online reviews.

New York City Montessori Charter School in the South Bronx offers a promising vision: hands-on learning that prepares the brain for long-term understanding. There was a wait list with about 10 names when we called.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn Heights/Downtown

PS 307's expanding pre-kindergarten program is attracting children of middle class families in DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights. Students with special needs from throughout the district come for the school's excellent ASD Nest program. Principal Roberta Davenport, who grew up in the nearby Farragut projects, has forged partnerships with city and neighborhood agencies as well as artists and entrepreneurs.

Williamsburg/Greenpoint

PS 120 was called "well developed" on last year's Quality Review, the highest rating the city gives to a school. Although test scores have a ways to go, teachers say Principal Liza Caraballo is a good manager and the school is safe and orderly, with zero bullying, according to school surveys.

Park Slope (District 15)

The Department of Education opened seven new pre-k classrooms at the recently closed Bishop Ford Central Catholic High School. The 126 new seats are reserved for children living in District 15. The seats will now be assigned according to a lottery. The pre-k's will be located at 19th Street and Prospect Park West but the lottery will be held a few blocks away at PS 10, at 511 Seventh Ave. near 17th Street. Applications will be accepted through September 2nd from 9 am–3 pm, and from 6 pm–9 pm Thursday, August 28. They will be announcing weekend hours today. Laura Scott, principal of the highly regarded PS 10, will supervise the Bishop Ford program.

East New York

There is still space at PS 346, which has better test scores than most schools in District 19, a positive climate, and is making improvements each year.

Bensonhurst

PS 212 is a safe school with happy teachers and strong leadership according to school surveys. Teachers create a "comfortable" learning environment at this "well developed" school, according to the city's Quality Review.

Flatbush

PS 361 is an early childhood (pre-k–2) program with a promising new leader who is setting a higher academic bar than in the past in order to prepare children for 3rd grade and beyond. Teachers use points and small rewards to motivate children to do their best and teach character education lessons three times a week. School surveys indicate the school is safe and welcoming.

Manhattan

Lower East Side

PS 188 had three spots when we called. Teachers are overwhelmingly happy with the leadership of Principal Mary Pree and 100 percent of the staff report that the school is safe and orderly.

PS 64 is a small school on Avenue B that serves many children of local Latino families. Dedicated teachers draw out children in group discussions and help them learn to express themselves with ease. The administration has been working to increase the arts, recently adding a new visual arts studio and a new dance studio.

Queens

Astoria/L.I. City

Racially diverse PS 171 is making dramatic academic progress under the leadership of Principal Anne Bussel. The numbers of children scoring a 3 or 4, the highest scores, on the English Language Arts exam, doubled from 2013 to 2014. Attendance has also improved under Bussel's leadership, and most teachers say the school is safe and orderly.

Some of the other programs were filled when we called, but there may be movement in the next week or so. Do get on a waiting list if there's a spot you really want. (Evan Pellegrino contributed to this report.)