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"By the time we get to college applications, it's going to be so easy,'' friends and colleagues joked over the years, watching -- or participating – in the scramble to find pre-schools, then elementary, middle and high schools for our kids.
Too bad they were wrong.
Starting at age 4, the interviews, tours, tests, essays, letters and lists – it seemed just endless. Yet after years of searching for public schools in a city with more than 1,700 of them, I find myself in the middle of a college search for my oldest child.
And it is anything but easy.
Every year, tens of thousands of 8th graders apply to a tiny handful of super-popular high schools. Naturally not everyone gets in. This year, we decided to highlight some good schools that haven’t suffered from over-exposure. Some require applicants to have good grades, but others accept kids of all abilities.
Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics has quickly become one of the top high schools in the Bronx. It accepts students with a range of abilities—including some with special education needs—and pushes to take demanding courses that prepare them well for college. It has a ton of applicants, but no admissions requirements besides attending an open house.
Bronx Latin is an orderly, happy place with small classes, teachers who have high expectations and students who seem to love their teachers. Alas, it no longer offers Latin. But it offers a safe haven in a poor, sometimes violent, neighborhood. No admissions requirements besides attending an open house.
High School of Computers and Technology, on the Evander Childs Campus, offers a hands-on introduction to computer programming and repair. Students have internships and receive a certificate that enables them to get jobs in computer repair and maintenance. It has lots of applicants, but no admissions requirements besides attending an open house.
Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science has long been a refuge for high-achievers from the South Bronx who are aiming for college. Just about everyone graduates with some college credit and some even graduate with an associate (two-year) degree from Hostos Community College. Applicants should score at least Level 2 on standardized tests and have grades of at least 75.
KAPPA International, in the Theodore Roosevelt Campus, is hidden treasure. It offers a demanding curriculum, including several foreign languages and music instruction, lots of class discussion and assignments that include long research papers. Kids go on to great colleges. No admission requirements besides attending an open house.
Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science teachers have high expectations but they also offer an unusual level of support—such as sending an early-morning text message to a child who struggles with attendance. Almost all students graduate on time, and a few have been admitted to highly selective colleges like Cornell and Brown. No admissions requirements besides attending an open house.
University Heights Secondary School, housed in the old South Bronx High School, has the best of both worlds: it offers the comfort of a small school and the variety of academic options usually found at a large school. Applicants must have grades of at least 75 in core academic subjects.
A lot of the good schools in Manhattan are already very well-known and lots of the good ones have many, many more applicants than seats available. Here are a few that you may not know about.
Central Park East High School offers small classes, an emphasis on writing, and a full-time college counselor who has helped students get into some top colleges. The school has more sports teams than are typically offered at a small school, including a football team made up to students from a number of high schools in northern Manhattan. Applicants must have grades of 75 or above in core academic classes.
Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering is an academically challenging, racially mixed school founded with the backing of Columbia University, which promises to let qualified high school juniors and seniors take courses at Columbia for free. It serves children in grades 6-12. The arrival of new principal, Miriam Nightengale, in 2011 has reinvigorated the school. There are only a few seats for incoming 9th graders. Applicants must have grades of 90 or above in core academic subjects.
East Side Community High School is a vibrant and nurturing school with strong leadership, small classes and supportive programs including a well-funded college office. Applicants should have standardized test scores of at least Level 3 and grades of at least 80.
At the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies on the Seward Park Campus, English speakers learn Chinese and Chinese speakers learn English. All students are expected to be able to speak and write both languages by the time they graduate. Applicants should have grades of 80 or above and standardized test scores of at least Level 2.
Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics offers an impressive selection of college-level courses that’s on a par with the specialized schools. The school does a good job with kids who are strong in math and science but who may need help in English. Applicants should have grades of 80 or above and scores of Level 3 or 4 on standardized tests.
The NYC iSchool offers creative projects, called modules, in which students learn both academic and real-world skills. Students may perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” make a documentary about being 16, or work with architects to design and seek funding for a green roof. Applicants should score Level 3 or 4 on standardized tests and have grades of at least 85 in core academic subjects.
The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School gives students the chance to build boats, sail boats, and even scuba dive as part of an imaginative curriculum designed to prepare them for careers on the water. It has a cool home on Governor's Island and kids and staff even take a ferry to school. No admissions requirements but priority is given to those who attend an info session or fair.
Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, better known as WHEELS, offers lots of hands on learning like rock climbing and overnight camping trips. Most kids start this school in 6th grade but there are some seats for entering 9th graders. No admissions requirements except to attend an open house.
Some new and promising schools include Quest to Learn, Frank McCourt, and Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology. A. Philip Randolph High School has competitive programs in science and engineering and a new principal who is working to restore the school’s reputation after the previous administration was found to have inflated the graduation rate.
