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High School Admissions: An Inside Perspective

If you rolled your eyes after reading the title of this article, you are either an 8th grader, the family of an 8th grader, or a member of a high school admissions committee. While the gut-wrenching process of deciding where to apply will soon be coming to an end for current 8th grade students — at least on the side that you actually have some control over, the process is only intensifying for those of us in high schools.

When 8th graders turn their applications in to their guidance counselors in the next few weeks, it marks the beginning of a process that is as intimidating for the high schools as it is for those students awaiting the results. Over the next several weeks and months, we will continue to host tours and open houses to ensure that families that want to make changes to their applications have the information they need to do so. Simultaneously, we will begin to review applicants’ responses to our online admissions activity and establish the systems and meetings dates for our admissions committee, which will begin its daunting work after the holiday break.

Once middle school counselors have entered students’ choices, we will be able to view the students who “applied” to our school, by listing us anywhere — from first to twelfth choice — on their application. We will never know which students put us first and really want our school, and which put us on the list as a back-up, so our only way to assess students’ true interest in our school is through the online activity that we require. This online admissions activity, posted from mid-October through March when our final (final!) decisions are made, poses a series of questions designed to assess the applicant’s understanding of and interest in our particular model and philosophy. What we look for in the online activity (besides writing skill) is demonstration that the applicant truly understands that the iSchool model is different from traditional high schools and that he or she is attracted to this specific program (or some element of the program).

In January, we will begin to contact students who applied but who did not complete this activity to gently remind them to complete it. Some students will inevitably skip this requirement, and we will assume that it is because they’re not that interested in the school. Other students will use the online activity as an opportunity to stand out. Those students who reference specific elements of the school and can articulate why those elements are attractive to them demonstrate their interest most clearly and genuinely. While many people ask us what kind of student we are looking for, there is really no particular student profile or trick. We want the students who want us.

In a few short but intense weeks in February, we will read each and every application (which we expect to exceed 2,000 this year), usually several times, and by different members of the committee. It is at this point that applications end up in one of three piles: Definitely, Maybe, and No. We assign points for each of our admissions criteria: course grades, standardized test scores, attendance, and the online admissions activity, enabling students who might be weaker in one area to make it into our “yes” pile if they stand out in another. We prefer to have no set cut-offs — after all, we are largely basing our decisions on the actions of 12-year-olds, who deserved to make and learn from their seventh grade mistakes, not be doomed by them.

We use the online admissions activity to help us think about which students will do well at iSchool. While we know that motivated self-starters will certainly thrive, as they will probably thrive anywhere, we also know that some students really strive to be independent learners. Those are the students who will be happiest at the iSchool because they understand that the school is consciously moving them toward that goal, and appreciate that the reward will be greater independence in determining their academic path. We also know that students who do well here are those who know what they’re getting into — a high school that is offering a different instructional model — and those who acknowledge the potential imperfection of something new and different. A demonstrated understanding of what that is and a genuine interest in being part of it are qualities that reveal to us a good match.

While many schools rank each and every student consecutively (from 1-400 or the like), we assign a “1” to those in the “definitely” pile and a “2” or “3” to those in the “maybe” pile. This means that every student we feel should be accepted to the iSchool has an equal, but random chance of acceptance.

By the end of February, we will have assigned, in the DOE’s computerized system, a number to each applicant who we believe has in some way demonstrated that she or he wants to be at the iSchool. We click “submit” and anxiously await — like thousands of 8th graders — the results of OSEPO’s computerized, algorithm-based system that will match students to their highest ranking school that also ranks them.

The results of this matching system will mark the end — either gleefully or disappointingly — of the high school admissions process for most 8th graders. It marks only a brief moment in the cycle for high schools, as we will just be entering the new schools round, followed by appeals, the tours for seventh graders in late spring, the summer and last-minute August over-the-counter placements, and then the resumption of twice weekly tours in September.

The process is daunting from all perspectives, perhaps flawed in execution at times, and certainly never-ending for us. But it does offer incredible opportunities that make it worthwhile and worth keeping: the freedom we have as educators to design and implement the schools of our dreams — the ones we wish we had attended — and the choice for kids and families to determine where and how best they will learn and accomplish their goals.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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