A prep program for high-achieving, low-income middle school students aimed at bettering their chance for acceptance to one of the city's specialized high schools is open to both 6th and 7th graders this year. Previously the Specialized High School Institute (SHSI) 16-month prep course began only in the spring of 6th grade and continued until students took the test as 8th-graders in October.

The Department of Education issued new guidelines for the program now called DREAM - SHSI. Despite concerns that the program would be curtailed because of budget cuts, the DOE expanded it, from 10 sites to 18 to include both 6th-graders and a new class of 7th-graders. Seventh-graders will get twice weekly prep classes this spring and 38 sessions between July and October when they take the exam for entrance into one of eight specialized exam schools.

"It's a good thing because now there are multiple entry points," said Stanley Ng, a Brooklyn parent and member of the citywide high school parent council. Some parents don't hear about the program in 6th grade, he said, and now they may have another chance to enter.

Time is short to apply. The deadline to submit paperwork is Feb. 28, just two days after the winter break. Schools should have a list of eligible 6th and 7th graders, but some students could miss out on the chance to apply if they have not filled out free lunch forms. Many schools with a high poverty rate don't require all families to fill out lunch forms. Those families must get an income verification form from their school and submit it by Feb. 28. Private school students may also apply. They should download the application and income form and return by March 2.

Students invited to attend the program must meet economic and academic guidelines. They must be eligible for free lunch, have good attendance, and test at Level 3 or 4 on state exams (exact cut-off numbers are posted on the DOE's website).  Since there are more eligible children than there are slots in some areas of the city, the DOE will conduct a lottery to determine who may attend.

Seventh-graders who join the program now will get approximately 38 prep sessions before the October exam. Sixth-graders will be in the program for 16 months, attending weekly sessions from April to June, Monday-Thursday sessions in July and August and twice weekly sessions during the next school year.

DREAM - SHSI (stands for Determination Resilience Enthusiasm Ambition and Motivation) is overseen by the DOE's Office for Equity and Access headed by Dr. Dorita Gibson.