A lot of the good schools in Brooklyn are already very well-known and have far more applicants than seats available. Here are a few that may fly under your radar.
High School for Public Service: Heroes of Tomorrow is a Brooklyn gem, posting top graduation rates while also preparing a higher than average percentage of graduates for college-level work. Students must score at least a Level 2 on state math and ELA exams and have a 75 average in core middle school subjects.
The STAR, Science, Technology and Research Early College High School at Erasmus has strong leadership, high academic standards and a good record of getting kids into college. It draws from the Afro-Caribbean community of East Flatbush and most of the teachers and staff reflect the values of that community--"no nonsense" but "in your corner" at the same time. Most successful applicants score Level 3 or 4 on standardized tests
Victory Collegiate, off the beaten path in the South Shore Educational Campus, has a family-like atmosphere and challenging academics. Even though many students enter 9th grade with poor academic skills, most graduate on time. No admissions requirement, although preference goes to student who attend an open house.
Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design on the Van Arsdale Campus has a rigorous curriculum in preservation arts, engineering and architecture, from drafting, mixing mortar and concrete to learning sophisticated computer programs used by professional architects. The school accepts students of all abilities and gets them to succeed.
Williamsburg Preparatory School, also on the Van Arsdale Campus, is a cohesive school with high standards. In their senior seminar, student may write 5- and 10-page research papers on topics like the Vietnam War. It has lots of applicants but no admissions requirements except for attending an open house.
Two new and promising schools: Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) in the Robeson building, prepares students for jobs at IBM. Brooklyn Millennium in the John Jay Educational Campus, is modeled after the very popular Millennium High School in Manhattan.
Many neighborhoods of Queens have good zoned schools and there's less shopping around than in other boroughs. But here are some interestiong options.
At the Academy for Careers in Television & Film, students get professional-level training in film production in addition to regular academics. It has lots of applicants, but no admissions requirements.
At the Academy of American Studies students take history-oriented trips: to Plymouth, Massachusetts when they study the colonial period, to Boston to walk the freedom trail, to Washington D.C. to see the Constitution, and to Gettysburg, for a unit on the Civil War. The school admits students with a range of abilities
Queens Collegiate in the Jamaica Educational Campus has a challenging college-prep curriculum. It has begun to attract students who might once have chosen private schools or better-known public schools. There are no admission requirements but preference is given to students who attend an information session.
High school applications are due on Dec. 10! Here are some final tips for 8th graders and their families who are still mulling over their options.
Filling out the application:
- Be careful when drawing up your list of (up to) 12 high school choices. You don't have to fill in all the slots. Don't list a school you are not willing to attend. If you get assigned to a school you hate, but listed it on your application, it will be very hard to get placed elsewhere.
- Rank your favorite school first. There's no need to play guessing games or set up an elaborate strategy. Schools will not see which students rank them first, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by ranking your top choice number one.
- Don't apply to a school for which you do not qualify. If a school looks for students with a minimum 85 average or above and your GPA is 70, your chances of getting accepted are slim to none.
- If you have a zoned school, it will be printed on your application but you are not guaranteed acceptance unless you list it as one of your choices.
- If you are a "top two-percenter," which counts when applying to educational option schools, this is noted on your application.
- Many large schools offer several programs. If you really want to attend a certain school, apply to more than one program.
- Make sure your parent signs off on your final application. Nobody, including your 8th-grade guidance counselor, should persuade you to add choices without consulting your parent or guardian.
- Keep a copy of your completed application and get a receipt from your guidance counselor when you hand it in.
What to consider when choosing a school
- Admissions criteria: Some schools require an interview, an essay, or the submission of school work. Make sure you've done what you need to do.
- Small school or large? Small schools offer more personal attention and a sense of community. Large schools tend to have more sports teams, clubs and courses. Need help deciding? Watch our video: Weighing your options: Large school vs small school.
- Fast-track or laid-back? Some schools pile on the homework. Other schools have a slower pace and encourage kids to relax a bit. Think about what's best for you. Will you thrive in a rigorous and competitive environment? Or, are you more likely to learn and excel when the pressure's off?
- New school or well-established? It's nice to go to a school with a proven track record. Most new small schools take a few years to develop relationships with college admissions officers, so it can be a gamble to be in the first few graduating classes. However if you're faced with the choice between an overcrowded, failing neighborhood school or a new untested small school, in general, you might be better off going with the small one, if you feel comfortable with the theme and the leadership.
- Theme school or well-rounded curriculum? Be aware that some of the school "themes" exist in name only. The academics should be solid, whatever the theme.
- How long is the commute? Take a subway or bus ride to see if the commute is doable. Think about what it will be like in the rain and snow, or coming home late in the evening after a sports event or a school play. Far too many students discover after a few days of school that they can't handle a long commute. Watch our video: Weighing your options: Long trip vs short trip
- Does your child have special needs? Check out our list of noteworthy special education programs, and watch our video on what to look for when you tour a program. Take a look at the DOE's online guide for high school students receiving special education services; unfortunately the high school directory offers very little help.
