NYC to make it easier for siblings to stay together in middle school

Middle school students line up outside of their school’s fence as they return to school, all wearing protective masks.
Students at the Bronx Leaders of Tomorrow Richard R. Green Middle School in February 2021. For the upcoming school year, middle school applicants will get sibling priority. (Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

One group of parents might be heartened by a change in this year’s middle school application process: parents of twins or children close in age. 

When middle school applications opened Wednesday, education department officials announced a new policy that makes it easier for siblings to attend the same school. The change applies to students who will start middle school in the 2022-23 school year.

Unlike school systems in most of the nation, New York City families must apply to middle schools, and students can end up traveling far from home. Some parents of twins or with children close in age have complained of logistical headaches of having children at different middle schools. But because many schools had previously screened applicants on grades, test scores, attendance, or other measures, giving preference to siblings had been a tricky proposition.

Now, with middle schools ditching academic screens for the second year in a row and using lottery-based admissions, the education department was able to tweak the process to try keeping siblings together. 

For the current application season, sibling priority will extend to families with children in the same grade or those with fifth graders who have siblings currently enrolled in sixth grade. 

The policy will affect roughly 9,000 out of about 80,000 fifth graders, according to preliminary education department estimates. 

The sibling priority will not extend to applicants with siblings in seventh grade — yet — since those students were admitted to their middle schools under the prior policies using academic screens. The priority, however, will phase in, applying to next year’s fifth graders whether their siblings are in sixth or seventh grade.

Pre-pandemic, 196 middle schools screened students based on measures such as grades and test scores, but the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted learning and upended those metrics. Middle schools will still give geographic priorities, and performing arts schools will be allowed to require auditions for admissions. 

The new sibling priority policy will extend to half-siblings, step-siblings, and/or foster siblings who live in the same household as the applicant, according to education department officials. 

How it will work: families submitting their application through the parent portal will be asked to identify any sixth grade sibling.  Parents of twins or other families with children in the same grade may submit identical applications for those children so they receive offers to the same program. (Before submitting the application for one child, the family will be asked in the  MySchools portal – the website used to apply –  if they would like to add the same application choices as the other.)

Middle school applications are due the week of Feb. 28. Offers will be sent in early May.

The city first piloted sibling priority three years ago for middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15, spanning Cobble Hill to Red Hook and Park Slope to Sunset Park, which previously moved to a lottery-based application system to improve racial and socioeconomic integration.

Upper West Side mom Tiffany James had been lobbying school officials to make the change citywide, hoping her twin fifth graders could stay together next year. When she had first told siblings Gabriella and Mason that they might be separated for middle school, they “broke down crying,” said James, who was considering moving out of the city had the policy not changed. 

“Gabriella and Mason are the very best of friends,” James said. “They really make each other better. They support each other.”

An active member of theP.S. 9 community, James was not only concerned how she would split her involvement –  she was also worried about her children’s emotional wellbeing, especially during the pandemic as the siblings have grown even closer and helped motivate each other. 

“To us, it was like, a middle school transition is hard enough already,” James said. “We really wanted them to have each other nearby.”

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