Zoned schools and middle school choice
In some of the city’s 32 school districts, children are assigned to a middle school according to their home address. In others, children must apply to middle school (although they are guaranteed a seat somewhere in the district.) To find out whether your child has a zoned neighborhood school, call 311 (or type your address on the homepage of the Department of Education website).
Whether or not you have a zoned neighborhood school, you probably want to explore your options. Most middle schools serve children in grades 6 to 8, but a few start in 5th grade or 7th grade.
Location is probably your first consideration. It’s nice to be able to walk to school. But if the schools in your neighborhood aren’t great, you’ll want to consider other options. Children who live beyond walking distance from school receive a free Metrocard for the subway or bus. The Department of Education publishes middle school directories for each of the city’s 32 school districts. In general, applications must be submitted in December, and parents are notified of the schools’ decisions in late spring.
There are exceptions. Charter schools (many of which begin in 5th grade) admit children by lotteries held in April. Hunter College High School, which serves children in grades 7 to 12, admits children according to the results of a competitive exam given in January. (Children who score above the 90th percentile on 5th-grade standardized tests are eligible to take the Hunter exam.)
If you move to the city after the application process is finished, an enrollment office must find a place for your child. See our section on New to New York City.
What to look for on a school tour.
Most schools offer tours in the fall. Some districts offer middle school choice fairs in the evening or on a weekend where you can meet the principals and students of a number of schools. Here’s what to look for:
Quality of teaching
Try to look beyond the school's physical plant to the quality of teaching. Look at the kids' faces. Are they interested and engaged? Bored? Staring off vacantly into space? Are you interested in what the teacher is saying?
Do the kids' books look interesting? Look for rich classroom libraries: novels and biographies, science discovery books, colorful atlases and original source materials such as diaries and historical documents. The more books the better—in the classroom as well as in the school library. Schools that rely too heavily on textbooks are dull.
Quality of students' work
Are the walls bare, or are there lots of bulletin boards with kids' work? Look for examples of children's writing. Is the quality of work good? Are the art projects imaginative?
What's the noise level in the school? Chaos, of course, is bad news, but so is total silence. Kids should be talking to other kids and to grown-ups. Even more important, grown-ups should be talking to one another. In a good middle school, teachers meet regularly to discuss everything from curriculum to individual students' progress and problems.
The Q&A period after the tour is a good time to get a feel for the philosophy and atmosphere of a school. You'll get a more revealing answer if you ask open-ended questions such as "How do you handle discipline?" rather than "Is your school safe?" Ask whether parents may visit the school and classes during the year. A school that welcomes parents is not afraid of what you might see on an impromptu visit.
- Make sure your child is eligible to apply. Some schools limit admissions to children living in their district. Many gifted programs and selective middle schools will not accept applications from children who do not meet cut-off scores on standardized 4th grade tests.
- Involve your child. If there's a tour, consider taking your child out of school to accompany you. After all, the child will have to live with the final decision.
- Brace for the tests and interviews. Some schools require a test or audition. Some interview children. Essay questions and auditions can be nerve-wracking, but some kids view them as a chance to show off.
What are your options?
Gifted or selective programs
Academically successful children may apply to accelerated middle school programs. Many of these offer children the chance to take high school–level math or science in the 8th grade. Some of these gifted programs are open to children from all five boroughs, while some are limited to children living in a particular district. Admissions criteria vary. Some programs admit children based on a combination of their 5th-grade scores on reading and math tests, a test of ability called OLSAT.
Programs open to children citywide include NEST+M, a K–12 school, and the Institute for Collaborative Education, both on the Lower East Side; the Anderson School on the Upper West Side; and the Talented and Gifted School for Young Scholars (TAG) in East Harlem—all in Manhattan. Some schools offer their own entrance exam, including Mark Twain in Brooklyn and Hunter College High School in Manhattan. Some, such as Manhattan East, admit children based on a combination of an interview and a test. Others, such as the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS), gauge children’s artistic talent with an audition.
In addition, many zoned neighborhood schools offer “special progress” classes for honors students. Children are placed in these classes based on their standardized test scores. It is not necessary to take the OLSAT for these programs.
Every one of the city’s 32 school districts offers middle school choice, although the options are very limited in some parts of the city. The DOE middle school directories will list some of your options.
For information on charters schools, homeschooling or private schools, see the elementary school pages.
After school and free programs
A Better Chance (ABC) places top middle and high school students of color in highly ranked independent day schools, boarding schools and public schools. Students with at least a B+ average who are ranked in the top 10% of their class are eligible. Candidates must apply one year in advance.
Breakthrough New York at the Town School is a tuition-free, year-round enrichment program for highly motivated middle-school students with limited educational opportunities. There is a two-year commitment, including a rigorous academic summer program and enrichment classes, museum trips, mentoring and high school placement guidance throughout the school year.
The Center for Leadership and College Preparation, affiliated with Bank Street College of Education, offers educational opportunities both to high-achieving students and to struggling students. The program serves kids in 5th to 12th grades, giving them access to a wide range of academic resources, college prep classes, counseling, mentoring and activities, as well as individual attention and support. Students are admitted in the 5th, 7th and 9th grades.
The Double Discovery Center at Columbia University houses educational programs serving low-income and first-generation college-bound students. Talent Search is a career and college counseling program for students in 7th-12th grade.
Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF) offers intensive academic enrichment courses, test preparation, and social and personal development activities for students after school, on Saturdays and during the summer. The goal is to assist college-bound students from educationally and/or economically disadvantaged communities in developing intellectual and life skills. Programs are specific to middle and high school students.
The Oliver Scholars Program selects highly motivated African American and Latino 7th-graders and offers them support and guidance to gain admission to some of the Northeast’s best independent schools. Support continues through the college admissions process.
Prep for Prep, a nonprofit group, helps high-achieving minority students attend top colleges, including Ivy League schools. There are programs for 5th-, 6th- and 7th-grade black, Latino and Asian students. The program includes a seven-week summer session and weekly Wednesday and Saturday classes.
Summer on the Hill at Horace Mann is an enrichment program for academically talented public school students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Students start in the 2nd grade and continue until placed in high school, participating in Saturday-morning classes during the school year and a six-week summer session. They study language arts, math and science, and learn study skills. Summer programs include fine arts, recreation and an overnight trip to the John Dorr Nature Laboratory in Connecticut. Summer on the Hill continues to offer support through 12th grade.
Teak Fellows supports students seeking to gain admissions to top high schools and colleges. Students who are citizens or permanent residents, have proof of financial need and have scored above 90 percent on tests and in class may apply by October of their 7th-grade year. The program runs from the summer after 7th grade until college placement. Only 25 students are accepted each year.
United Neighborhood Houses has a complete list of neighborhood houses and community centers in New York City, many of which offer college counseling.
Project Art is an after-school, weekend and summer visual arts education program that invites art students to explore art in a bold and unique way. The program unites young artists with practicing professional and resident artists from around the world. At the end of the summer term and the school year, project-based student works are displayed in New York City and around the world.
Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and its regional affiliates reach out to schools across the nation to identify accomplished artists and writers in grades 7-12. About 1,000 students earn national awards, including more than $1.5 million in scholarships. Student work is exhibited, published and presented to a national audience.
CUNY Creative Arts Team (CAT) Youth Theatre creates original productions from the ideas of its members. They aim to amplify the collective voice of the group while creating social and culturally relevant theater of the highest possible standard.
Free Arts NYC uses painting, dance, drama, writing, music, sculpture, photography and other creative outlets to help children express themselves and gain confidence and self-esteem through Free Arts Days, Weekly Mentor Program, Parents and Children Together with Art (PACT) and Cultural Enrichment Opportunities.
High 5 is dedicated to making the arts affordable for teens by offering $5 tickets to hundreds of dance, music, theater, film, museum and spoken-word events. Its Teen Reviewers and Critics Program (TRaC) includes weekly seminars and attendance at performances where kids learn how to evaluate and write about what they see. Limited middle school participation - students must be 13.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a program of free classes held after school and on weekends for families and kids from 18 months to 12.
YCkidsARTS, sponsored by the Alliance for the Arts, lists arts and cultural activities available to kids and families, including many neighborhood institutions, after-school activities and more.
The Summer Arts Institute is a tuition-free, intensive, four-week arts program for New York City public school students entering 8th to 12th grades, held at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens. Students major in dance, theater, vocal music, instrumental music, visual art, film or photography. Admission is by application and audition.
