New York City has the the most extensive system of school choice in the country. Everyone must apply to high school—even if you live in one the few remaining areas in the city that still has a zoned high school. Choose carefully. Once you enroll, it’s really hard to transfer.
The year-long admissions process begins at the end of 7th grade, when children bring home a 500+-page high school directory. This huge directory lists more than 400 schools, many containing multiple programs from which you can choose. The Department of Education holds high school information sessions over the summer to walk you through the process. Students and parents typically spend the fall of 8th grade researching options by attending high school open houses and tours as well as the citywide and borough high school fairs.
Filling out your application
To apply, students must complete and submit the citywide high school application, where they may list up to to 12 schools, ranked in the order of their preference. The application deadline is in early December. Students find out their high school placement in March.
Some schools, called screened schools, require high grades and good attendance records. Some of these high schools, like the Bard High School Early Colleges in Manhattan and Queens and Townsend Harris in Queens, are just as selective as the specialized schools. Some accept everyone who lives in their attendance zone. Others accept students by lottery. Others accept everyone who applies.
• 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.
Applying to specialized high schools
In addition to ranking up to 12 schools on the citywide high school application, students may apply to New York City’s nine specialized high schools. These nine schools admit students through a separate, competitive admissions process. Eight of the specialized high schools require students to take an entrance exam called the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). More than 25,000 students take the SHSAT, with roughly 5,000 seats open for 9th-graders and far fewer available for incoming 10th-graders.
The ninth specialized school is LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and Performing Arts. Instead of admitting students based on the SHSAT, LaGuardia selects students based on an audition as well as a review of middle school grades, state test scores and records of attendance.
Students find out if they are offered a seat at a specialized high school in March.
If you are not placed
Every year in March, when high school decision letters are distributed, thousands of children learn they 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. If you are one of the students who is not placed, enlist the help of your 8th-grade guidance counselor (or the person who handles high school admissions, if you attend an independent school). It’s her responsibility to make sure you get assigned to an appropriate school. You will need to reapply to schools during the second round of high school admissions. Before you submit your application, go to the Round 2 high school fair, held in March, where you can meet with representatives from schools that still have space.
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.
You'll have the most luck with the following reasons:
• Travel hardship. If you moved, or your assigned high school’s location moved after you received your offer, and your commute will take 75 minutes, or the school is now inaccessible by public transportation (such as requiring more than three bus or subway transfers).
• Lack of appropriate special education services or accommodations at the matched school. Appeals for students with special needs 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 program.
• English language learners (ELL). If your child is learning English as a new language, you may appeal to be placed in school with an ELL program or a school that serves recent immigrants.
• Accessibility. Appeals are granted to children who need to attend a barrier-free school because of a physical impairment, but were not placed at one.
• 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.
• 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.
• Data entry error. Your guidance counselor made a mistake when submitting your application.
• Zoned school. If your child wants to attend his zoned school, but was placed at another school.
• Current school. If your child applied and was placed at a different school for the fall, but wants to remain at her current school.
You may also appeal for other reasons and explain why you want another school. Was there something 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 an appeal as well.
• June–August: Attend admissions workshops, prepare for specialized high school exam, plan fall schedule for fairs, open houses, auditions and school visits.
• September-October: 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. Attend citywide high school fair.
• October-November: Attend borough high school fairs. Take the specialized high school exam. Continue to attend open houses and school tours.
• December: *Submit high school application to your 8th-grade guidance counselor.
• *February–March: Learn where you have been admitted. Apply in the second round if you were not matched in the first one.
• Late spring: Appeal if you are unsatisfied with your placement.
If you move to New York City mid-year or over summer
If you move to the city after the high school application process is over, you will face some difficulties finding a school. The Department of Education Family Welcome Centers will find you a seat, but the bureaucracy can be infuriating, especially if you arrive during the summer. Try calling schools directly to determine if your child meets their admissions criteria and if there is space available. You'll still have to go through a Family Welcome Center for admittance, but it’s helpful to go in with a list of schools that you know have space and are a good fit for your child. Special registration offices for newcomers open in late August or early September.
Specialized High Schools: If you’re a rising 9th- or 10th-grader who moved to the city after the SHSAT and LaGuardia auditions were held the prior fall, you may still apply. The DOE offers dates in August for qualifying newcomers to take the SHSAT and audition for LaGuardia. You must register for the exam and audition ahead of their designated dates at a Family Welcome Center.