Getting into public high school, New York City style

By Jenny Klion

If you want to know how fast time is flying, my daughter, Judy, my once-tiny daughter, Judy, who is about to get braces, who is already on her third boyfriend (don’t quote me on that), and who hates me because she is 13 (can quote me on that), is getting ready for high school. Aaaah! Turns out, everything I’d heard about applying to public high school in New York City is true! A nightmare!

First off, the logistics: Choose 10 or 12 high schools throughout the system where you think your child would excel; make appointments to visit each one, possibly more, and do so; create portfolios of schoolwork, state-test results, teacher recommendations and 7th-grade report cards showing minimal absences and maximum G.P.A.’s, as well as numerous essays, in-school tests, online tests, Saturday tests, solo interviews, group interviews and so forth.

One school requires a child to take a math and reading/writing test in the middle of a performance audition, while another school mandates a one-paragraph essay just to take part in the open house! And that’s only for the mainstream academic set. If you’re interested in the arts, there are tickets to apply for, which must be presented at auditions one must prepare for; better-get-there-at-6-a.m.-cattle calls to attend, callbacks to wonder about, and second and third callbacks to pray for. And when I get tired of all this pretzel twisting, I have to remind myself that I’m just navigating and escorting DJ on this trip — she’s the one doing all the real work!

Furthermore, if you’re interested in one or more of the famed select schools — the Bronx Science set of schools — you’ve got to take another test, and create another list of schools, which is completely separate from the other list of 10 or 12.

And don’t forget to balance all this with the fact that there are simply way more young women in New York City than there are young men, a point not at all lost on my budding young DJ, who, when we go from school to school, is scanning the room for possible future romance and fun. (I mean, hey, isn’t that what high school’s all about anyway?)

There’s also a coveted trio of second-tier schools, all of which DJ and I have visited, but the numbers there are unbelievably intimidating. Our second favorite of the three boasted an incoming freshman class this year of about 115 students, which were gleaned from almost 6,000 applicants. Even my least favorite, the one whose tour I slipped away from and then came back and pretended I hadn’t, had 4,500 applicants last year, and accepted about 150. Our favorite, the only one DJ and I have totally agreed upon — even went out to dinner in celebration over — the super-cool one with the amazing teachers, great arts program and trips abroad that accompany so many of the classes, is at least a bit bigger; I believe there are about 300 freshman spots to fill. (A question nagging my mind: Where the hell are the rest of these young adults going, for God’s sake?)

A final, very important note: Apparently, one should not put down any school on one’s official application list that one’s child is not willing to attend; once the all-powerful Department of Education machine matches your child with a school — the magnanimous feat of which is talked and gesticulated about at every tour as if it was holy or something — the decision is 99.99 percent set in stone. There is no turning back, or around, or switching, or appealing, or anything like that.

Got that?

On the other hand, I’ve never seen or even imagined the vast number and types of schools there are to apply to. Seriously, if your child wants to be a chef, artist, architect, fashion designer, engineer, scientist, mathematician, historian, writer, choral singer, musical theater performer, filmmaker, computer geek, lawyer, politician, sports personality (?), doctor, dancer, printmaker or whatever, there is a school for her or him. Is there a school for just a regular high school student wannabe? That, I’m not sure about.

As for DJ, well I don’t want to put the whammy on her choices, which do include dance and performance schools, and a number of upcoming auditions. And I don’t want to brag or anything — O.K., I do — but she is a fantastic, all-around student, with grades and test scores up the wazoo, and a dance and theater résumé that put me to shame about a year or two ago. (Think performing onstage with Yo-Yo Ma at the new Alice Tully Hall, and you can only imagine the dreams I’ve had to keep to myself in order to avoid becoming a dreaded and awful stage mère.)

I’m not allowed to open and read the sealed-envelope teacher recommendations she’s acquired for her academic portfolio, though I did have a chance recently to hold one of them up to the light. Let’s just say, I’m very confident she’ll be matched with just the right school for her… .