The High School Application Process: Time to Reform a Dense, Unfriendly System That Serves Neither Schools Nor Families

The dirty little secret is that the ability of the kids defines the success of the school.
Good teachers, time for collaboration, curriculum, resources, and, of course, school leadership all add to the equation, however, it all begins with the innate ability of the kids.

Schools in Bayside all receive “A”s on their Progress Reports while schools inBrownsvillereceive “C”s, “D”, and “F”s, Bayside does not have better leadership or better teachers, and it’s an upper middle class neighborhood. Zip code defines school success. Schools alone cannot overcome the stain of poverty.

What you don’t learn in the Leadership Academy is the importance of recruiting the best students, meaning as many Level 3 and 4 kids, as possible. You develop relationships with guidance counselors, burnish your school’s reputation, dig up dollars for a glossy brochure, and have a friend create a website with bells and whistles, churn out press releases to the local press and maximize the quality and number of applicants to your school.

An unanticipated consequence of an accountability driven system.

On December 2nd high school applications are due to counselors.  Knowledgeable parents have been perusing the high school directory, attending high school fairs, poring over the “Inside Schools” website, attending school Open Houses and trying to figure out how to game the system to get their kid into that school with kids similar to their own, i.e., Level 3 and 4 kids.

There are over 450 schools and programs all packed into the voluminous high school directory and the high school application section of the DOE website.

The Department proudly asserts that the process is a system based on “equity and choice.” You decide.

If a school is across the street from your house your chances of being assigned are the same as a kid living on the other side of the borough.

The System:

* Each 8th grader submits, by December 2nd a high school application with up to twelve choices.

* Schools receive lists of applicants in January, a list of names with no academic info, and “ranks,” applicants – the “rule of thumb” is to rank 5x the number of available seats.

* Schools “declare” the number of anticipated seats for the entering class – based on experiential data.

* The computer spins and matches ranked choices on the student application to the school rankings. If a student ranks a school  # 1 and the school also ranks the students the student is accepted, unless there are more applicants in this category than seats. If so, the computer spins and selects randomly.

The system is more complicated – there are many more nuances. Bottom line: the “desirable” schools receive many times more applicants than seats; thousands of applicants for a few hundred seats. Some schools do not fill their seats and the department fills with over-the-counter kids in September – frequently lower achieving kids.

Screened, Unscreened and Zoned Schools:

Most schools are unscreened, the computer, based upon the selection algorithm, selects the students. If you look at an entering class of let’s say 100 kids they may come from fifty different zip codes scattered across the borough and some from other boroughs.

There is a proliferation of screened schools, schools that get to select their students. Why are some schools screened? The department mumbles to provide a gifted school choice within a community, in reality, politics. Screened schools usually have much lower numbers of Title 1 eligible, i.e., poor, kids than surrounding schools.

Large high schools have designated zones – if a kid puts a zoned school # 1 s/he is guaranteed a seat in that school. Zoned schools frequently have programs within the schools to which any student can apply. Some are screened, others unscreened.

In the spring kids will receive their assignments – over 90% will be placed in round one – with subsequent rounds for kids who aren’t placed.

Some kids are not placed and are assigned by placement centers (aka, over-the-counter) at the opening of school.

Only the department, and families that receive their number one choice, are happy with the system.


Every school should have a zone. If you live within half a mile of a school you should be able to go to that school. Community is important. Schools are parts of neighborhoods; if few kids live in the neighborhood the schools are alien to the community. When virtually every kid attending a school has to travel 30, 45, 60 minutes to get to school the kid’s connection to the building is transitory.

Attending elementary, middle and high schools in the same community builds ties, allows for community services to work with families, it creates a village.

Rethink Screened Schools:

Screened schools are political creations. Some neighborhood had the political clout to create a school for their kids. Yes, schools should be able to create special programs to give families choices, but, to create screened schools is divisive to the system at large.

Train Middle  School Counselors.

In the pre-Klein days every district had a guidance supervisor, among their tasks was to monitor and train counselors. In the “region” days of the early Klein years students and family support services were part of the region; this included the training of counselors. The networks do not have the capacity to provide support for filling out the high school application, and in too many cases the counselors don’t fully understand the system.

Do We Really Need 450 Schools and Programs?

The closed and redesigned high school buildings currently house between four and eight schools each; frequently the schools are in different networks with different support systems. Does this make sense? The department, probably under the next mayor, should take a close look – do programs within a building make more sense than many hundreds of small schools? Shouldn’t all the schools/programs in a building work under the same support organization?

The economic chaos of the last few years has driven many parents out of private schools into the public schools, only to find an incredibly dense system.

How do I get my kid into Beacon? Well, for most parents you take your chances with the masses (unless you’re a former governor).

How do I decide from among the glossy names and brochures? It ain’t easy – especially when the school name does not describe the school.

All kids need the same 44 high school credits to graduate, and, at most, the theme of the school means a few elective courses in the senior year.

The Bloomberg administration is totally wedded to the current system. Ironically a smart mayoral candidate could make the reform of the high school application/selection process an issue in the 2013 election.


2 responses to “The High School Application Process: Time to Reform a Dense, Unfriendly System That Serves Neither Schools Nor Families

  1. Pingback: Remainders: Comparing old and new schools that could close | GothamSchools

  2. Peter:
    What will those 25 Bureaucrats at Tweed do without the High School application process?


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