More tips for students
- Auditioning? Practice first! Many performing arts and visual arts high school hold competitive auditions and expect applicants to be well-prepared. If you haven't had your audition yet, watch this video: How to apply to an audition school.
- Don't let your friends choose for you. No school can accept every qualified student, so it's likely that friends will attend different high schools. Trust that you will make new friends in high school.
The staff of Insideschools has identified 59 schools that we believe do a particularly good job helping children with special needs reach their potential.
We’ve produced a series of videos that we hope will help parents evaluate their neighborhood schools and learn what special education services may be available. We also have tips on what to do if you have trouble getting the services you need.
We’ve posted three lists, for elementary, middle and high schools. We’ve visited most of these schools and plan to visit all of them in the coming months. These aren’t exhaustive lists and we invite parents, principals and teachers to nominate other programs not included here.
Most of these noteworthy programs are ordinary neighborhood schools that integrate children with disabilities in regular academic classes. Some have two teachers in a class, one of whom is certified in special education. Others have a special education teacher work with children individually or in small groups for part of the day. Some schools accommodate children with limited mobility or physical disabilities; others cater to children who have autism, or dyslexia, or other learning disabilities.
Some of the schools listed here only admit children who live in their attendance zones, but others accept children from across a district or even a whole borough.
Under reforms being instituted by the Department of Education, every school is supposed to serve all but the most disabled children. In reality some schools are more accommodating than others.
If you’re looking for a new school for your child, this is a place to start. If your child is already enrolled, you can use these examples to lobby for better programs in your own school.
Insideschools used several criteria to compile these lists. We consulted with experts who offered their thoughts on outstanding programs. We relied on what we saw in our visits to schools. And we looked at the numbers: percent of students with Individual Education Plans, their test scores and graduation rates. We looked for principals who have a commitment to addressing the needs of all students, notably those with disabilities, and for a depth of services, programs for the hearing-impaired, say, or bilingual classes.
In general, the schools we selected had a substantial percentage of students with special needs, achievement figures at or above the city average for special education programs, and good word of mouth. Not all schools, though, meet all criteria. In addition, we also sought out schools that meet needs other schools neglect. For example, the Lab School and Millennium take high achieving children with special needs that other screened schools shun.
Special thanks to Mellen O’Keefe,Gail Robinson, Dorothy Siegel and Parents for Inclusive Education (PIE) for compiling this list.
We are researching schools for our child who will be entering kindergarten next year. All the reviews I’ve read have been wonderful; the teachers, the principal, kids, parents, new math program. So I was a bit surprised that it had a low grade on the 2011-12 NYC DOE progress report. Cou you could offer any more insight?
Dear Prospective parent,
Your experience confirms ours: don’t judge the school by its letter grade alone. The letter on a school’s report is shorthand for a number of different measures and it helps to have some technical knowledge and persistence to understand it. Your question is a timely one not only for families applying to kindergarten but for 8th graders looking for a high school too. High School Progress Reports for 2011-2012 were released yesterday!
Does size matter when it comes to high school? A November City Limits article makes the case that mid-sized high schools -- those enrolling between 1,000 and 1,300 students -- are the "sweet spot" for students: small enough that students get personal attention, but large enough to offer many sports teams, clubs and a wide variety of courses.
In the years since Mayor Bloomberg and his chancellors have been closing poorly performing schools, they have replaced them mostly with small schools, of fewer than 600 students. They have not replicated some of the most sought-after mid-sized schools, such as the perennially popular Beacon High School in Manhattan, or High School for Telecommunications Arts in Brooklyn. In fact, only 20 out of some 554 New York City high schools enroll between 1,000 and 1,300 students, according to Class of 2013: Life in the "Sweet Spot"," an article written for City Limits by Helen Zelon.
As part of her year-long City Limits series about this year's high school seniors, Zelon profiles four students who attend Telecommunications. They say they appreciate the diversity of their classmates and course offerings -- things they might not have gotten at smaller schools.
This week and next, 8th graders will make their final decision on where to apply to high school. Size is certainly a factor to consider, but their choice mostly comes down to small or gigantic -- not the mid-size "sweet spot" Zelon writes about.
Read the full story on City Limits: Class of 2013: Life in the Sweet Spot: Amid the debate over whether small high schools have fixed—or added to—problems with large city high schools, four students at "Tele" are happy to be stuck in the middle.
The fifth graders, dressed in white shirts and navy slacks or shirts, sit in neat rows as the teacher offers up some basic principles of division. "How can you divide 0 into 64 pieces?" she asks, before telling them to write a definition in their notebook–taking care to write neatly and use complete sentences.
