MS 51, the William Alexander School, was the last Middle School we had to visit, and it’s the closest one to our home–just a very short walk down the avenue, maybe a seven-minute walk at most–the application is in, but I wanted to summarize the impression of 51, and some final thoughts about the process and “strategies.”
MS 51 Negatives:

  • The school is really, really, big. It’s a big building, so doesn’t feel crowded, but some kids mightfeel overwhelmed or a bit lost in the huge numbers of students.
  • Lunch. The kids can go out for lunch, across the street to the deli or pizza shop, and eat in the park. Neither my wife nor I liked that idea very much, but our daughter (and her friends) loved it! The principal assured us that they have supervision in the park every day, and that this open lunch policy is part of the school’s culture–they’ve been doing it this way for (literally) decades, with very few problems.
  • Gym. Reminded us of the bad old days of PE in middle school–kids change into gym uniforms, there are huge numbers of kids in the gym at one time, and the teachers seemed like the old-time drill sergeant type of coach.
  • The craziness of needing to get ‘accepted’–there are about 1700 applicants (between 1500 and 2000 expected) for 300 seats. Kids have to go through a process of coming in (during January) and writing an essay + a reflective piece, and the applications are judged on that. But it still means that many, many academically strong and qualified kids will not be accepted.

That’s it for the negatives. They were not too overwhelming–
MS 51 Positives:

  • Academics–this was a very strong school academically. The classes we saw were active and engaged, and students seemed to be learning and participating at a high level. There was good classroom organization and discipline, but still room for the kids to be enjoying themselves. The drama class was particularly impressive (rather than just putting on plays, they were using drama to study basic themes and principles of literature). The photography class was quite good, with a teacher dedicated to having students understand principles and techniques–not just taking pictures. The musical performance rehearsal was polished and professional–like a Broadway show–but that’s not something I care about so much (although many parents on the tour seemed to be wowed by that).
  • Social/Emotional–I had a good feeling from watching the students interact. They seemed happy and comfortable, and the change of classes was orderly but not militaristic. There seem to be a lot of activities, and students could choose plenty of them. The building was clean and safe-feeling, with a welcoming atmosphere.

Overall, I think it’s an excellent school. If my daughter does get in there, I’ll be glad. The fact that it’s in walking distance of our home really tilts the scale in the positive direction. On the other hand, Sunset Park Prep had some advantages over 51–it’s a much more nurturing and respectful environment, with kids getting to know all the other kids and all the other teachers–because it’s so much smaller. So I’ll be very happy with that, too, if that’s where she ends up, even though it would mean a subway ride.

If we had complete open choice, we’d probably choose 51 first, only because of the proximity. If Sunset Park Prep and 51 were equally close to home, I might choose SSP first.

Anyhow, the application is in, so I guess some time (May?) we’ll have an answer about where she’s going next year!

And now, about the process generally…I got different answers to my questions–but from what I gather, the way it works is this: The district office takes in all the applications, and then makes copies. The two schools that you rank #1 and #2 will get your application, but they won’t know whether you ranked them #1 or #2. If your kid is accepted by both of those schools, she goes to whichever one was ranked #1. If she’s only accepted to one of them, that’s the one she gets. If she’s not accepted by either of them, they send the application to the number 3, 4, 5, and 6 for a second round.

But the most popular schools will not have any spacesat all for the second round, usually. That’s when things get bad, and you have to start doing personal appeals and so forth. I hope not to get to that point at all.

Last year, the top two choices were informed whether they were ranked 1 or 2, and most of the best schools would not accept any kids who ranked them #2. That led to all kinds of problems. So now they don’t tell the schools–other than to let them know that they were one of the top two–just not which school. But I don’t totally trust that–I have heard rumors that schools can “find out” if they were really #1 or #2, and may use that fact in their decision-making process.

So we ranked them like this
#1–MS 51
#2–Sunset Park Prep
#3–MS 447
(those are three we visited and liked)
#4–New Voices
#5–Peter Rouget (MS 81)
(those are two that we didn’t visit, but we’ve heard good things about them. If it comes to the point where she’s being considered for one of them, of course we’d make a visit at that point).
#6–Collaborative Studies
(and that’s the one we visited and did not think much of.)

The logic is that her application will go to 51 and SSP, and if she gets into both, she’ll go to 51. If she doesn’t get into 51, we think she will almost definitely get into SSP. SSP is much less well-known, much less popular–probably because the students are almost all Latino. But SSP makes their selection from any kids who ranked them 1 or 2, and they base the selection mostly on the 4th grade test scores. Our daughter’s 4th grade scores were very good.

We’re hoping that with this logic, she has a 90% chance of getting either 51 or SSP, and we’d be very happy with either of those. Of course, if she doesn’t get into either of them, things get much more complicated. We’d be fine with her going to 447, but it’s not likely that they’d have space for her in the second round. But we’d hope that among 447, New Voices, and Rouget, at least one of them would have space for her.

The whole thing is so stressful it’s unbelievable. It’s really infuriating. Luckily, except for one night a couple of weeks ago when she was coming down with a cold and feeling generally weepy, our daughter does not seem to be very stressed about it. I know that some parents put a lot of pressure on their kids about this, and we really don’t want to do that–so we try not to have conversations that will make hernervous about it in front of her.

She’s a good kid, with a good heart and a good spirit; she’s very smart and likes school and gets along with other kids pretty easily (says the proud dad!), and I really think she’ll be fine wherever she ends up.