When I look back on the full-time job of finding a New York City public high school for my kids, I’m reminded of looking for my first apartment.
Anyone else remember coming to New York City with big dreams and a tiny paycheck? And being shown moldy, tiny apartments, up endless flights of stairs, in neighborhoods no one wanted to visit?
Remember fantasizing about fireplaces, decks and duplexes? Maybe the dreams weren’t even that big. In those early days, I would have happily settled for views of anything other than brick walls, proximity to a subway, and maybe a small washing machine.
Sorry to say that the real estate comparison is valid when you are searching out high schools in Gotham. Your fantasy apartment is out of reach; the perfect high school does not exist.
That is why settling and compromise is often the theme of the popular New York Times real estate column, “The Hunt.”
Just like quality, affordable housing in New York City, a good high school is hard to find—and supply never meets demand.
The good news is, with some caveats and compromise, and of course, a little luck with the ridiculously complicated ranking system and a lot of pushing hard and fighting back, you may be surprised at just how good school city high schools are.
During two somewhat recent and seemingly endless searches, my kids and I found plenty to like in the many schools we visited in Manhattan and Brooklyn. For good old-fashioned real estate reasons (location, and commute) we never ventured to Staten Island, Queens or the Bronx.
We also never considered or visited the many charter schools that are increasingly part of the public school landscape now, even though they could become less of a priority in the next mayoral administration.
Like the dream apartment, the perfect high school, I found, existed inside my imagination only. Endless supplies of money, of course, can buy astonishing real estate, and money can buy the kinds of small classes and stellar facilities only private schools can offer—although I would prefer to see more New Yorkers of means supporting the public schools and pushing to make them better.
Every school we ranked on our choice list had a least a few drawbacks—not enough arts or sports, limited science labs, advanced courses or foreign language choices. Some seemed overwhelmingly large, others so small we knew they couldn’t maintain robust sports teams or theatre productions. It was also hard to gauge the quality of teaching in those quick tour visits.
Still, just as in real estate, there were plenty of conclusions to be drawn about what was acceptable and what was not. So think about what amenities and attributes matter most to you. During the search, talk to lots of kids and parents (and teachers and administrators whenever possible) to learn more about what happens in and out of the building.
And no matter where your child ends up, be prepared to keep fighting for improvements. You can’t have it all, but the more you speak up and help support the school however you can, the easier it will be for the next generation of New York City public school kids and parents.