Down the hall, an English teacher offers explicit directions to another group of children. "If you do not have your written material, wait and put your hand in the air," she says. "Every binder should be zipped and standing next to your desk."
This middle school, Brooklyn Ascend in Brownsville, goes beyond academic basics–students read Shakespeare and study art, Spanish and music. But it smacks of discipline and tradition. The school's founder, Steven Wilson, says such routines avoid wasted time.
"We have a tremendous amount of work to do here to overcome deficiencies" that the school's largely low-income, black students arrive at the school with, Wilson says. "Teachers leading very purposeful activities are the way to allow our students to catch up and make a middle-class life."
For almost a decade, schools such as Brooklyn Ascend have represented the face of charter schools in New York City. Overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, they stress academics and discipline in their efforts to push children in the city's most blighted neighborhoods to excel academically.
Now, though, charter schools in Brooklyn have entered a new phase. Led by Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy network is the city's largest and most controversial group of charters, operators have started to open charter schools in more diverse and affluent parts of the city, including Williamsburg, Cobble Hill and Fort Greene. To attract parents in these areas, some schools now stress diversity and a more progressive curriculum...
(Read the rest of this story, "Charters Target Middle Class Brooklyn" on City Limits.)
The Department of Education will make up for the five school days and instructional time lost due to Hurricane Sandy, by taking away several vacation days and offering online classes to middle and high school students who have been severely impacted by the storm.
The February President's Day holiday week will be shortened by three days and elementary and middle schools will be in session all day on June 4, previously slated to be a half-day clerical day, the chancellor announced yesterday in a letter to families.
Today, the chancellor said that middle and high school students who missed even more days of school because they were displaced from their schools or homes, will be offered online courses to help make up for time away from class and to help prevent "learning loss." Online classes will be offered in English, math, economics, calculus, world history and Spanish, according to a DOE press release. The city's libraries will provide internet access to students who need it. The courses will be taught by teachers in iZone, the DOE's program which provides online tools to many schools, and others experienced in online instruction.
Q: We are trying to decide between two high schools for my son, who is a bright and articulate young man with very strong science and math skills. Both high schools stress science. One has been around for 50 years, a "specialized" high school with a very good reputation. The other is one of the newly-organized programs in an old neighborhood high school. Which school will college admissions offices look at better? What are the benefits and negatives of each program?
A: For the benefits of each of these high schools, you ought to go to the information on the individual school page on Insideschools. There is no "right" answer for all students. Which school will involve more commuting? How large are the classes? What is the overall atmosphere of each school?
In terms of college, the answer is this: when college admissions readers look at your son's application, they will look at what he was offered, and what he classes he took.
If, for example, a school offers 15 AP courses, and he took only two, they will not be terribly impressed. They will see a picture of academic fear, even if his grades are strong. They will not compare your son's record, say, at the specialized school with applicants who chose to attend the neighborhood school. They will only look at him in the context of his own school.
To better inform colleges, every high school in the U.S. prepares a document called the profile. A "profile" can range from a slick, full-color brochure to a simple photocopied sheet. But the information contained is always standard: the size of the school, the number of students, the number of teachers, the courses offered, the grading scale used, the percentage of graduates who go on to higher education, and the colleges and universities where the students have been accepted and enrolled. More elaborate profiles will also contain information on average SAT scores, Regents scores, AP statistics, clubs and other extra-curricular activities and any special distinctions the school has earned.
Here are some other questions to consider: What are the average Regents exam scores at these schools? Where have the recent graduates of each school gone on to college? Which school offers more of the extra-curricular activities that will give your son the opportunity to shine? If he is a math-science kid, does the school have a competitive math team?
Beyond looking at college acceptances, remember that your son will be in high school for as long as he will be in college. These are important years, and he should enjoy them. Visit each school and think of where he has the better chance of having an exciting and stimulating and happy four years! It might help him to be able to speak with currently-enrolled students in each school. He has a little more time now that the due date for high school applications has been pushed back a week to Dec. 10.
Eighth graders will have a little more time to explore their high school options after the Department of Education announced Friday it would extend the application deadline until Dec. 10, one week later than the original due date of Dec. 3.
The DOE cited "hardships due to Hurricane Sandy" in an email message to families. Students may list up to 12 schools on their applications and turn them in to middle school guidance counselors by Monday, Dec. 10. This is the latest of several storm-related delays in the application season. This weekend 8th and 9th graders are taking the specialized high school exams, postponed from October because of Hurricane Sandy.
Students may use the extra time to tour schools and go to open houses, which were cancelled or postponed when schools were closed for a week.
Families researching high school options should also check out Insideschools videos about choosing a high school and our new list of noteworthy special education programs. We have posted new reviews and slides shows of dozens of high schools, the latest of which are posted on our homepage.