Busy is the family that has a 5th- and 8th-grader: middle school and high school applications are both due on the same day, Dec. 2!

If you are a parent of a 5th-grader, this may be your first experence with school choice. Options and selection methods vary greatly from district to district. Some districts have mostly zoned schools, others have none and some have a combination. It can be hard for families to figure out.

The biggest change this year for some Brooklyn and Queens districts, is that schools can no longer accept students solely on the basis of their state test scores. Top schools—such as Christa McAuliffe in Bay Ridge or The Academy at PS 122 in Astoria—must now consider other factors such as attendance, lateness and report card grades in addition to test scores. Selective programs for high achievers in other areas—such as Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan, or District 15 in Brooklyn—will maintain the same "screened" application process, that may include interviews and auditions in addition to test scores and report cards.

If you're confused, the Department of Education has laid out some of the changes on its middle school page, listing the new admissions policies (PDF) for middle schools that previously admitted students by test scores. But for particulars, you may want to contact the school.

We've combed the city for good middle schools that are not among the usual suspects—those popular screened and highly competitive programs that everybody applies to. What we found are solid neighborhood and non-selective options in every borough. Now we've updated the list with even more schools.

Overall, we were less concerned with a school’s test scores than with its tone and environment, and the quality of its instruction and leadership. Several on the list serve kids in grades 6–12. These schools seem to do a particularly good job with struggling and average students, and their leaders tend to not fret too much over middle school stats so long as they believe they are laying a foundation for higher achievement in the upper grades. Of course there are topnotch schools that are not on this list, but many of those are the schools that already receive many more applicants than they can accept!

MS 127, Castle Hill School (District 11)

Why we picked it : Stable leadership, collaborative staff and students tackling lengthy research projects

MS 127 serves the full range of students from struggling learners to high achievers and lots of English language learners (native Spanish and Bengali speakers). Longtime principal Harry Sherman has hired a mix of young and more experienced teachers.

MS/HS 223, Laboratory School for Finance and Technology (District 7)

Why we picked it : Schoolwide dual-language program and engaging instruction

Founding principal Ramon Gonzalez has created a cheery, but orderly school with strong and engaging instruction and lots of enrichment and support for all children. Every class has two teachers and serves kids with mixed abilities. Group work and engaging lessons are staples, such as 8th-graders acting out a zombie apocalypse to learn how to calculate the spread rate of an infectious disease.

MS/HS 327 Comprehensive Model School Project (District 9)

Why we picked it : A newly-minted Community School with rigorous academics

Even before becoming part of the city’s Community Schools Initiative, CMS provided students with extended-day instruction in the high school, academic help on Saturdays, free healthcare at an onsite clinic and access to activities such as swimming and dance as well as social services. The school is housed in the New Settlement Community Campus, a sleek, modern facility featuring a swimming pool, dance studio and rooftop garden.

Bronx Latin (District 12)

Why we picked it: A 6-12 school that does a great job of graduating kids on time

Small classes and high expectations are hallmarks of Bronx Latin. Sixth and 7th graders learn Latin; older students get four years of Spanish language.

KIPP Academy Charter School (District 7)

Why we picked it: First school in a successful charter network; it has retained its luster

KIPP Academy Charter School combines challenging academics with an emphasis on building character, persistence, and what teachers call grit.The school has an orchestra and all students learn to play an instrument: violin, viola, cello, bass guitar, piano, xylophone or drums.

Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship (District 8)

Why we picked it : Small school with small classes nurturing for middle-schoolers

Classes at Soundview are small, and students get lots of one-on-one attention. Students start and finish each school day by checking in with an advisory group of 10-15 students and a faculty member typically of the same gender.

South Bronx Prep: A College Board School (District 7)

Why we picked it: South Bronx Preparatory: A College Board School, has changed both behavior and expectations for students in its community

Most students in this 6-12 school come from nearby public housing and have special needs. Classes are small with 2-3 adults in each room. The school focuses on social-emotional growth first, followed by academics.

Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science (District 9)

Why we picked it : Very strong math and science instruction for students of all skill levels

This 6-12 school offers some of the best and engaging math instruction anywhere in the city. Middle school teachers do a good job of serving a broad range of students and take great care to identify stellar students early on in order to give them the support to maintain high achievement through high school.


MS 88 (District 15)

Why we picked it: Strong STEM instruction, lots of interesting programs, School of One math approach

This large Park Slope middle school serves a wide range of students, including those with physical disabilities. The administrators have developed terrific partnerships with outside organizations and students may choose from a wide array of extra-curriculars. Teachers collaborate well with one another.

MS 234, Arthur W. Cunningham (District 22)

Why we picked it : It’s a big, zoned school that works

Cunningham offers something for everyone: high achievers, techies, special needs kids and the 10 percent of the population that is still learning to speak English. It’s old fashioned in some ways: 6th graders learn Latin, and boys and girls sit separately in the cafeteria.

MS 447 (District 15)

Why we picked it: The exploration program and unique scheduling

Though it attracts many high-achievers, the school school does a good job of serving a broad range of studetns including many with special needs. It has a strong teaching staff and inclusive culture, which makes it a natural choice for an ASD NEST program.

MS 577 (District 14)

Why we picked it : Stable teaching staff, positive school culture and math and science teachers stay with kids for two years

This school’s strengths stem from its stable teaching staff and its founding principal Maria Masullo. Students come in with a range of abilities and for the first "marking period" of 6th grade, all students are mixed together.

Christa McAuliffe: (District 20)

Why we picked it : Serves not only top scorers but also children with disabilities

Known widely as a feeder school for the specialized high schools, McAuliffe does a great job with children with disablities. Students in Integrated Co-Teaching classes vastly outperform those in other schools on standardized tests. Students in self-contained classes run a cafe for teachers and cater some school events.

PS/MS 308 (District 16)

Why we picked it: School is making a comeback under new leadership

Principal George Patterson took over in the middle of 2012. The parent coordinator says he "changed this whole school in the blink of an eye." Patterson shifted instruction to more group work and brought in new programs for the wide range of learners and more technology.

IS 228, David A. Moody (District 21)

Why we picked it: Bilingual programs in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Russian; strong Magnet program

This school has had School of One math instruction since 2010 and the principal is enthusiastic about sticking with it. Teachers and staff have adopted Expeditionary Learning and the magnet program is especially strong in music.

Brooklyn Prospect Charter (District 15)

Why we picked it : A well-rounded and diverse school offering lots of personal attention

Brooklyn Prospect attracts students from all over District 15—Park Slope to Red Hook and beyond. It’s a calm and orderly place without a “no excuses” culture. Lengthy projects and hands-on work are staples of instruction. Many classes have two teachers and many middle school students stay on for high school where they can tackle the challenging International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Park Slope Collegiate (District 15)

Why we picked it : A 6–12 school offering kids lots of support

A 6–12 school in the John Jay Educational Complex, Park Slope Collegiate is a progressive school with a laid back atmosphere. Students in all grades get lots of support. Classes run 55 minutes, longer than the typical 42-minute period, and tend to be smaller than the citywide average. Principal Jill Bloomberg and a group of District 15 families worked together to increase diversity at the school, an effort chronicled in a New York Magazine article.

Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (District 15)

Why we picked it : Progressive school with lots of hands-on projects

At Brooklyn School of Collaborative Studies, a 6–12 school, teachers encourage children to explore their own interests, to do lots of independent research and to write the kind of long papers they'll need to master in college.

School for International Studies (District 15)

Why we picked it: School had adopted the International Baccalaureate curriculum for all

Middle school students take French as well as a number of arts classes, with other offerings, such as robotics, embedded in regular classes or given after school.


