High School Placement 101 Parent Coffee October 2019

Sharing our process, partnership, and parent insights.

Dear parents,

We were pleased to have parents from all different grades in attendance for our “High School Placement 101” Parent Coffee on October 23rd, featuring a panel discussion with Town colleagues and three parents of recent Town graduates. 

At the heart of the Town-parent partnership is ongoing, proactive communication. We know that parents have questions about high school well before you have any sort of real “to-do” list (which doesn’t begin until the spring of 7th grade), and we want to demystify the process as much as possible. 

My colleagues and I appreciate the opportunity to share with you what we do, when we do it, and why the process is an important culminating experience for our 8th graders, essential to students’ development and future educational success. Thank you, as always for engaging with important conversations about your child’s journey at Town and for your investment in our mission and program. I encourage you to reach out with questions or for further conversation.


Doug Signature First Name.jpg

Douglas Brophy
Head of School
Parent, Class of 2025

Summary of Panel Discussion and Parent Questions


  • Doug Brophy, Head of School
  • Carol Seeley, Head of Upper School
  • Bill McCartney, Director of Placement
  • Three parents of recent Town graduates: Anne, Lisa, Shonali

Panelists' comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Carol Seeley, Head of Upper School

One of the first Town events I attended was last spring’s 7th grade parent education evening about high school placement, and now I am seeing firsthand just how much experience with families, children, and ongoing schools the team at Town brings to the high school application process. The value of Town’s high school process lies in making use of all the skills, abilities, and personal growth a student has accumulated at Town, while further developing students’ confidence, agency, and self-awareness, and helping them learn to articulate who they are as learners and as people. Without completing Town’s full N-8 program, including the high school process, children simply do not achieve those developmental milestones in the same powerful way. I have the honor to work with the students directly, and they are able to authentically consider what’s coming up for them and what they want from their high school experience. At ages 13 and 14, they’re ready to explore new opportunities as people, as learners, and we support them – and their families – every step of the way.  

Bill McCartney, High School Placement Director / 7th grade History teacher, 8th grade English teacher / Alumni/ae Parent ‘10 and ‘13

The overarching theme of our high school placement process is finding the right fit for your child. The process is designed to maximize the amount of information we can gather and share with you towards that end. 

Over the past 10 years, Town graduates have attended 66 different schools! Every graduating class is about the same size, between 34 and 39 students, so nearly 400 students are in this data set. Those 66 schools include:

  • 27 co-ed independent schools; 15 in Manhattan, 5 in the Bronx, 5 in Brooklyn, 2 in Westchester
  • All 7 girls schools in NYC
  • 4 boys schools
  • 18 boarding schools
  • 10 public schools including the specialized high schools (the 8 schools for which admission is controlled by a test), performing arts schools (i.e. La Guardia), and other ‘screened schools.’

The point you hopefully take from this is that there is a very broad variety of schools out there. Knowing just how many different options you have is a big part of this process.

Knowing your child: You selected Town for your child at Nursery, Kindergarten, or other lower grades. In the ensuing years we as parents have changed a little, but your children have changed a LOT. They might not have had a big say in that Kindergarten choice, but they are developmentally ready to have a big say in this high school process. Therefore it becomes essential to work with Town to know your child in all the ways a high school admissions office will try to know your child. It’s not just academics. We are asking about who they are as a student, in social situations. Are they interested in sports or the arts? Do they have a passion for community service or social justice issues? What do they hope to do more of – or try for the first time – in high school? Town offers a lot of initiatives appropriate for children in elementary and middle school, developing the leadership and experience that prepare them to help drive this high school search and to thrive in a broad variety of schools. Getting to know your child as they are now, and your child learning to articulate what they know about themselves, that is the design and the goal of our work.

The process in brief:

  • Until the last third of 7th grade there is nothing specific you ought to be doing, other than having your child engage fully in the Town program. You may be building anecdotal info about your child and about ongoing schools, but there are no specific actions to take yet.
  • In April we have a group meeting for the 7th grade parents to explain the nuts and bolts of the process, and I meet personally with every family at the end of the 7th grade year.
  • The summer before 8th grade is a time to begin investigating, building the list of schools you and your child will finalize by November. In the fall you will refine that list by doing more research and visiting schools. 
  • There is a standardized testing component: students take a test in the fall or early winter that becomes one piece of the material that we present to the high schools. 
  • During the application process, we dedicate a weekly 8th grade class period (“Decisions”) to educating the students on the process, checking in on their progress, answering questions, and offering support with essays and interviews. I send detailed emails to parents so they are connected to everything we are doing. 
  • We prepare a complete package for each student for each school they are applying to, and deliver those materials to the schools before Winter Break. 
  • The first round of independent school decisions arrive in February (most schools adhere to the ISAAGNY dates), though there may well be waitlist decisions or other conversations that continue well after that time period. Public school admissions decisions come in March, again with potential second rounds of decisions extending later in the spring. 

