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High School Unusual: The Singular Frenzy of Applying to High Schools in New York City

Ellen Levitt

Posted on March 16, 2018 14:32

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Young teenagers in New York City have more options (or do they?) for high schools, be they public, parochial, private or charter. So why are a select few applied to by so many?

This week thousands of 8th graders throughout New York City received big news which will steer their lives for the better part of the next four years. Why? These students, most of whom attend public or charter schools, but also many who go to parochial and private, secular schools, have been told which public high schools offered them acceptances.

For many kids, this was a happy occasion, particularly those who earned seats in their first choice schools. But this year only 44 percent of nearly 77,000 applicants received their top choice. And this number has been decreasing by a few points each of the past few years.

This leaves a lot of frustrated and panicky adolescents and their families with a less-than-optimal situation. Not only that, but a significant number of students did not even receive a second or third place match.

The New York City Department of Education, the largest public education system in the United States, serves an immense number of students with varying abilities, talents and interests. There are more than 300 public high schools in the five boroughs of New York. But these schools vary in desirability, and a list of the 20 most popular schools (as measured by the number of applicants) was revealed to the public.

The top six schools this year were the same as last: four are large, comprehensive schools in Queens and two are large, comprehensive schools in Brooklyn. Other schools landing in the Top 20 are also perennially popular (one more in Brooklyn, three in Queens, the rest in Manhattan, none in the Bronx).

Now, while these schools are proud to be coveted, and bodes well for this cohort, what about all the other students AND schools? Is school selection similar to choosing consumer products such as car tires, toothpaste or sliced bread? No.

In addition is a separate, elite group of eight schools that students can only opt for based upon scores earned on a specialized high school test (the "SHSAT,") and this year, as in many years past, the number of African-American and Latino students granted admission to these schools (Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and others) was around 10 percent.

One other big-profile school, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, drew a mixed pool of students, based upon auditions and academic records.

If this seems like a confusing, harrowing, nerve-wracking system that is as nearly complex and elitist as the college selection process, you would not be far from the truth. Do students who gain access to the most selective schools, along with the Top 20, gain much better, more promising educational situations than kids who go to all the other schools? Not necessarily.

There are other schools that are good, but without the high profile. However, there are many others that are plagued by reputations for poor academics, violence, and other serious problems.

The media is covering this and will continue to do so. Inequality still haunts New York.

Ellen Levitt

Posted on March 16, 2018 14:32

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