It’s application season for New York City’s public high schools, and while the education department has promised a more streamlined and centralized process this year, parents said they are as confused and anxious as ever.  

“I would say everything about this is daunting and overwhelming,” said Sharon Meiri Fox, parent of an eighth grader.

As per usual, students are being asked to rank 12 choices citywide, and in most cases they will be assigned schools through a lottery. Applications are due March 1st. 

Continuing the de Blasio Administration’s decision from last year, the city will not allow “district priority,” a policy that notably gave students in predominantly affluent areas of Manhattan first dibs at some of the most sought after schools. So-called geographic priority, by borough and zone, will remain. 

But how students are admitted to the city’s more than 100 selective – or “screened” – high schools is changing, and parents are scrambling to understand the new rules. The screened schools are a separate tier from the vaunted Specialized High Schools, like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which use a single test (the SHSAT) to determine admissions. 

Selective or screened high schools have traditionally used a combination of test scores, attendance and grades to admit students. Parents say they are drawn to what they believe will be a stronger academic experience at these schools, but screened schools also tend to be more segregated

In December, officials announced that the education department will be evaluating students’ applications to selective schools centrally, instead of having schools consider students individually. They said the goal was to simplify the process and increase equity at a time when the pandemic has roiled students’ academic experience and widened achievement gaps.

Because of the disruptions of the pandemic, neither attendance nor test scores will be used to select students. Those metrics have been eliminated for the second year in a row. Evaluators will continue to consider students’ grades, but there is a new way of calculating students’ academic performance, through a points system that will be used as part of the lottery.  

Although the education department originally said evaluators would be looking at eighth graders’ fall semester marks, it now says students’ highest grades from their seventh grade year can be used as well. 

Meanwhile, despite promises of a centralized process, more than a dozen schools are using a range of additional criteria, including essays, videos and interviews. School staff will be evaluating those students – not a centralized team within the education department. 

Parents with kids applying to selective high schools said they are struggling to navigate this year’s changes. “I wish I knew what the DOE was trying to achieve here,” said Meiri Fox. “If they wanted to create more stress for families, they’ve succeeded.”

“There’s anxiety because you can’t go back [and ask] someone who has done it before,” said parent Jamie Kim. “Everything is different.”

If they wanted to create more stress for families, they’ve succeeded.

Parent Meiri Fox

The very existence of selective public high schools has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Integration advocates have been protesting admissions ‘screens’ for years. In a lawsuit filed last fall they alleged the policies violated students’ civil rights, pointing out, “Of the 30 most academically screened high schools, 27 are majority white and Asian (in a system that’s less than one-third white and Asian).”

City officials said this year’s changes will help address some of those inequities. “Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks are committed to bolstering access, and our admissions process for screened high schools will expand opportunity, especially for Black and Hispanic students,” education department spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas said in a statement on Monday. 

But Elissa Stein, a consultant who works with parents on navigating public school admissions, said it doesn’t make sense to allow some schools to use their own criteria while others don’t. “For this exercise in democratization to work, everyone has to participate in it,” she said. 

Stein added that the crush of new metrics with only a month to decipher them will make it even harder for families to navigate the city’s complex admissions process. “The most frustrating thing is how are parents supposed to figure this out?” she asked. 

Vernecya Fields, a mother of four, including an eighth grader with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), said the high school process feels extremely complicated. “When I was applying to middle school we had so much support,” she said. “They gave us books, they gave us calendars to mark down. We’re not getting any of that support.” She said it’s difficult to sort through the options and track down application information while juggling parenting and her full- time job. “It takes a lot of research,” she said. "I’m trying.”

In a move to make applications easier for families with two children applying to high schools this year – such as twins – families can submit identical applications for both children. 

Students seeking slots at the city’s arts high schools can audition virtually. 

The city’s eight specialized high schools will continue to admit students according to scores on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), which was administered last fall.

For more information, the education department is directing families to an online information session, family welcome center, or hotline: 718-935-2009.