New York City extends school application deadline, adding to an admissions cycle full of change

New York City is extending its high school application deadline by nearly two weeks, to Dec. 14, amid snafus with the application website. The city made the announcement Wednesday, just days before the original Dec. 3 deadline.

The last-minute change is just the latest in an application season full of them, adding to an already complicated, controversial process that many critics say contributes to city’s status as one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

“Parents have so much more to deal with,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their options. “Everything is new, and it’s not intuitive, and it’s not easy to figure out, and information in the system — it’s not correct sometimes, and sometimes it’s missing.”

That information is key to navigating New York City’s vast school system, which provides an unusually wide degree of school choice. Families apply to high schools, and some districts don’t have attendance zones for middle schools, meaning families have to rank their top choices. A quarter of middle schools and a third of high schools select their students based on past academic performance and other factors.

Parents and school counselors have been reporting glitches with MySchools, the new website the city launched this year to handle middle and high school applications. Guidance counselors say the switch cuts them out of a process where their advice can be crucial, especially to students who might otherwise be bewildered by the choices. (Although students can still submit paper applications at their schools, some counselors report the online portal makes it harder to monitor students’ progress.)

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said the extension “doesn’t have to do” with the technical problems and “is in line with what we’ve done in the past.” He downplayed the deadline change. “Families were previously able to submit their applications” after the due date, he noted. “Now that the system is online,” the city is simply “formalizing” such leeway. The department has “received roughly 4,000 more applications” compared to this time last year.  

But an onslaught of changes this year has introduced many new admissions factors — and left many students and parents anxious and frustrated about a process that is complex in the best of circumstances.

State test scores were released about a month later than usual, leaving some families unsure about what options were realistic, since the results guide admissions decisions at many schools. One sought-after Manhattan high school changed its admissions criteria just this month. A high school fair, one of the main informational events for parents and students, took place in every borough this fall — another departure since the education department previously held one massive, main event for applicants and their families. A program was expanded to help more black and Hispanic students earn admission to the city’s coveted specialized high schools — prompting protests. And two school districts passed integration plans that affect middle school admissions.

“So many things have happened this particular year,” said Elissa Stein, the founder of High School 411, a service to help parents navigate the application process. “It’s just about going to school. It shouldn’t be this complicated and hard, and this stressful.”

The application process varies by school, but it often necessitates open house tours, entrance exams, or interviews, and students ranking their choices. The different deadlines and requirements can be hard to keep track of or even track down.

While some families can pay for private consultants, others who are pressed for time or lack the social connections to understand the often opaque process — or haven’t been following all the changes — can get left behind. Research has shown, for example, that even high-achieving middle schoolers in struggling schools tend to apply to high schools with lower graduation rates.

Many of this year’s changes were implemented in hopes of making information more readily available and the application process simpler and more accessible  — and boost diversity. There have been bright spots: Watson, the Let’s Talk Schools founder, praised the education department for collecting open house data on a central calendar for the first time.

“We’ve improved the amount and quality of information available to students and families,” Cohen, the education department spokesman, wrote in an email. “We’re working closely with school communities to ensure that families are able to find the school that best meets their needs.”

Still, critics wonder if the moves will only exacerbate racial, ethnic, economic, and academic divides, as once again, those with the money and time to devote to understanding the changes or working through any snafus will be advantaged.

While education department leaders hoped the new MySchools online portal would ease the application process, many have said it puts families without internet connection at a disadvantage. And though the additional high school fairs were meant to make them more accessible to families, Stein said not all schools showed up to all fairs.

“Even plans with the best intentions, unless you think of the entire demographics of the city and make sure everyone is being served, it’s not helping,” Stein said.  

Frustrated by the maze of fractured, incomplete, and overwhelming information, students with the advocacy group Teens Take Charge recently took red pens to the thick high school directory. They marked all the clubs and classes the students hoped to take in their new high schools — only to find out after enrolling that perks like college classes, step club, and band were no longer offered.

The group has been pushing the education department to include more updated information in the books, which can be the main guide for low-income and immigrant students trying to decide which school to attend. The teens have also asked for more relevant statistics, like whether a school’s high school graduates are considered ready to take college-level courses.

“Fixing the directory and making sure it’s accurate — that can be transformational,” said Coco Rhum, a senior at Beacon high school who is a member of Teens Take Charge. “It goes back to this idea of the privilege of having certain information and the capital that some families have.”

There have been efforts, both grassroots and research-based, to improve the information that’s available to parents and students — and to help make New York City’s school choice system more manageable and fair.

Researchers recently found that whittling down students’ options can increase their chances of getting into a high school with a higher graduation rates — especially if those students come from households where English is not the main language spoken.

In districts that are hoping to see more school integration, parents and education leaders have taken matters into their own hands to spread information to families. For these districts, changing the information that parents receive about schools has been seen as key to making their integration plans work. Since families will still apply to the schools of their choice, demographics will only change if parents are willing to consider a wider range of options.

District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park, tweaked middle school admissions this year, eliminating the use of selective “screens” such as students’ past test scores or a performing arts auditions. There, parents are working to land money through the city’s participatory budget process, which allows residents to vote on local projects, to create a robust online portal with virtual school tours, principal interviews, and other information in multiple languages.

In District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, students who come from low-income families or struggle in school will receive an admissions preference for middle schools. School leaders there have printed their own version of the middle school handbook — leaving out any references to test scores in favor of descriptions of what types of enrichment programs are offered, like advanced courses and field trips. The district also poured money into making sure all schools have a website, and posted short videos online of principals talking about their schools.

The goal was for schools to “get their names out there,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who pushed for the integration plan. “Let’s make sure that people at least know what these schools are.”

Brian Zager, the principal of Lafayette Academy middle school in District 3, said he has seen a real difference this year. His school serves mostly black and Hispanic students, but Zager said he has seen a more diverse group of parents show up for his school tours — and the sheer number of interested families has grown. Zager said they’re often surprised to learn of his school’s track record of sending students to high-performing high schools, and that many students take and pass algebra courses.

“It kind of pops the bubble that they had a preconceived notion of what these schools are, and what the diversity looks like, and what the rigor looks like,” Zager said. “It’s more like clearing up the fog, and I think its been eye opening.”

Advocates realize that filling information gaps is just one part of making integration a reality, especially since research has shown that parents sometimes make school decisions based on race.

“The second part is, let’s make sure all these schools are inclusive and welcoming,” Berger said. “And that’s obviously the harder, longer burn.”

Reema Amin contributed to this report. 

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that all students must submit a middle school application.