Match day: High school offers bring excitement and anxiety to NYC’s eighth graders

A photo from behind four high school students walking down a well lit hallway with a brick wall on the left and windows on the right.
Thousands of New York City eighth grade students anxiously awaited their high school placements on Thursday — one of the final steps in a notoriously complex admissions process. (LumiNola / Getty Images)

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For years, Anthony Block De Jesus, an eighth grader at the School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Brooklyn, has been dreaming of a career on Broadway.

He’s hopeful that he’s on his way: He learned on Thursday he’d been admitted to the vocal performance program at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, as well as the theater program at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn — two of his top ranked choices in the application process.

“The two choices are so strong, and so good, and have so much promise for a kid that wants to do Broadway, so he cannot go wrong,” said Monica De Jesus, his mother. “It’s a real blessing to us.”

Anthony was one of the thousands of eighth grade students across the five boroughs anxiously awaiting their high school placement on Thursday — one of the final steps in the city’s notoriously complex admissions process.

High school matches came months after eighth graders had narrowed down the city’s more than 400 high schools with 700 programs to roughly a dozen top choices. Some schools have extra hurdles for admissions such as essays or portfolios. And then there are the eight specialized high schools where a test is the sole basis for admissions, and LaGuardia, the famed performing arts school whose audition and application process is separate from other arts schools.

Families often describe the admissions process as stressful and confusing to navigate. It can also feel inequitable, as those with more resources can afford to hire consultants and tutors, while devoting more time to touring and evaluating the many options.

Still, the results can be exciting as students look ahead to their time in high school.

Marcia Abrams said she and her daughter Nomarra, an eighth grader at the Brooklyn Green School, were “happy and confused” after receiving their offer. They immigrated to the city about two years ago from Guyana, and it’s been difficult to make sense of the city’s many schools, Abrams said.

Nomarra, who wants to be a lawyer, said she was nervous throughout the admissions process. But she was thrilled to learn she’d been admitted to both of her top choices: Brooklyn Technical High School and Midwood High School.

“It’s hard to choose between the two,” Nomarra added.

NYC’s high school admissions process is notoriously complicated

There are a host of factors that come into play for admissions. Students receive a random number, often referred to as a lottery number, which admissions experts say is used as a sort of “tiebreaker” if there are too many eligible students vying for the same seat. For selective schools, the city also uses seventh grade GPAs to sort students into different tiers for admissions priority.

More than 40 high school programs also participate in the city’s “diversity in admissions” program, setting aside a certain percentage of their seats for students from low-income families or in temporary housing, for instance. Students with disabilities are also admitted through a different round than general education students.

The city’s Education Department did not immediately share the percentage of students who were admitted to their top choice schools, nor did they release demographic data on students admitted to competitive screened schools or the highly selective specialized high schools.

Last year, of the roughly 73,000 high school applicants, nearly half were admitted to their top choice school, while about 75% were admitted to one of their top three picks. About 95% of applicants were admitted to one of the 12 schools they ranked in their application, according to city data.

About 26,000 of last year’s eighth graders took the exam for the city’s specialized high schools, with roughly 4,000 of them getting offers based on the test, and once again the number of Black and Latino students remained small. Just 3% of the offers last year went to Black students, and 6.7% went to Latino students despite those students making up about 65% of the city’s school system.

Mixed emotions on match day

For families across the city, Thursday’s news brought a mix of tears and excitement. Many have already turned to waitlists — which students are automatically added to for all programs they ranked higher than the one they received an offer to — as “beacons of hope,” said Elissa Stein, an admissions consultant who runs High School 411.

But she added it’s often a “long shot” to receive an offer through the waitlist.

Some families also found a sense of relief in knowing the outcomes. In anticipation of their offer letters, some parents commiserated in social media groups the night before over the immense stress— sharing clips of songs that expressed the overwhelming trepidation, like “Tomorrow” from Annie or “One Day More” from Les Misérables.

Anthony felt increasingly nervous as Thursday approached, worrying he’d be rejected from LaGuardia, De Jesus said. She decided to pull him and his brothers out of school on match day, distracting him with board games and other activities in an attempt to deflate the tension.

“I said, ‘Listen, even if you don’t get in, everything is going to be okay, and you are going to do great things,’” De Jesus said. “We just tried to make an environment like: This is just another day. We’re gonna take it as it comes.

“But we’re very excited for him,” she added.

One Queens family, though, hardly felt the match day jitters. Dennis Kelly said his son, William, didn’t have much of a reaction to learning he’d been admitted to the University Scholars program at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows.

“We really haven’t talked about it a lot,” Kelly said. “He came home, we got the letter, and then he ran back out” for his crew team practice in Port Washington, Long Island.

William had also been accepted to Brooklyn Tech, but it wasn’t an option they were considering, Kelly said. Instead, they’ll choose between Francis Lewis and a few Catholic schools that William had been accepted to, including one on Long Island.

“We know people that are pressuring their kids like, ‘If you don’t get into Stuyvesant, your life is over,’ and we’ve never felt that,” he said. “It is what it is. He’ll be fine. He’s always done well.”

Still, Kelly was glad to be nearing the end of the admissions process.

“There’s so many options, and everybody gets so crazy,” he said. “I almost feel like there’s too many choices. How am I supposed to look at 400 high schools and decide which one my kid should go to?”

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering New York City. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.

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