The High School Choice Process Has Begun

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So many parents and students showed up at a high school information session at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn on a Tuesday night in July that those who arrived even a few minutes late were directed to the school’s cafeteria to watch a simulcast of the presentation.

While in other parts of the country rising eighth graders focused on fun and relaxation during the summer, in New York City these students were gearing up for one of the most intense times of their young academic careers, the process of applying to high school. Because students here can apply to any of the city’s 400 high schools and 600 programs, the admissions process is daunting, and it is already underway.

By December, the students must hand in an application listing up to 12 schools they would like to attend. Whether those schools will accept them is another matter.

Last year, the Department of Education sponsored seven information sessions in the summer to help parents and students become familiar with the long process. This year they held 15, three in every borough during July and August.

Clearly, parents and students were hungry for the information, because many sessions were full.

At LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, Elizabeth Sciabarra, the former chief executive of student enrollment for the Education Department, told the audience that the search for a school could provide a “bonding experience for you and your child.”

She encouraged parents to research but to include their children in the decision-making because they are the ones who will need to be happy at the school they pick.

At Stuyvesant High School, the auditorium was crowded for an August session on screened and audition programs, and the conversations among parents and children reflected the high stakes of the process. On their way in, a parent nudged his eighth grader to consider schools besides LaGuardia, which requires an audition, and another eighth grader prodded his siblings about details of the Trojan War.

At New Dorp High School on Staten Island, parents streamed into the cavernous and sweltering auditorium one July evening to listen to the parent coordinator for Staten Island Technical High School, a selective specialized school, and an Education Department representative. Many parents took notes or waved their hands to ask questions after the prepared remarks.

The auditorium at Long Island City High School in Queens was packed tight with families in July even before the 6:30 p.m. start. After the presentation began, a steady stream of parents and children continued to flow into seats in the auditorium’s balcony.

Several Spanish and Mandarin interpreters were on hand to simultaneously translate the presentation for parents; their voices were transmitted from small microphones they wore to headsets doled out to parents in need of the service. So many parents required headsets that the supply almost ran out.

This is what the parents learned about what they must do to prepare for picking a high school:

  • Now that they have attended information sessions, students should be preparing for specialized high school exams in October, and begin filling their calendars with dates of school fairs, open houses, auditions and school visits.
  • In September, they should register for the specialized high school exam if they are going to take it, or auditions for schools like Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts.
  • On Sept. 24 and 25, a broad selection of schools and information is available at the Citywide High School Fair at Brooklyn Technical High School, 29 Fort Greene Place, in Fort Greene.
  • Most individual school fairs are in October and November. The specialized high school exam is in October. There are more open houses and school visits.
  • In December, students should submit their official high school application to their eighth-grade guidance counselor.
  • They will learn in February where they have been admitted.
  • In the late spring, those students unhappy with their placements -- or those who were not placed at all -- can submit an appeal.

Parents and students asked about the fine points of the admissions process, like: What if there is one slot left at a specialized high school and more than one student earned the same grade on the admissions test?

Answer: They would both get in, Ms. Sciabarra told the student who asked the question at LaGuardia's orientation meeting.

Another question: Do specialized high schools have different cut-off scores?

Answer: Yes, it depends on the number of seats available at each school and how the students rank the schools. "We don't publish the cut-off scores, because it would cause mass confusion,'' said Peter Helfman, who works for the Education Department's enrollment office in Staten Island.

Many parents said they welcomed the chance to meet with school officials to ask their questions.

"They explain it pretty good,'' said Tracy Sims, whose son, Jason Hicks, 13, will be an eighth grader at Intermediate School 49 Berta A. Dreyfus in Staten Island. She said she was concerned that they did not live near a bus line that would take her son directly to Staten Island's selective high school. "I have to talk to the parent coordinator and explain all that,'' Ms. Sims said.

Dorothy Sweeney was also at the Staten Island session and said she was looking for a school for her twin daughters, Jessica and Melanie, who both attend I.S. 61 William A. Morris in Staten Island. "We're going to apply to Stuyvesant and Staten Island Tech,'' she said. "My husband works in Brooklyn, so they could do either one. If need be, they will take public transportation.''

Reporting was contributed by Jessica Bell, Jessica Campbell, Christina Diaz and Rachel Ohm.