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On camera, 8th-graders react to mostly good high school news

Most eighth-graders at the Bronx’s P.S./I.S. 218 tore their high school admissions envelopes open well before dismissal on Thursday. But a small group waited patiently until 2:30 p.m. to find out their fates.

The holdouts were about 20 participants in an after-school program that had coached them through the admissions process. They gathered in the library after school for a letter-opening ceremony with the staff of Project STEP (Students Toward Educational Promise).

Since sixth grade, Project STEP had groomed the promising students to apply for some of the city’s most selective schools, helping them prepare for the specialized high school exam, comb through the high school guide, and compile an educated list of 12 high schools that would be their best fit. Director Nicole Jennings also orchestrates a yearly high school fair, which now hosts 40 schools, including some of the city’s most selective and, unlike the Department of Education’s own fairs, private and parochial schools.

Jennings said she hadn’t yet tallied the results but that the students’ reactions suggested that the year had been a success. “There were a ton of really great schools,” she said. “I’m really excited about the offers, and I think they are, too.”

Few students made the cut for the city’s specialized high schools. At least one got into Bard High School Early College, which has a relationship with P.S./I.S. 218, a dual-language magnet school, and most said they had gotten one of their top picks. But even for students who get their first choice, there’s often an element of disappointment if they don’t get an offer from a specialized high school as well, Jennings said.

Project STEP aims to close a gap that the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation sees between the South Bronx and other areas of the city, where parents might be more savvy about the process or have more access to resources to prep their child for admission to competitive schools.

Chris, an eighth grader, said that Project STEP filled in the expertise his mother lacked. He said that while she has been encouraging throughout the process, she went to school in Mexico and is not experienced with the city’s system.

“My mom is very excited as well, but she doesn’t know much about the high schools here,” said Chris, who will attend Frederick Douglass Academy, his third choice.

Nine Project STEP participants won admission to specialized high schools between 2006 and 2011, Jennings said. Those schools enroll relatively few black and Hispanic students, particularly at the most selective schools. Stuyvesant High School, the city’s most elite, offered seats to 51 black and Hispanic students this year, up from 25 last year.