IS 52 (District 6)

Why we picked it : A nurturing school

This warm and friendly school serves many recent immigrants. Nearly one-third of its students are English language learners. Many teachers give up their breaks to help students outside of class time. Teachers also collaborate to write their own curriculum rather than relying on textbooks with scripted lessons. In 6th grade, reading and writing are taught separately to boost skills; and in 7th grade, classes are split in half to provide more individualized attention. The school takes great pride in its marching band, a rarity for middle schools, and does of good job of engaging parents through community activities.

IS 90 Campus Schools (District 6)

Why we picked it: Great example of schools that share a building, get along and work nicely together

The bulding houses MS 319, MS 324 and KIPP Washington Heights Middle School. The Children's Aid Society runs after school activities and offers healthcare for all children in the buidling. KIPP's 5-8 model means students are taught by subject beginning earlier than most schools;; MS 324 does a nice job of integrating District 75 students in general education classes.

PS/IS 171 (District 4)

Why we picked it: This school benefits from lots of experienced teachers and strong leadership

Dimitres Pantelidis has been principal since 1999. Math and science instruction is strong and teachers keep students engaged with interesting projects, field trips and lots of group work.

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP) (District 6)

Why we picked it : Strong social-emotional support, daily gym and music, top-notch guidance for high school admissions

TEP is a sweet school that serves grades 5–8. It is a welcoming place for English language learners and students with special needs. Students get gym and music instruction every day and lots of social-emotional support.

West End Secondary School (District 3)

Why we picked it: It's a brand new school 6-12 school opening in September 2015 in the old Beacon High School building.

The school's founding principal, Jessica Jenkins is an experienced educator and former District 31 superintendant who founded the successful Marsh Avenue School for Expeditionary Learning on Staten Island--also on this list.


Bell Academy (District 25)

Why we picked it : Strong instruction offered in a caring and close-knit community

Everyone knows everyone else at Bell Academy. Students praise the school for being a friendly community. Teachers are skilled at serving a range of students and encouraging class discussions that hold students’ interest; they place lots of emphasis on current events.

Hunter’s Point Community Middle School (District 30)

Why we picked : Students harvest oysters, become skilled debaters and meditate daily

Children are gentle and kind to one another at this diverse, small school that opened in 2013. "If you want to find kids who represent the whole city, you'll find them here," said founding principal Sarah Goodman. To help students manage stress and stay focused, there are four brief periods of daily meditation.

Village Academy (District 27)

Why we picked it : A cheery and nurturing school with an energetic and diverse teaching staff

This small middle school in Far Rockaway is bursting with energy and ambition. All students take a double period of humanities where they explore topics such as ancient civilizations. Children participate in a "mastery" program on Friday afternoons that offers options such as African drumming, dance and martial arts. There's an honors track for faster learners.

MS 74 (District 26)

Why we picked it: A very large school with a nice collaborative culture among the staff

The school has a strong arts program. Sixth-graders have the same teacher for English and social studies which helps ease 6th-graders' transition to middle school.


IS 75 (District 31)

Why we picked it : Extra math instruction for all students, strong special education programs, low teacher turn-over

At this large, neighborhood school people are friendly and principal Kenneth Zapata knows the students well. Students have eight periods of weekly math instruction, more than typically offered in city schools. Eighth-graders who struggle with math or reading are assigned to small classes of 15 students. IS 75 was the first middle school on Staten Island to offer an ASD NEST program for high-functioning students on the autism spectrum.

Marsh Avenue School for Expeditionary Learning (District 31)

Why we picked it : A friendly, vibrant school with lots of hands-on, interesting projects that tie in all subjects

This school is a friendly place that provides creative and sophisticated instruction to students of all skill levels. Delivering on its name, the school uses the Expeditionary Learning curriculum where students study topics deeply and across multiple academic subjects.

What hidden gems did we miss? Please share your finds in the comments below!