Talk to other parents who have been through this. As much as I and the Town team know, people who have been through this process have incredibly valuable perspective and experience. I have taught almost 1,000 children at Town, and they’re all different; each family will have unique wisdom to share. Don’t stop with this parent coffee; keep talking to your Town community. Talking to our community is in fact a formal part of our process; closer to decisions period I will put current 8th grade families in touch with families who have recently gone through the process and can help answer questions about what it’s really like attending specific schools.

Reflections from parents of Town alumni/ae who are attending/attended Horace Mann, Dwight, Dalton, Fieldston, and Trinity.

Anne, parent of twins, class of 2018

Our boys are very different, and we knew going into the process that we were going to have to look at a variety of schools. In doing so we became much more open-minded; we would come out of every school with something positive. Don’t go into this thinking you know the “right” list. I could not have guessed where my boys ended up! We also found in our many tours that all of the schools have fantastic facilities and programs; a known strength or focus in one area does not mean they are necessarily lacking in other areas. Try to avoid assumptions about which schools are the "academic" or "artsy" or "athletic" schools and make an evaluation based on what you actually see and learn. Watch your children navigate these environments when they begin doing school visits. They will know what feels right to them. 

Manage what you can (like making sure they get enough sleep!), and let the school do what they do best. They know this process, as well as your children, sometimes in ways you may not. Your kids will surprise you with what they are ready and able to do, and the network at Town is amazing.  

I asked my kids, high school sophomores now, what they remember about the process. Both boys reflected that yes, they felt nervous about the process, but they knew it would work out. This is such a supportive community and it will work out; the best thing you can do as parents is to reinforce that idea at home.

Lisa, parent of two Town alums, classes of 2014 and 2016

I also have two very different children; one a sophomore in college and one going through the college application process now. When we first decided on Town, we chose it for the N-8 model, and didn’t really think about the high school aspect at that time. Looking back now I can say the 8th grade application process was absolutely a highlight of our Town experience. The children built skills in researching, interviewing, and discernment, but the most important to me was the self-reflection: learning who they are, what challenges them, what drives them, what they need and want. That process builds a foundation for the rest of their lives, and they got that here at Town, in the most supportive, loving environment. Learning to navigate the related challenges early on set them up to be better prepared for high school and college. 

Knowing and accepting who your children are is so important. The people who came out of this experience feeling the best were those who knew their kids well and looked for schools that fit them. Your children can help guide you in this. I remember a friend mentioning to my son how much he liked a particular school, and my son replying ‘oh, that might be right for you, but not me.’ The ability to have that conversation, and to reflect on the idea that all students have different needs, is so impactful at that age.

There’s no one right school. Separate your dream school from where your children will be happy. It may seem that where they go for high school will determine all their future happiness and success, and that’s just not the case.

They – and you – will be supported here through the ups and downs. The support the students have here from their friends and their teachers is the foundation for their future. I have felt so spoiled by Town when going through the college process. The kids are so well prepared as they have already learned how to do interviews, take admissions tests, evaluate schools, and take ownership of an important life choice. 

Quotes from my kids:

“Going through the high school process was helpful for college, but more importantly it was a good exercise in decision making. It was the first decision I really made for myself; it was good for me to take responsibility and wrestle with that. ...the whole thing helped inform how I go about making important decisions ever since...”

“I learned a lot about what’s important to me and the kind of community I’ll do well in. It forced me to mature in ways my friends in K-12 schools weren’t given the opportunity to do. It taught me time management and how to think productively about a competitive process. It was incredibly satisfying to get through the challenging and stressful parts and know that I would be ok, that I could do it...”