Wingspan Arts offers a tuition-free Summer Theater Conservatory for incoming 7th- to 12th-graders. Current 6th- to 11th-graders should log on to the website for information and application. Auditions are held in January and February. High school students put on a play and a musical; middle schoolers write and produce an original work.
Math and science
ExploraVision encourages kids to create and explore a vision of future technology. Students work in small groups, along with a team coach and an optional mentor, simulating research and development teams. Students compete in regional competitions, and the top 24 teams go to a national competition. Prizes include up to $10,000 in savings bonds.
New York Hall of Science in Queens offers free admission September through June on Fridays from 2 to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 10 to 11 a.m.
Alliance for Young Artists and Writers and its regional affiliates reach out to schools across the nation to identify accomplished artists and writers in grades 7 to 12. About 1,000 students earn national awards, including more than $1.5 million dollars in scholarships. Student work is exhibited, published and presented to a national audience.
Creative Communication sponsors essay- and poetry-writing contests for students in grades 4-12. Students compete against their peers in both age and location, and winners share more than $70,000 in prizes. Selected entries are published in a hard-bound anthology.
History, politics and journalism
Children’s PressLine produces journalistic stories created by students ages 8 to 18. Students act as reporters and editors and learn to conduct research and interviews and edit.
HarlemLive is an award-winning, critically acclaimed web magazine produced by teens from throughout New York City. It is a journalism, technology and leadership program that teaches students ages 13-21 how to run an online newspaper. The publication includes news articles, investigative stories, opinion pieces, personal essays, poetry, photography and video documentaries. The students organize events, conduct workshops and sit on panels, improving their networking and public-speaking skills.
The North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO) is modeled after similar Linguistics Olympiads held in Eastern Europe. In these events middle and high school students learn to solve linguistic problems from dozens of the world’s languages. In the process, they learn about the richness and diversity of language and exercise natural logic and reasoning abilities. No prior knowledge of particular languages or linguistics is necessary.
Schomburg Center’s Junior Scholars Program for ages 11-17 offers a Saturday school geared toward students of African descent. Its primary goal is to ground young people in the histories and cultures of the African Diaspora. The program is an intensive, 26-week series of Saturday sessions, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Junior Scholars have access to resources at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. For applications or more information, contact Deirdre Hollman at 212-491-2234.
Teens Take the City is a program of the YMCA of Greater New York through which 500 teens from all backgrounds get involved in local government, civics and politics. The program is partly supported by the New York City Council, and each council member can nominate five students to participate.
The Collectors Club of New York sponsors a free Youth Stamp Club with monthly meetings for kids in grades 4 and up. The program welcomes experienced stamp collectors and introduces beginners to a hobby that also teaches about history, geography, famous people and events. Sessions are held beginning in September on Saturdays from 10-11/30 a.m.
The Boys’ Club of New York welcomes 6- to 20-year-old boys and charges less than a dollar a year to participate in computer classes, attend summer camp, get homework help and receive dental services. The club has a location in Flushing (Queens) and two in Manhattan.
HomeworkNYC.org is a website run by the public libraries. The site is designed specifically to help students in grades K-12th in every area of the New York City schools curriculum and offers live, online assistance. Students and parents can also search for information on a variety of topics. The library site is also affiliated with the teacher’s union Dial-A-Teacher, a helpline that allows students and parents to talk directly with a city teacher Monday through Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m./ 212-777-3380.
The Liberty Leaders program at Bank Street College provides support to 5th- to 12th-graders six days a week for 11 months. Students have access to a wide range of academic resources, college prep classes, counseling and enrichment activities.
Also see our page about after-school programs.
The Garden Apprentice Program at Brooklyn Botanic Garden provides students in grades 8 to 12 with training and volunteer placements focused on gardening, environmental issues, science, leadership and career skills. Apprentices become an important part of the garden’s education department.
The New York Botanical Garden’s Explainer Program accepts middle and high school students between the ages of 13 and 17 who enjoy the outdoors and want to learn about plants, nature and science. The program offers the opportunity to learn about plants, develop new skills and receive personal mentoring. Explainers also help younger children who visit the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden.
At MillionTreesNYC students and families can participate in citywide volunteer tree-planting and tree-care workshops. The program is a public-private initiative launched by the City of New York Parks Department and New York Restoration Project with the goal of planting a million new trees across all five boroughs over the next decade.