School Choice

Mistakes Parents Make When Ranking NYC School Choices, From Pre-Kindergarten to High School

As I wrote last week, it’s school application time  for 2018 in New York City!

Public high school applications are due on December 1 (excluding Specialized schools).

Public Middle-School applications will become available in November and are also due on December 1. Kindergarten Connect, for all public school general ed programs, is scheduled to open on November 28, while applications for Gifted & Talented will close on November 13.

Finally, Pre-Kindergarten registration will take place in the Spring.

All of the above have one thing in common: Families must rank their choices in order of preference, submit them to the Department of Education (DOE), and then be assigned to a school based on a centralized algorithm.

There is, however, a great deal of confusion regarding how said algorithm works.

This formula is based on Game Theory. (John Nash, portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, won a Nobel Prize for his work in this field.) In a nutshell, students rank schools from 1 to 12 and schools rank students from 1 to however many they can accept (with plenty of wiggle room for the understanding that not all kids who receive an offer will attend). Then a computer tries to give everyone their top available choice. (A very good explanation within an equally good article about NYC schools can be found here.)

Every year, I get numerous emails from parents who tell me they’ve figured out a way to beat the system. Usually, some very complex math is involved.

Are they correct? I have no idea. Usually, the math is too complex for me.

But here is something simple, and something I advise all parents: Genuinely rank the schools in the order you prefer.

Why? Because you will be given your first available choice.

If you are given your third choice, but you actually would have preferred your fourth, there is no one you can call to complain. (Every year I also get these emails). The DOE could not care less that your game-playing blew up in your face.

So genuinely rank the schools in the order you prefer. But be realistic.

Why? Because, despite what you may have heard on the playground, the DOE is NOT obliged to place you in one of the schools on your list. (Another call/email I regularly get is from the parent who thinks he or she is the first to come up with the following brilliant hack: “I’ll only put down one school, then they’ll HAVE to give it to me!” No, and no, they don’t.)

All schools have priorities for the children they’ll accept. For kindergarten, it’s geographic. For G&T elementary schools, it’s scores followed by a lottery. For middle and high schools, it’s a combination of grades, test scores, attendance, geography and other possible factors, like interview, audition, and, of course, again, lottery.

This is where being realistic becomes more important than ever.

The critical mistake many families make when ranking their middle and high-school choices is filling the 12 available slots with the equivalent of “reach” schools. (Pre-K and K families make the same mistake if they only list schools outside their zone or district.)

Let’s say your child is a “B” student. But you only rank schools that indicate they prioritize “A” students. It’s entirely possible that your child may get “no match,” and be sent onto Second Round. Where the only schools who still have available spaces are “C” and “D” schools. They will rank those, and yet might still end up with “no match.” At which point the DOE can just assign you to any school with an available seat. Your child may end up in a school you didn’t even pick, one that is academically weaker than the one he or she could have had if you’d been more realistic on the first round. (More, here.)

NYC families are extremely fortunate in that school choice allows them options unheard of in other places (and this post doesn’t even take into consideration charter, independant and religious schools).

But school choice needs to be exercised wisely and strategically, or you might end up with no choices at all.

What do you think?

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