How to enroll in high school
Weighing your options: close or far?
Next consider: large or small?
Making the most of the high school fair
How to apply
New York City is blessed and cursed by the most extensive system of school choice in the country. Everyone must apply to high school. Choose carefully. Once you enroll, it’s really hard to transfer.
The yearlong application process begins at the end of 7th grade, when children bring home a 500-page high school directory. This huge tome lists more than 400 schools from which you can choose. The Department of Education holds high school information sessions over the summer, where you can get a head start on the admissions process. Here is a timeline of what to expect:
- June–August: attend admissions workshops, prepare for specialized high school exam, plan fall schedule for fairs, open houses, auditions and school visits.
- September: register for specialized high school exam or audition for LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. Attend open houses. Go on school visits.
- October-November: attend high school fairs. Take the specialized high school exam. Continue to attend open houses and school visits.
- December: submit high school application to your 8th-grade guidance counselor.
- February–March: learn where you have been admitted.
- Late spring: appeal if you are unsatisfied with your placement.
NOTE: If you move to the city after the high school application process is over, you will face some difficulties finding a school. By summer, most of the desirable schools have filled their seats. The Department of Education enrollment offices are supposed to find you a seat, but the bureaucracy can be infuriating. Try calling schools directly: sometimes a seat opens up in the summer or even early fall. You'll still have to go through an enrollment office for admittance. Special registration offices for newcomers open in late August or early September. Another possibility: there is an exam at the end of August for the specialized schools, just for students who moved to the city too late to take the October exam. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts also offers auditions in August. See our section on New to New York City.
Weighing your options: close or far?
The first thing to consider is whether you want a school close to home or far away. Tip: check out the commute before you apply. Imagine what it will be like on a dark, snowy day in February. Some students happily travel halfway across the city to attend a school they really love. But beware: if you are constantly late to school, you won’t do well academically. And you may suffer from chronic fatigue.
Next consider: large or small?
Next consider whether you want a school that is large or small. Large schools have more courses, sports, arts programs, foreign languages. But you’ll get more personal attention at a small school, where everyone knows your name. The college office may be better at a small school, because there are so many fewer students to deal with.
Fast-track, or a more relaxed paced? How much homework can you handle? Fast-paced schools may have three or four hours of homework a night, as well as long projects to complete during school vacations. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for fun, but it may prepare you well for college. Other schools believe it’s more important to study a few subjects in depth than to race through the curriculum. Some kids want time for sports, performing arts or simple relaxation. For these students, a school with a more relaxed pace is better. Beware: If you plan to go to college, beware of schools that don’t offer a college prep curriculum. Some schools only offer three years of math and three years of science, for example, while selective colleges require four years of each.
What are the specialized high schools? More than 25,000 students take the specialized science high school entrance exam (SSHAT) to vie for 5,000 seats at the specialized high schools, also called the exam schools. The exam is given early on a Saturday morning in October. (There are nine specialized high schools; eight use the entrance exam. The ninth specialized high school is LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and Performing Arts, and entrance is by audition.) The exam schools are:
- High School for Math Science and Engineering at City College
- Bronx Science
- Brooklyn Tech
- Brooklyn Latin
- High School of American Studies at Lehman College
- Queens High School of Science at York College
- Staten Island Technical School
Some kids study for years to take this exam. The city offers a free test prep class for eligible students, called the DREAM Specialized High School Institute, which begins in sixth grade.
Audition schools are among the most popular. Auditions are held in the fall. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, one of the specialized schools, is the most selective. Some children prepare for these auditions at the Summer Arts Institute, a free four-week program. When you tour the school, don’t forget to check out the academics. Even a star actor needs to take algebra and biology!
Here are some of the audition schools:
- Talent Unlimited
- Frank Sinatra
- Celia Cruz
- Professional Performing Arts School
- Gramercy Arts
- Brooklyn High School of the Arts
Some large neighborhood schools offer topnotch arts programs and also require an admission. Some examples are:
- Forest Hills
- Fort Hamilton
There are hundreds of other schools in the city from which to choose. You may list up to 12 schools on your application. Some schools, called screened schools, require high grades and good attendance records. Some accept everyone who lives in their attendance zone. Others accept students by lottery.
