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After a long, fraught fall, high school applications are due today

Throughout this fall, we met students in the throes of a notoriously overwhelming process: deciding which schools to list on their high school applications.

Today, they must make their final decisions. The applications are due this afternoon, and students will find out in March which school they will attend — or whether they must enter a second admissions process for students who are not placed anywhere.

At high school fairs this fall, some students said they felt anxious about the application process; others said they were confident that they’d get their first choice or end up at another satisfactory school. Their priorities varied widely, as did the level of support they had gotten throughout the process from parents, teachers, and guidance counselors.

For some eighth-graders, new information caused old ideas to evolve. Here’s one example: Back in September, Tiffany Mejia had her heart set on the School of Food and Finance because, she said, she likes to cook, and her best friends also wanted to go there. By the time she submitted her application last week in advance of today’s deadline, she had pushed Food and Finance to second place in favor of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small school in Chelsea that enrolls both traditional ninth-graders and students who have previously struggled in other high schools.

“I was just looking through the book and I saw it and I liked that name and how it sounded,” Meija said. “I started researching it and seeing if it’s a good school.” She said she looked at online reviews written by current students and at the school’s report card from the city before deciding that the commute from her apartment in the Bronx would be worth it.

Tiffany’s mother, Blacina, said in Spanish that safety is her first priority for her daughter’s high school. While Tiffany made her own list, Blacina said she “will give the last word” on whether Tiffany can attend whatever school she is assigned. Blacina said she knows Tiffany might not get into her top choice and decided to wait to visit schools until a match is made.

As we’ve heard from current high school students who regret their choice of schools, transferring after the initial application process is no easy task, particularly after the re-application deadline passes this time next year. A student desperate to transfer out of a school slated for closure told us he was “just trying to get out” and into a small school on the same campus, because “even in the same building there’s a big gap” between the quality of schools.

Parents told us that the results of the first Common Core-aligned math tests added another layer of uncertainty to the application process. In light of the drop in test scores this year, the city advised screened schools to adjust their expectations and look for students with a level of 2.25 or higher when they ordinarily would have looked for 3s, and 1.8 or higher when they might otherwise have looked for 2s. But screened schools don’t have to follow the city’s advice, and parents said they heard mixed messages about scoring cutoffs at the high school fairs.

For some city students, the application they submitted for today’s deadline isn’t the only one they’ll submit this year: Students interested in charter schools need to apply directly to those schools. Some cities have decided to allow students to apply to charter and district schools through one form and a single process, and while there hasn’t been any significant movement on that front yet in New York, city officials have indicated that it’s a (very) long term goal.

Current or rising high school students who move to the city after today’s application deadline will have a very different experience. Instead of attending high school fairs and submitting a list of their top choice schools, they’ll head to enrollment centers where they are assigned to schools with open seats. All too often, a recent report found, those schools are already struggling.