Shonali, parent of two Town alums, classes of 2016 and 2019

I echo everything my fellow parents have said. I would only add: trust the process! The Town team knows your children. Yes, ask questions, get clarification when you need it, have the challenging conversations when you feel strongly about something – but also trust the process. Your kids become so confident; they go into their high school knowing who they are. They have the confidence of having been the leaders at Town, and stepping into a new class of students in 9th grade, they fit in so well. It’s wonderful to see how confident they are in becoming part of a new community.

Parent questions

I remember applying to college when there was a lot of focus on extracurricular activities as a way to set yourself apart. How much do we have to worry about this?

Shonali: I can speak to this as I had one child who did everything, and one who didn’t do much at school, but she did swim! I was worried that it wouldn’t be a good enough “list,” but all the schools want to see is that something matters to your child. They want to see your child is a good kid, that they have a high emotional IQ, that they know how to be a good member of a community.

Doug: I have also worked as part of a high school admissions team, and they are not looking for 8th graders with a huge list of interests. We encourage every Town  student to be able to tell their unique story. There is something complementary in letting kids be kids, but also having a balanced life, which does include extracurricular activities that fit their story. The whole picture matters most. 

Bill: I would add that the high school admissions team is simply asking “what is this child going to bring to our community?”. Admissions professionals know that a student who has pursued their interests in a deeper way will add life to the high school community. We’ve also experienced that kids love to talk about extracurricular pursuits in essays and in their interviews. It becomes clear what their passions are, and there is not a right or wrong choice.

Doug: There are so many variables when a child does or does not get into a school. Admissions officers will be looking at who else is applying that year, what types of students the school is looking for to fill out their class. It’s a challenge to isolate one thing. At the same time, we have heard repeatedly from our 9th graders and other young alums over the years who did not get into their first choice, how happy they are in their high schools. 

Bill: We don’t have comprehensive data on this, because the schools don’t typically send an explanation with a denial (primarily because of the numbers of families they are communicating with). There are endless reasons, and they interact in endless ways. The admissions department has a mission to mold a complete class, starting with many rising 9th graders in-house, then adding in some cases almost a third or even half of the class. (Boarding schools are slightly different, because they are starting from scratch). Contrary to popular belief, they are not just looking for the best academic work, or highest test scores. The process is in reality looking at several "buckets" such as grades, test scores, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and the students’ passions or interests.  

Lisa: Both of my kids had friends who didn’t get into their top choice. However, Town does not try to shield children from emotion, but rather teaches children at every age how to process emotional experiences. As parents, we of course would like our kids never to be disappointed, but if they are, they learn a valuable life skill about how to take a situation and, with the resources and caring support of their school community and family, learn to make the best of it. That’s another way I feel Town contributes to these kids growing, not just in terms of academics. I would add that every kid we knew who wasn’t happy with their initial options ended up very happy when they actually started at their new school.  

Why do some students choose a single-sex high school after their co-ed experience at Town?

Bill: The majority of Town graduates do continue at co-ed schools and often start with a list of only co-ed schools; that’s the experience they’ve had so far, that’s what the world is. But to really take into account all of the options out there, we should consider these other models. There isn’t any common factor that would prompt us as a team here to identify a kid as likely to choose a single-sex high school. There are more girls’ schools available, so just mathematically there are more girls who have gone to single-sex high schools. Only two families I can remember knew they wanted single-sex from the outset. It’s about visiting and seeing what these schools are really like, and whether it’s choosing boarding, single-sex, or co-ed, you will see a moment when your child has a “gut feeling” that an environment felt right for them.

Doug: Before coming to Town, I was academic dean for 10 years at a single-sex school, and got to know several Town grads there. Every one of them thrived. Remember you are searching for the right fit (wonderful) vs the perfect (aspirational) fit. Single-sex was the right fit for the Town alums I met at Spence, and they excelled in many ways.

What’s the reason for the increased workload in 7th grade? Prep for high school?

Carol: In my experience working with middle school children for many years, it’s developmentally appropriate for the step up in work to happen at 6th and 7th grade. This is not, however, done just to prepare for high school, but to prepare them to be better students, to do deeper dives and become more complex, abstract thinkers. Yes, we want to prepare them for the years ahead, but our immediate goal is to help them grow where they are right now as students.

Doug: We consistently hear from alumni/ae about how ready they felt for 9th grade work, and we are obliged to foster that. More importantly, we want students to learn how to think more deeply, which requires them to engage with more complex work, which takes more time. This process is essential for our students’ intellectual development.


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