Finding a high school in New York City is like searching for an apartment: It’s hard to find a place that’s just right, and students know that even if they find a school that meets all their criteria — academics, sports, location, community, and more — there’s no guarantee that they’ll get in.
So they start early. By 10 a.m. Saturday, the line outside the annual high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High school had wrapped around the building. Over the next two days, middle schoolers streamed through Brooklyn Tech’s seven floors with parents, siblings, and teachers in search of the perfect school. The Department of Education estimated that 36,000 people visited the fair, making it the best-attended high school fair in the past five years.
Inside the building, attendees grabbed telephone-book-sized high school directories, then spread out among floors divided by borough. Students and teachers serving as ambassadors for their schools had spent the morning setting up shop, arranging elaborate displays of posters, pamphlets, and banners. Some of the seventh- and eighth-graders looked pleased with all the attention; others brushed past hundreds of booths vying for their attention and headed straight for the schools they already had in mind.
What students said they look for in schools varied widely, as do the schools themselves.
1. Narrowing the choices
Choosing among the 600 choices as part of the high school enrollment process can be overwhelming to many parents and students. But not everyone.
“It’s an easy process when you think about it,” said Anthony Ureña, an eighth grader who attends I.S. 215 in the Bronx. “You just look at the book and find the schools you’re interested in.”
Ureña said he found his top choice, the High School for Arts and Business in Queens, by flipping through the high school directory. He said he looked out for any schools that highlighted their business programs.
“I actually want to start a business when I grow up,” Ureña said Sunday morning outside Brooklyn Tech as he waited for his father before heading inside. “I just want to be in charge of something.”
Once Ureña identified the schools with business programs, he said it was fairly easy to whittle down his choices even more using the city-issued school report cards.
“You just look at the grades and get rid of everything lower than a D average.”
2. Asking questions
Kymora Rogers, an eighth grader at I.S. 302 in Brooklyn, said her school “has this room for helping children figure out about high school.” Rogers said she goes there after school to flip through books about high school and talk to her guidance counselor. What makes a school a good fit? “It’s based on your academic level and what school will help you go to college,” she said.
In December, eighth graders across the city, as well as ninth graders looking to transfer schools, will submit lists of up to 12 top choices. Then an award-winning algorithm will match students to schools, placing about 90 percent of applicants into one of their choices. (The remaining 10 percent will have to apply again in a second round.)
Rogers said she was supposed to spend the day with her grandmother, but when her school announced a chaperoned trip to the high school fair, she begged her mom to let her go. “When I walked in I was so excited, there were so many questions rumbling in my head.”
Rogers said she had one main question in mind when she approached each school’s booth: “Why do you think I should go to your school?”
3. Listing priorities
Though Joseph Charles’s mother said she was overwhelmed by the rush of information that confronted them at the fair, her son retained a laser-like focus on his priorities.
Asked to name the preferences for his future high school, Joseph, an eighth grader at P.S. 235, didn’t hesitate: strong academics, high graduation rates, high college enrollment, and good business and economics programs.
Nearby, his cousin Chyenne Tiller had a broader list: performing arts, engineering and sports.
Joseph said a good sports programs would be nice, but not essential.
“It’s mostly the academics,” he said. “The sports is secondary.”
4. Learning from experience
A lot of students came with their parents or teachers to guide them through the first step of their high school selection, but others had help from people with more personal experience.
Kayla Herron, an eighth grader at M.S. 267, brought along her older brother Jani, a junior at Edward R. Murrow High School. Jani learned the hard way what happens when you pick the wrong school.
Murrow was originally Jani’s top choice, but he switched to Freedom Academy “because my friend was going there.” That school shuttered last year due to poor performance and low enrollment, and Jani was transferred to his original top choice, Murrow.
So after hearing Kayla say she wanted to audition for LaGuardia High School for Music and Art & the Performing Arts, the city’s flagship arts school, “because I want to study the arts,” Jani offered some advice.
“She’s into music, but she’s got to be into more stuff,” he said.
5. Taking stock
Jonathan Cromartie goes to St. Paul’s school, a Catholic school on 118th Street — and his mother, Virginia Cromartie, hasn’t been convinced yet to send him to public school, even after the fair. But they took lots of brochures anyway, and they’re working planning to make a final decision with help from the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit that works with families living in a 60-block area of Harlem. They traveled to the fair with other families participating in a weekend program at the Children’s Zone.
Jonathan and Virginia both said they were looking for a school with a sports program and high graduation rates. Jonathan said he can’t imagine four years without baseball and basketball.
6. Fitting in
Divine Jones wants to be an archeologist, mineralogist, or a veterinarian, and she said she’s looking for the most academically challenging school to help her get there. She’s been at Leadership Prep Charter School since first grade, but the school only goes through eighth grade. A former Leadership Prep staff member has stayed in touch with families at the school and gave them a short list of high schools to consider, which they checked out at the fair on Saturday.
“In the beginning, it was hard,” Danimaris Fonseca said of her daughter’s first years at Leadership Prep, which is part of the Uncommon Schools network. “It was very strict, and there was a lot of turnover. But lately teachers have been sticking around.” The school prepared Divine to say hello to representatives of the Brooklyn Latin School, one of the city’s eight specialized high schools, in Latin. “You’ll fit right in,” they told her.
7. Trying again
Sharae Corbin is currently in ninth grade at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, but she’s now looking to transfer to a new school. Green Careers wasn’t expansive enough for what she wanted for high school — especially after moving from Texas, where she was involved in track, cheerleading, yearbook, and art.
Corbin came to the fair on Saturday looking for a school where she could get involved in performing arts again. On her short list: ultra-selective schools including LaGuardia, Bard High School Early College, and Beacon High School, as well as two highly regarded small schools in Manhattan, East Side Community High School and Pace High School, which she was excited to hear lets students start their own clubs. “I want a high school where they help you graduate — and I want to graduate with top honors,” she said.
Her sister Shakira said the two of them would make the final decision about where to apply together after attending open houses. “I have to make sure she enjoys herself. It’s her decision, but I have some influence,” she said.
8. Looking ahead
Ray Nazario teaches social studies at J.H.S. 145, a neighborhood middle school in the Bronx, and accompanied students to the fair. “The kids are inspired just by doing this,” he said. “Their world is opening. Just the fact that they have the freedom to choose where they can go.”
Eighth graders Angela Gonzalez, Tiffany Mejara, and Angely Ogando all want to attend Food and Finance High School in Manhattan because they’re interested in food. “I want to learn to be a chef,” Gonzalez said. “I want to graduate, get that diploma, and get a good job.”
Their classmate Jessica Escolah said she’s looking for a school focused on theater and music. But, she said, she can’t know for sure that she’ll be happy with that decision for the next four years.
“It’s really hard [to choose] because you might change what you want to be,” she said.