Some Brooklyn Public High Schools Are Harder to Get Into Than Harvard

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There are countless diatribes out there about how hard it is for students applying to colleges these days, and there are perhaps almost as many on the subject of how hard it is to get into good preschools here in New York City. And while those complaints are all justified (I remember well when my father told me that there’s no way he would have attended an Ivy if they’d accepted women when he’d applied), they also can’t really be separated from the fact that the universities and preschools and, for that matter, secondary schools which are notoriously difficult to gain acceptance to, are private. They are, in effect, exclusionary by nature. It might not be fair, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that some of the most difficult-to-get-into educational institutions in the city are not private ones at all, but are rather the city’s public high schools. That’s right, some Brooklyn public schools are harder to get into than Harvard. 

Every spring, New York City’s 7th grade public school students bring home a 500+ page directory of the city’s public high schools. Divided by borough, this book is impressively comprehensive and does much to assuage and stoke the fears of not only the students, but also the parents of the students—particularly if those parents have any sort of grasp of statistics. Why? Well, the city’s public school system is frequently talked about holistically, i.e. the city’s high school graduation rate reached an all-time high last year of 66%. And while that number might seem shockingly low and dismaying to some, there are others who can find hope in those numbers, especially when compared to the graduation rate’s nadir of 44.3% in 1994. However, it only takes a quick scan through the directory to see that an abundance of schools have graduation rates as low 33.3% (DreamYard Preparatory School in the Bronx) while others have a perfect 100% graduation rate (The Brooklyn Latin School). Unsurprisingly, the schools that feature the highest graduation rates and the largest percentage of students moving on to college or career programs post-graduation are incredibly difficult to get into.

Here’s a tale of two schools: The Brooklyn Latin School and the Brooklyn Lab School. These two schools happen to be on facing pages in the directory, but other than that, they share little in common. The Brooklyn Latin School had a 100% graduation rate last year, with 87.1% of its students attending college or an equivalent career program. Located in Williamsburg, the school offers and International Baccalaureate diploma and stresses community involvement through a mandated 150 hours of volunteering or other local engagement; over 30 extracurricular activities and clubs are listed as being available to students. The Brooklyn Lab School is in East New York,, and had a 50% graduation rate last year with 30% of its students enrolled in college or career programs following graduation. It offers many Advanced Placement classes as well as multiple college-prep programs and a variety (though not quite as extensive as Brooklyn Latin’s) of extracurricular activities. The Lab School was deemed “proficient” in a 2012-2013 Quality Review; Brooklyn Latin was found to be “Well Developed.” And the acceptance rates for both schools? For 108 seats, the Brooklyn Lab School had 216 applicants, thus accepting 50%. And Brooklyn Latin? For 150 seats, there were 16,675 applicants, meaning that the chance of getting one of the seats was less than 1%.

It’s the same story citywide. The most competitive schools (particularly those whose only acceptance criteria is the SHSAT, a test offered in the fall and used by schools like Brooklyn Latin, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant among others) have acceptance rates hovering around the 1-5% mark, while the schools with lower graduation rates are exponentially easier to get into. There has long been an outcry that the elite public high schools are too difficult for students without access to test prep (mostly low income, frequently black or Latino) to gain entry, but the problem isn’t simply that a lot of students can’t get into the best schools, it’s that there aren’t enough good alternatives. The problem isn’t just that Brooklyn Tech is harder to get into than Harvard, but that there aren’t enough good second tier schools in our public high school system as there are in the university system. In other words, it’s time to start treating the city’s public school system (the largest in the world) holistically, and look at it as being the segregated institution that we now know it is. The problem isn’t amorphous and hard to understand, it’s all right there in the numbers, and it just might be the starkest example of inequality that our city has to offer.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen