NYC High School Fit and Choice: Going Beyond the Brand

Getting caught up in the top schools’ reputations can keep a student from finding a high school that’s right for her. Here’s how you can identify best-fit high schools.

“I have a friend who goes to Beacon, and I heard it’s pretty cool.”

Goldstein is my top choice, but I know I’m not getting in.”

“All my friends are talking about Brooklyn Tech, so I thought I would apply there, also.”

Word of mouth and brand-name recognition apply to more than just clothes and music in New York City — they also figure prominently in the high school selection process.

The Allure of Big Names

Many know the “top” names, like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Millennium. Students have heard of them. Parents buzz about them. But do these schools actually represent good fits for the students selecting them on their high school applications? How are students actually choosing schools, and to what degree are they looking “beyond the brand”?

As a middle school guidance counselor said, “Too many students are making choices based on what they hear from their friends.”

Since the decade-old inception of the competitive city-wide high school choice process, a handful of schools out of hundreds have established the holy grail of marketing: a strong, sustainable brand.

Name recognition, status, cachet, awareness, whatever you want to call it — these schools draw thousands of applicants each year, often for just a few seats. Peer pressure, strength in numbers, and word of mouth among students can be powerful forces.

“Everyone was talking about Beacon, ElRo [Eleanor Roosevelt], and Bard,” said Shea, an eighth grader at Wagner Middle School in Manhattan. “At first, it made me want to join the conversation.”

When I meet families for an initial consultation, many will immediately reveal which schools are their top choices. Often, this list will have been generated without a lot of thought into what truly represents a good fit for the student in question.

Thinking About Fit

What’s my definition of a “good fit”? A school that closely matches a student’s interests, tastes, talents, and skills, and has an environment where the student can be challenged, flourish, and effectively position herself for what’s to come after high school.

Now, let me be clear: Speaking with friends and neighbors and gathering information from a variety of sources is not a bad idea per se. Very often, you get the most honest and varied feedback from these sources. Moreover, schools that have successfully built their brands based on academic achievement certainly deserve a lot of credit.

Academic achievement can mean different things to different students, however. For example, some students may seek a top-notch drama program, a low teacher-to-student ratio, or an emphasis on qualitative assessments — or some combination of the above factors. They may need to look beyond "name brand" schools to find these characteristics.

When students are making school choices, are they only going by what they hear from their peers? Should we give them more credit, rather than assume they are selecting schools based on reputation alone?

Based on the conversations I’ve had with students from a variety of neighborhoods and middle schools, I would say unequivocally that the students who are involved in the process deserve a lot more credit.

How to Get Past the Brands

While the choice process naturally begins with brand names, more savvy scrutiny develops with time, support, and engagement. In fact, students are paying more attention than you may think to factors like teaching quality, safety, environment, and culture.

“I was really looking for a school with a strong community, bright kids, AP courses, and with caring teachers,” said Shea.

As profiled in The New York Times, students at Brownsville, Brooklyn’s Mott Hall Bridges Academy take a class with a guidance counselor to learn about high schools across New York City. Times reporter Winnie Hu writes, “In a neighborhood where many people have never even traveled into Manhattan, they give children a new aspiration: to experience life beyond Brownsville.”

Students can also learn about schools from search websites, school videos, open houses, and fairs. And hearing from other students about different aspects of the school experience in these contexts can make a big difference. For example, one middle school student described her experience at a high school open house as less than enthralling: “I was completely bored because all they did was talk to the adults about the academics.”

To be fair, middle school students are seldom the forward-looking, long-term planners we adults may wish they were. That’s our job. But are the ones who have support and guidance early on often the ones who are looking beyond the brand? Undoubtedly. It’s no coincidence that students like those from Brownsville are looking at schools outside their comfort zones — because their school is supporting those early efforts.

Let’s do our kids a favor. Let’s empower and engage them early on in the process, and expose them to the wide variety of choices at their fingertips. While their immediate reaction may be a shortsighted, middle school stereotype — and, in fact, they may not seem to be listening at all — I believe all students have the wherewithal to look beyond brands to qualities more associated with fit.

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