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Calling It a Choice Doesn't Make It One

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Last week tens of thousands of New York City public school students received high school offer letters. For almost half of them, dreams came true. But too many others were disappointed, not to mention devastated by the results. Yes, that statement sounds extreme. But as the parent of one of those eighth graders, I'm watching intense post-acceptance drama unfold first hand.

"New York City is a model for high school choice," said Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, to the New York Post, the day after letters were sent home. Having just lived through the complicated and unwieldy admissions process, NYC parents know there should have been air quotes around the word choice. Students do get to choose and then rank up to 12 high schools they'd like to attend. Just because you choose those schools though, in no way does that guarantee any of them will choose you back.

In a city with hundreds of viable options open to eighth graders, there are a few that it seems everyone wants to go to. Baruch College Campus High School, this year's most sought after school, was listed by over 6400 students who were vying for 110 spots. That's an acceptance rate of 1.7 percent. While those figures are skewed -- not everyone who included Baruch as a choice ranked it first -- that gives a sense of how insane the process can be. Many of the city's larger neighborhood schools have given way to new, more boutique-ish outposts. And they're small. With incoming classes ranging from 110 to 150 at the most sought after programs, that's leaving too many of the thousands of students who listed them terrified they won't get one of those coveted spots.

Then there are the specialized high schools, which have almost an elitist cachet at this point. Admissions to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, etc. are based on a test. One test, which is administered in the fall of seventh grade. Some kids have been preparing since elementary school. Others participate in pricey test prep programs or had tutors help them through material that hadn't yet been covered in school. Each school has its own cut off score for acceptance and while those figures aren't published it seems, for example, that for students who score in the 560s (out of 800) can earn a place at Stuyvesant. The test is so difficult that according to my calculations a grade of just over 70 wins one of those esteemed spots. Only nineteen percent who took the test get into a specialized school. Yet, while each of these schools is exemplary in its own way, there's a generally unspoken yet obvious hierarchy when it comes to test scores and offers.

And while the city noted that 84 percent of students got one of their first five choices, almost 7,400 kids got nothing. No offers at all.

NYC kids have now been split into haves and have-nots, or to be more specific: specialized or non-specialized. First choices or non-first choices. Having a high school acceptance or not having a high school acceptance. After a brutal process that involved any and all of the following: tours, interviews, open houses, additional testing, essay writing, portfolio creation, tutoring, test prep, auditions, and months of waiting, a new reality is emerging. One that is confusing and painful for teenagers and their families to have to navigate.

After letters went out my daughter invited a bunch of friends over to celebrate. Full disclosure: she got offers from both her main round and specialized choices. Half the kids in the room were in the same boat, still floating on their amazing news. They couldn't wholeheartedly celebrate though as others were grappling with disappointment bordering on a sense of profound failure. From kids who didn't get into specialized but were accepted at highly sought after main round schools. Or those that didn't get their first choice and were coming to terms with a program they never imagined going to. While guidance counselors and teachers stressed that first choices were in no way guaranteed that's not an easy concept for teenagers, and often their parents, to accept. Both kids and adults are now dealing with disbelief, disillusionment, resentment, frustration and disappointment. While other families are relieved, excited, thrilled and grateful. These are feelings and reactions everyone experiences in life. But perhaps going to high school is stressful enough and shouldn't have to have all this extra pressure and emotional extremes attached.