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How to Choose a NYC High School
Making sense of 400 options
Anthony Turner
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“School is right around the corner…” my aunt said on a chilly August day. She tried to sound casual, but I could hear the slight urgency in her voice.

“So?” I replied.

“So, shouldn’t you be registering or something? If you’re really serious about a good school you have to take charge and get things done.”

Growing up, I had moved around a lot and changed schools often. I’d already been in two other high schools, and now, after moving from upstate to my aunt’s house in Brooklyn, I was headed to a third. I just didn’t know which one. I assumed my aunt or another adult would take the initiative and find a school for me.

Then again, I was almost an adult myself. I was supposed to be entering the 12th grade.

Doing the Research

Even though it was summer and I wanted to chill, I realized this was serious. With just a few weeks until school started, I began the process of finding the place where I would spend my senior year. I browsed the High School Directory book, where more than 400 New York City high schools are listed.

At first, the book seemed overwhelming. It explained that different high schools have different admissions requirements: Some selective schools require you to take a special test to get in, while others give priority to students who have attended an information session and live within the school’s borough. I’d already missed all the testing dates and info sessions, but I figured there must be a school with room for me.

I made a list of all the things that I’d like in a school, such as a theater arts program and a small size. I also considered how long my commute would be, and the academic support the school offered. Once I figured out the type of school that appealed to me, narrowing down my choices seemed much easier.

Key Numbers

I found five schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn that fit all my requirements. I wanted some advice about getting through the enrollment process quickly, so I went to Keith Hefner, the publisher of YCteen, who knows a lot about local schools. Keith was happy to talk with me. “OK,” I thought, “I’m taking my first step already.”

Keith showed me that, for each school, there are statistics and graphs for things like school safety, students’ academic progress, and the learning environment. All the statistics come from the New York City Department of Education website, but there are two independent websites that take the same information and explain it in a way that’s much easier to understand: Insideschools.org and Bigappleed.com.

There were a couple of important numbers I looked at on those sites, like absence rates and Regents scores. A big absence rate told me that lots of kids were cutting. To me, that says students have little interest in school, and maybe the school isn’t that good. Other records showed students’ average score on Regents exams. Good Regents scores show that kids understand the material, which means the teachers must be pretty good.

Names Don’t Matter

One thing Keith said that really stuck with me was that I shouldn’t be fooled by a school’s name. There are plenty of schools with impressive names, like Harlem Renaissance High School, Unity Center for Urban Technologies, and Fordham Leadership Academy. With words like “leadership,” “renaissance,” and “unity” in their names, it sounds like those schools would bring out the most in their students. But actually, all three of those schools were on the state’s list of “persistently lowest-achieving schools” in 2010.

A school doesn’t need a fancy title to have good programs and activities. Midwood High School has a plain name, but it offers a model congress, a medical science program, and arts programs. Similarly, just because a school has a profession like “journalism” in its name doesn’t mean it has a major emphasis on journalism. It may have other programs as well, like film or technical classes (and in fact, it may not offer many journalism classes at all).

I felt happy that Keith helped me understand the system better, but school was starting in a few days and I still hadn’t gotten too far. My transcript wasn’t complete, and I was missing a few documents, like my birth certificate and New York State I.D., which I thought I needed to register for a school. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of this big hole and I started panicking. I was scared that I’d end up in some terrible, overcrowded school.

With the Clock Ticking…

Luckily, my aunt stepped in to help out. She got the counselors at my last two schools to fax us my transcripts. Then, after we found out we needed to go to an enrollment office in person, she took two days off work just to put my name in the city’s school system. At the same time, I found out it wasn’t mandatory to have a state I.D.

image by Amanda Garcia

These things were encouraging, but all I could think was that I had three days left and I still wasn’t officially in a school. I was so anxious that I took it out on my aunt.

“I need to have this school stuff finished and you’re not fast enough!” I yelled. She looked taken aback.

“I am helping you, so you should start giving me some respect,” she said sternly. I knew she was right. I straightened up and apologized right away. After all, I wanted and needed her help.

The Most Important Step

Even though I had very little time left, Keith advised me not to make any quick decisions. He said I should visit a few schools to make sure I chose the one that suited me best. “When you visit,” he said, “make a good, lasting impression.” I couldn’t help feeling nervous.

I visited Clara Barton High School and Midwood High School, but I didn’t like either one because both had more than 1,000 students. That seemed like the type of environment that could feel overwhelming. My last stop was Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM).

I felt optimistic about BCAM because the school was easy to get to on the subway, had only around 400 students, and had a theater program—almost everything I wanted in a school. It also had a decent record of attendance, and in the school’s 2009-2010 “Learning Environment Survey,” which I saw on the Department of Education website for the school, students and parents said they were happy with things like communication, engagement, and the academic expectations of the school.

However, when we arrived I got a bad gut feeling. The setting was plain, with no murals or collages on the walls. What I did see on the wall were two roaches. I thought that was straight nasty. I wanted to run around the corner to catch the nearest train.

Bad Vibes, Good Teachers

I thought I had seen the worst of it, but when the parent coordinator looked at me she bluntly said, “You’re going to behave, right, Mr. Turner? No problems, no acting out, or anything of that nature?” I blinked at the lady. I hadn’t even said anything, and I was already being judged as a delinquent? I shook my head in disbelief.

“No, Miss, I won’t act up.”

“Good. I don’t want any people misbehaving.” Then she muttered in a low voice, “There are enough rowdy clowns here.” She left me slightly shuddering.

After that, a student who worked as a teacher’s assistant gave me a tour. I hadn’t even gone 10 steps before I heard a loud, threatening voice say, “Yo! Little boy! Come over here. I’m talking to you, little nigga!” I was ready to turn right back around and punch his face in, but I just ignored him. I’d been kicked out of one school already—which was one of the reasons I’d been in so many high schools by this point—and I wasn’t ready to get kicked out of another before the very first day.

Although I was definitely getting negative vibes, I still wanted to give it a shot. I met my guidance counselor and some of the teachers. Everyone was warm and welcoming. The teachers were talking excitedly and they seemed sincerely happy about starting a new year. “This school won’t be that bad. Maybe I can do this,” I told myself. With that, I enrolled and BCAM became my permanent school.

For Better or Worse

Now, after six months there, I can say that BCAM is not the best, but it has its strong points. I was right about the teachers: They are reliable and willing to sit down with you whether you’re having academic, family, or social problems. Also, BCAM is enthusiastic about getting teens involved in school groups. I’m involved in yearbook, tutoring, and College Now.

However, it was really tough to be the new kid. The other students weren’t that friendly at first, and someone stole my iPod the second week of school. Eventually, I made a good number of friends, though some days I’m still not sure if I want to transfer or embrace my new school.

If I’d had more time, I would probably have visited more schools, and maybe I’d be at a school I liked more. My advice to other kids is this: Never procrastinate on an issue as important as school. I think the school system should provide more hands-on guidance, but sometimes you have to take the initiative if you want to see something done.

For tips on what to look for in a high school, read "Before You Enroll."

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(NYC-2011-04-20)

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