Applying to high school in New York City can be a full-time job for 8th-graders and their families. Students who don't have an adult to help them have an even harder time navigating the system—and making the most of their options. Now, in two city neighborhoods, an innovative Department of Education program trains students to help each other through the process.

Modeled after a successful high school college access program, the Middle School Success Centers began as a pilot program on the Lower East Side and in Cypress Hills in late 2013, targeting neighborhoods where students could really use the help.

At IS 171 in Cypress Hills, counselors from the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation offer intensive high school choice counseling and training for youth leaders in one of the poorest communities in the city. The middle school youth leaders are trained in a summer program and commit to working with their fellow students during lunch hour and after school to help them understand the admissions process and make good choices on their high school applications. They apply for the job and are paid $50 per month.

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The New York City Department of Education (DOE) just wrapped up their summer-time series of high school admissions workshops, including several that focused on the city's nine specialized high schools. Bronx Science, Brooklyn Latin, Brooklyn Tech, High School for American Studies, High School for Math, Science and Engineering, LaGuardia, Queens High School for the Sciences, Staten Island Tech, and Stuyvesant. Didn’t make it to a workshop? Don’t worry. You can find a recap of the July high school information sessions here, and there will be plenty of opportunities to learn about the specialized high schools in the fall at open houses and at the city- and borough-wide high school fairs

Meanwhile here's a heads-up on what you can be doing this summer to prepare.

If you’re interested in attending one of the eight, test-in specialized high schools, you'll need to take the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test). You’ll also need to study for the SHSAT and if you haven’t done so already, summer is a great time to prep for the exam.

LaGuardia is the only specialized high school that does not require students to take the SHSAT. Instead, students are admitted based on an audition (and portfolio if applying to the art studio) as well as their middle school grades, state test scores and attendance records. Just like taking the SHSAT, students need to prepare for auditions. You can learn more about LaGuardia's audition process on the school's website. This year for the first time a dozen arts schools, including LaGuardia, have common audition components, so you don't have to prepare different auditions for each school. Check page 15 of the high school directory for the participating schools.

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Still looking for a pre-k spot as the July 10 Round 2 deadline looms? Try our new mobile pre-kindergarten search on your phone or mobile device! Many public schools, pre-k centers and early education centers still have room for this year's crop of 4-year-olds. 

Visit Insideschools.org on your phone and you'll be prompted to visit the mobile site for pre-kindergarten. Type in your address and up pops your zoned school and whether it offers pre-k. You'll also see every pre-k option near your home or work, if you type in that address. Click through to read our reviews of public schools that offer pre-k. 

Even if you already received a pre-k offer, you can take advantage of Round 2 which is comprised mainly of new programs that were not listed in Round 1. Like the first round, you can apply online, over the phone by calling 311 or in person at a Family Welcome Center.

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If you've just finished 7th grade, it's time to be thinking about high school!

In addition to a summer reading list for 8th grade, you've got another hefty tome to read over the summer: the 2016 high school directory. At 650 pages, this year's directory, is bigger than ever. It's also online.

Take the time to look through the opening pages which detail the timeline, different admissions methods, types of high schools and factors to consider as you select a high school. If you want more explanation, and an opportunity to ask questions from the folks who make the rules, the Department of Education is offering high school admissions workshops in every borough beginning next week. Enrollment officials will provide an introduction to the high school admissions process including the different the types of programs offered, and give tips on how to fill out your application.

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At one particularly awful moment during my older son's awkward second year in middle school, the principal turned to me as I sat in her office:

"No one goes through middle school unscathed," she said, with empathy.

I tried to laugh, appreciating her sensitivity, but it didn't seem at all funny. In the space of a few months, my formerly angelic child had lost all of his so-called "friends," struck his gym teacher in the head with a ball (accidentally, he insisted, although the teacher begged to differ) and harbored a locker that smelled so foul it should have been condemned.

He'd discovered that cool (read: expensive) sneakers matter, and learned with dismay that most of the girls in his class seemed at least a foot taller. And of course, I wasn't allowed anywhere near the school; we had to designate a meeting place a few blocks away.

That's middle school for you. Middle school hurts, but middle school matters. I had gone to see the principal under the mistaken impression that we were going to have a conversation about math and science. (Tip: When choosing a middle school, find out what math and science courses they offer, including the 8th-grade algebra Regents, or your child could start high school behind in key areas.)

