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City Makes Unwieldy High School Directory Easier to Search Online

By Amy Zimmer | September 12, 2016 5:47pm | Updated on September 13, 2016 11:40am
 The city launched a new tool for parents to search high schools on their cellphones.
The city launched a new tool for parents to search high schools on their cellphones.
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MANHATTAN — Researching high schools in New York City just got a little easier — at least for tech-savvy families.

The Department of Education unveiled a new digital tool Monday that allows families to search for schools by location, size and other criteria on their smartphones. Now parents no longer have to thumb through the unwieldy 500-page high school directory to narrow down their student's top 12 choices from more than 400.

The new tool, called NYC School Finder, is in beta mode and available in English and Spanish, said DOE officials, who hope to expand it to other languages in the future and continue refining it.

The tool allows families — and guidance counselors — to save time searching for high schools using keywords for academics (like Advance Placement courses or English Language Learner programs), activities (like robotics or mock trial) or sports (like cricket or bowling).

It also links to other useful information, like Google Maps to calculate commute times and Insideschools.org’s reviews, which are a go-to for many families during the admissions process. Additionally, the tool connects users to the city’s data-rich School Performance Dashboard.

Families have long complained about the massive time investment needed to identify appropriate high school options for their kids, and while the new digital tool will likely help, many experts caution that it won’t solve the root problem of a system that requires parents and students take time away from work or school to attend high school fairs, tours and open houses; prep for and take special exams; and go on auditions and interviews.

“At the end of the day, it’ll still be going to the high school fairs, going on tours — the real tangible things will still matter,” said Elissa Stein, who founded a service (costing $150) called High School 411 to help parents navigate the high school admissions process.

She pointed out that the DOE's new tool doesn’t answer some of the most common questions parents have. For instance it does not let you search for schools based on graduation or college attendance rates. (Though you can find those data points once you click on a school's info page.)

Stein also said that some information is incorrect. Her child’s school, Brooklyn Tech, a specialized school with a science focus, did not come up during a search for STEM programs, which seemed to feature schools that had more of STEM extracurricular focus.

You also can't search for more than one criterion — like bowling and AP calculus — simultaneously, Stein added, necessitating two separate searches for academics and for activities.

“While this could be an interesting addition of a search tool to help you find schools not on your radar, it’s not a sufficient search for your specific kid with a multitude of interests,” she said.

There are also concerns that the new tool doesn’t address the many parents who don't have computer access or smart phones, and might further deepen the digital divide.

"Picking a high school with a rigorous curriculum is crucial for students to get into and ultimately graduate from four-year colleges,” said Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York, which works with low-income students to help them get into elite high schools and then graduate from selective four-year universities.

"We hope the city's top high schools will do more to inform students in low-income communities about tours and interview dates that are required for admission." 

Stein also said that families wanted more information on when tours are since if they don’t sign up right away at some schools they will get shut out. Only two days into the academic year tours for at least two schools — Millennium Manhattan in the Financial District and Bard High School Early College Queens in Long Island City — were already booked, Stein pointed out.

The DOE did, in fact, quietly launch a separate high school calendar that lists high school tours and open houses, which can link to Google Maps and your personal calendar. That new tool links to the calendar.

Families can find more information about high school fairs here and sign up for the DOE’s newsletter to get updates on high school admissions events and deadlines here.