Neighborhood: Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Current School: M.S. 51, Park Slope, Brooklyn
First Choice: Brooklyn Technical High School, Beacon High School
Admitted: Admitted to Brooklyn Technical High School, Fort Greene, Brooklyn
For the last two years, eighth grader Carla Hamilton has had one goal in mind: getting into a top high school. It was clear to her that the right high school would determine her future.
“Towards the end of seventh grade, that’s all anyone would talk about–high school,” Hamilton said, explaining that her peers in Brooklyn’s high-pressure Middle School 51 played a big role in influencing where she wanted to go to school.
But when the high school admission letter finally arrived last March, she made sure only her father was around when she opened it. The last place she wanted to be was with her friends.
“I didn’t want to be around my friends and crying,” she said, describing how embarrassing it would be if she was rejected from her top choice schools. She kept her hands clasped tightly in her lap as she recalled the tense moment when she opened the letter for the first time. Anxiety was followed by huge relief. Hamilton was matched with Brooklyn Technical High School, which is one of the city’s nine specialized high schools that base their admissions decision entirely on the results of the Specialized High School Admissions Test.
Hamilton’s middle school in Park Slope is widely considered a “feeder school” for the specialized high schools, as well as other elite schools around the city. Last year, over half of its graduating eighth graders from M.S. 51 attended high ranking high schools such as Beacon, Edward R. Murrow, Brooklyn Technical and Fiorello H. Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Just over 1,100 students attend the school, which serves grades six through eight. The majority of students who attend M.S. 51 are white. About 20 percent are Hispanic, and the remaining 20 percent are black and Asian. According to statistics from the 2014-15 school year, students at M.S. 51 start middle school performing at or above grade level in math and English, while sixth graders across the city, on average, are performing at or below grade level by the time they start middle school.
But even with the backing of a high-performing middle school that works hard to get its students into top high schools, the pressure is rarely off its students.
“You have to cover all your bases,” said Hamilton’s mother Lorna McAllister. “You don’t know what is going to happen.”
Hamilton comes from a highly educated, supportive family: her mother is a Brooklyn Civil Court judge, and her father, Jesse Hamilton III, is a state senator. But even for a family with the resources and know-how to help their child succeed, navigating the maze of high school admissions was still a challenge. The family hoped to find a school that was close to home and offered rigorous coursework and A.P. classes. They also wanted to make sure the school had a good college placement rate.
Brooklyn Technical High School, where Hamilton will be enrolled in the fall, is close to the family’s home in Crown Heights. With over 5,000 students enrolled in grades nine through 12, it is one of the biggest high schools in the city and offers a wide range of college-level classes in math and science. The student population is over 60 percent Asian and about 20 percent white, while the rest of the student body is black and Hispanic. Statistics from the 2014-15 school year show that incoming students are significantly outperforming their peers across the city, scoring at or above grade level on eighth grade state tests in math and English.
Hamilton started taking rigorous test-prep courses in seventh grade, and sat for a half dozen high school entrance exams in the last year, as an eighth grader. In addition to taking the SHSAT, the exam for specialized high schools, she also tested for private schools, Catholic schools and some of the other top New York City public schools, which have their own unique requirements. Beacon High School, an alternative public high school in Manhattan, for example, requires students to complete a portfolio assignment. Bard High School Early College, also located in Manhattan, has its own admissions test.
“I always worried, what if my grades weren’t good enough?” Hamilton said. Even though she enjoyed her classes and always worked hard, she doubted herself often. Hamilton recently picked up photography, and said she enjoys taking the time to slow down and “notice little things” she missed before: a photogenic scene while she’s walking down the street, or a moment when the light hits a friend’s face just right. She hopes to keep taking photography classes in high school.
Each New York City high school has different criteria for extracurricular activities and middle school coursework. Some public schools only accept students who live in the same neighborhood as the school, while others require additional application materials, tests and auditions. But given that the best schools receive thousands of applications for limited seats, Hamilton knew that there was little room for error.
“My advice is start early, start in sixth grade,” McAllister said, pointing out that a student’s performance in seventh grade is heavily weighted on their high school application. The admissions process is competitive, but it’s also unpredictable. McAllister said that starting their research early would give parents enough time to prepare for setbacks and make sure their child gets into a good school.
The family’s biggest fear was doing everything right—and then some—but still ending up in the second round of admissions, which is reserved for students who were not admitted to any of their first choice schools or who decide to forfeit their first round matches and try again. This process takes place after first round admission letters are handed out in early March. McAllister said that school options are significantly reduced in the second round, and students are often left choosing from a pool of schools that have poor reputations or records of low-performance.
For the last two years, Hamilton felt like her entire future was on the line.
“If I don’t get into a good high school, I won’t get into a good college,” she said. “I won’t get a good job, and my life would be over.”