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Tuesday, 23 June 2015 10:38

Pre-k, Round 2: Apply by July 10

Everyone deserves a second chance. If you're not happy with your child's Round 1 pre-k placement, take heart: Round 2 of pre-k admissions is officially open, now through July 10, offering families dozens of new programs to choose from.

Even if you already received a pre-k offer, you can take advantage of Round 2 of the pre-k enrollment process. Round 2 is comprised mainly of new programs that were not listed in Round 1, as well as some sites that did not fill to capacity. The DOE will be adding more programs as they become available. (Check nyc.gov/prek for the latest updates.) As in Round 1, you can apply online, over the phone by calling 311 or in person at a Family Welcome Center. Applications can be updated right up until the July 10 deadline.

A quick look at the Department of Education's Pre-Kindergarten Round 2 Program List showed some interesting additions (and only one closure) with the majority of new programs in Queens. In Brooklyn, we noted 20 full-day seats at PS 112 Lefferts Park, an Insideschools pick and the subject of the 2005 documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom." In District 2, PS 51 Elias Howe and two new schools, PS 340 Sixth Avenue School and PS 343 The Peck Slip School, are housing pre-k centers. (In neighboring District 3, DNAinfo found that there are decidedly fewer options.)

The DOE's pre-k center programs are a central focus of the expansion this year. Exclusively dedicated to serving pre-k students, these free-standing programs are housed in existing schools or leased space and are run by DOE-appointed site coordinators who report to their district's director of early childhood education. All pre-k centers will host open houses in August when families who have been accepted can tour the program, meet staff and register their children, according to the DOE.

Yes, August feels far away. Many parents will be taking a leap of faith this year one way or another, and it's not an easy thing to do when it comes to your child's education. What do you do when you can't tour the school, the program is new and untested, or you are placed in a "failing school"? Aside from reading our reviews when applicable, talking with other parents, and attending any summer open houses, there aren't easy answers. But when it comes to pre-k, it's important to remember that some of the usual rules don't apply. Some things to keep in mind:

1. A failing (or mediocre) school doesn't necessarily mean a failing pre-k. If you're a dedicated Insideschools reader you've gotten used to looking at school surveys, attendance numbers and even test scores. We can tell you from years of combined experience that in many otherwise troubled or so-so schools, pre-k can often be an oasis of skilled teachers, sweet kids and thoughtful programming. Take PS 48 in the Bronx or PS 120 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example. PS 48 has struggled with test scores and discipline in the older grades, but it also has a strong pre-k program in a separate learning annex that our reviewer described as "adorable." At PS 120, where test scores have been low, the pre-k classes we saw had an undeniable spark that was lacking in the upper grades. If you can, take your time to find hidden gems like these. 

2. Pre-k for all doesn't mean pre-k down the block. Who doesn't want to take a leisurely stroll around the corner with their 4-year-old to the best pre-k in the city? We all do, but sometimes you may need to take a train or a bus instead. The city has rolled out an impressive number of programs this year, but mostly where space was available, not where need was highest. Decide on your priorities, and if quality trumps proximity, you may want to open your eyes to great programs further away. 

3. And remember, those wait lists move. As we've said before, you can apply to Round 2 and still remain on a wait list for all the schools you listed above the school your child was assigned to in Round 1. Even as you move forward with other options, an old favorite choice could surprise you with a spot. Stay patient.

Round 2 decision letters will be sent out in early-August. Families will need to pre-register in person with their child and required paperwork by mid-August. In the meantime, good luck and let us know how the process is working for you!

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Q: After we spent a lot of money on test prep and our daughter spent a lot of time studying for the SAT, the College Board messed up the June 6 SAT! So all of our effort is for nothing. What is going to happen? What do you suggest we do?

A: By now, everyone is aware of the problem with the administration of the June 6 SAT: A printing error on test booklets forced the College Board to discard two of the 10 sections. It's bad luck all around, and the College Board will do what it will do to make amends, in this case waiving the fee for students who want to retake the exam. It's not the first time something has happened, and I'm sure it will not be the last.

About nine years ago, the College Board erred in its scoring of hundreds of tests, and students received scores that were anywhere from 100 points or more lower than they actually achieved. And I remember when my daughter was applying to colleges about a dozen years ago, and she needed several SAT Subject Test scores. She took three tests, but only two scores arrived. When we inquired, we learned that the College Board had somehow "lost" her literature essay. "And it's really too bad," said the apologetic College Board service representative, "because she scored well on the short answers!" She had to re-take—at no cost, of course—the entire exam. It's almost inevitable that there will be problems from time to time, especially when dealing with huge amounts of data on a national basis.

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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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