Some of these high schools, like Bard High School Early College, Townsend Harris in Queens, Hunter College High School and Beacon, are just as selective as the specialized schools. Others accept everyone who applies. Some tips:
- Screened schools care about your attendance. Good attendance in 7th grade is crucial.
- Be sure you are eligible to attend a school before you put it on your list. If you live in Brooklyn, don’t list a school that only accepts Manhattan students. If your grades are poor, don’t list a school that only accepts kids with grades of 90 or above.
- Don’t list a school you are not willing to attend. If you are placed at a school you originally listed, it’s very hard to appeal.
Career and Technical Education (CTE) schools offer students a certificate that demonstrates they have mastered certain jobs skills as well as a regular high school diploma. These certificates are in fields such as agriculture, business and marketing, health occupations and computer technology. Students who may plan to work directly after high school may want to consider a CTE school.
Making the most of the high school fair
Every fall, the Department of Education holds a huge high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School. You can meet teachers, students and administrators and find out about their schools. Questions you may want to ask:
- How much homework is typical? Is homework assigned over school vacations?
- Are students allowed outside the building for lunch?
- Does the school offer four years of math and four years of science? (Important for college prep.)
- How does the administration handle discipline?
- How does the school help students who are struggling?
- How does it challenge the strongest students?
What to look for on a tour
It's a good idea to tour a school before you apply. Some schools offer daytime tours, when you can see classes in action, while others give “open houses” in the evening. Although daytime tours are best, you can tell a lot about a school even from walking through an empty building. Safety is everyone's first concern. Metal detectors, signs announcing "no weapons allowed" and locked bathroom doors are troublesome signs. Friendly security guards are a good sign. Look for lots of books in classrooms and student work on walls. Bare classrooms are a bad sign, although in a large school many teachers of different subjects may share a classroom and may not post work. Desks in rows signal a traditional school, where the teacher does most of the talking. Desks in a circle or in groups signal a school where kids are expected to have speak up and work together in groups. Either approach can work well, but some kids need the structure of a traditional school, while others relish class discussions.
If you are not placed
Every year, thousands of children are not placed at any of their high school choices—usually through no fault of their own. There simply aren’t enough good schools for all the students who want to attend them. If you are one of the students who is not placed, enlist the help of your 8th grade guidance counselor. It’s her responsibility to make sure you get assigned to an appropriate school. You will need to go to the supplemental high school fair, held in March, and fill out your application one more time. If you are assigned to a school you really don’t like you may appeal.
How to appeal
If you are placed at a school that is inappropriate, ask your guidance counselor to file an appeal. While the initial placements are made by computer, human beings handle the appeals. Your guidance counselor may write a letter explaining why you need a different placement: get her on your side.
Reasons for an appeal You'll have the most luck with the following reasons:
Change of address, also known as "transportation hardship" (Your new address is at least 75 minutes distance from school. Or, the school's new address is at least 75 minutes from your home.)
Medical issue - you'll need documentation from your doctor showing that you have a medical condition that could keep you from attending your assigned school.
Lack of appropriate special education services or accommodations at the matched school. Appeals for special needs students are granted primarily for students who need a specialized program that the assigned school doesn't offer, such as an ASD program for children on the autism spectrum, or a District 75 programl.
Data entry error - your guidance counselor made a mistake when submitting your application.
Desire to attend one of the new small high schools (if the school's formation was announced after the official application process)
Safety - you'll need documentation, such as a police report or order of protection, to show why it would be unsafe for you to attend the assigned school.
There is also a category for "other" appeals, a catch-all category where you'll get a chance to explain why you want another school. This is the place to bring up anything that was missing from your first application, such as a big leap in your grades. Or, maybe you'd prefer to stay at your present 6-12 school than go to the school that accepted you. If the school to which you were assigned does not have a college-preparatory curriculum, or advanced academics, that may be grounds for appeal as well.