There is a trick to getting to the front of the lines that clog sidewalks outside New York City’s top public high schools each fall.
Parents who pay $200 for a newsletter compiled by a local admissions consultant know that they should arrive hours ahead of the scheduled start time for school tours.
On a recent Tuesday, there were about a hundred mostly white parents queued up at 2:30 p.m. in the spitting rain outside of Beacon High School, some toting snacks and even a few folding chairs for the long wait. The doors of the highly selective, extremely popular school would not open for another two hours for the tour.
Parents and students who arrived at the actual start time were in for a surprise. The line of several thousand people had wrapped around itself, stretching for three midtown Manhattan blocks.
Tens of thousands of eligible families were not there at all.
Many New Yorkers cannot leave work in the middle of the afternoon, and some students surely did not know that the open house — or even the school — existed in the first place.
Beacon’s admissions rate is roughly akin to Yale’s: there were over 5,800 applicants for 360 ninth-grade seats last year.
The lines that surround Beacon and other elite high schools are a living symbol of the anxiety, competition and inequality that define New York’s segregated public school system. High school admissions are seen as perhaps the most egregious example of how city policies end up dividing privileged parents from vulnerable families.
That dynamic was on display outside of Beacon’s two fall open houses.
“I am my son’s administrative assistant, that’s the best way to put it,” said Laura Kosik, who lined up early with her son, thanks to a tip from the newsletter, created by the consultant Elissa Stein.
Ms. Kosik, who is white and lives in Manhattan near Union Square, had also met with a different schools consultant who charges $240 an hour to dispense advice about the process. “I feel like this is a job,” she said.
Lakisha Moore and her son stood several hundred people behind Ms. Kosik.
“I didn’t know that I should have come early,” said Ms. Moore, who had arrived about a half an hour before the scheduled start, hoping to make it inside quickly. “I wish they had put that on the website,” added Ms. Moore, who is black and lives in Queens.
Though New York’s school system is mostly black and Hispanic, its highest-performing schools are largely white and Asian. Beacon’s student population was half white last year, and about a quarter of its students were low-income, compared to about three-quarters of the district as a whole.
A debate over how to make the city’s top schools more representative of the city itself has reached a fever pitch over the last year.
In March, a tiny number of black students got into the ultra-selective Stuyvesant High School, which has more low-income students than Beacon but a much smaller percentage of black and Hispanic students. In August, a panel commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio to study desegregation recommended that the city eliminate its mostly white and Asian elementary school gifted-and-talented classes.
Interviews with three dozen parents, students and educators revealed how high the stakes of the high school admissions process in particular feel to many families — and how easy it is for some children to get left behind.
“You only get one chance to figure out four years of your kid’s education,” said Alisa Kriegel, who joined Beacon’s line early after reading Ms. Stein’s newsletter. She waited with three other white mothers who met at their children’s TriBeCa middle school.
The four women had created an informal admissions support group, complete with a shared Google calendar, a robust group text and the promise of company on long waits to tour schools. “We’ve been going through hell,” Ms. Kriegel said.
“The Department of Education should be doing what Elissa Stein is doing, for free,” said Jill Taddeo, who was part of Ms. Kriegel’s crew.
Ms. Stein said about 500 families have signed up for her newsletter this fall, but noted that about 80,000 students are currently applying to high school. Ms. Stein said she offers reduced rates to low-income families and has signed some people up for free. “It shouldn’t be this hard to go to high school,” she said.
Under a school choice system created by Michael R. Bloomberg when he was mayor, the city allows students to apply to up to 12 high schools anywhere in New York, and an algorithm matches children with one school. Some parents said the ranking process was so daunting that they turned to YouTube for strategies.
Though there is no penalty for students who do not attend a tour, Beacon’s two open houses provide the only opportunity most families have to see inside the school. The Department of Education said that school also organizes small student tours that are not advertised.
Beacon, unlike Stuyvesant, does not have an admissions test. But to win a spot, students must have high standardized test scores and grades, along with a strong portfolio of middle school work and admissions essays. Students are much less likely to be accepted if they do not list Beacon as their top choice.
A teacher at the school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some at the school believe that enrollment, “reflects income, and where kids grew up, and not necessarily academic ability.”
The teacher also said that the school’s administrators brag about the huge open house lines, and consider the turnout “a source of pride.”
Beacon is not the only selective school that makes it difficult to take a tour.
Stuyvesant usually has two fall open houses that parents queue up for, and Bronx Science, another specialized school, has only one.
Other selective schools have tried to avoid lines by allowing parents to register for tours online. But the tours are booked within a few minutes; Ms. Stein’s newsletter sends reminders to register the moment slots are available.
“We have a private school admissions system set up with public school resources,” said Clara Hemphill, the founding editor of Inside Schools, a website that reviews local public schools.
Still, she said, “the schools that care about equity and access have found a way around this.”
Bard High School Early College, which typically has about 7,000 applicants for 300 freshman seats at its two diverse campuses, offers weekly school tours and holds events for families to learn about the school in all five boroughs.
Another highly selective school, Manhattan Hunter Science High School, halted its open houses after the lines became too unwieldy. The school now posts virtual tours on its website.
Bedford Academy, a high-performing, mostly black school in Brooklyn, holds its open houses on Saturdays.
The free-for-all lines at Beacon and at LaGuardia High School, a competitive performing arts school, felt intimidating for some parents.
Joan Bann and her son shuffled past a taxi inspection depot near the West Side Highway to join a line of at least 1,000 people outside Beacon last month.
“I’m saying, ‘What is it about this school that you have this long line?’” said Ms. Bann, who is black and lives in Harlem. “What are my chances, how many seats can they possibly fill?”
She added, “I should be able to get a good school in my own community.”
Many families echoed the sentiment that there were not enough good options. Ms. Hemphill said the city could take action by expanding the number of seats at high-performing high schools that do not have strict academic requirements for admission. “It’s a no-brainer,” she said.
Mr. de Blasio has taken steps to try to make admissions more equitable. Earlier this year, the city said it would replace the second round of high school applications with wait lists in an attempt to streamline the process. The city has also scrapped a policy that allowed some schools to give preference to students who attended a school fair or open house.
“We’re taking a hard look at our admissions processes,” said schools chancellor Richard A. Carranza, who has said desegregation is a top priority.
Halley Potter, who studies school integration at the Century Foundation, said the current system was deeply flawed: “There’s a good reason why that’s not the way that most other cities and districts approach high school.”
In the meantime, families are left scrambling for any edge they can find.
Maxwell Damoah and Paulina Arhin, both immigrants from Ghana, stood on one of last month’s Beacon lines as drizzle turned into a steady rain. They said they were grateful that their daughters were enrolled in Breakthrough, a local program for low-income students that offers mentoring through the high school admissions process and reminders about open houses, among other services.
Mr. Damoah, who works an overnight shift at a nearby Hilton hotel, said he wanted to give his daughter the best opportunities. “I want her to not be like me, working in the night,” he said. “It has been very stressful, but I’m hoping at the end of the day, better things will come to our side.”
Ms. Arhin said her daughter was excelling at a Bronx charter school and hoped to attend a high-performing school like Beacon.
“We wish for Beacon,” said Ms. Arhin. But without Breakthrough, she added, “maybe I wouldn’t know about this school.”