NYC middle and high school students received a 32-digit code that tells them where they fit into the admissions process. Photo: dylan nolte / Unsplash

If your child is applying for New York City middle school or high school this year, please be sure to note a critical update on their profile in MySchools, the portal used to rank your choices: Their lottery number. 

It’s a confusing 32-digit code but it basically tells you where your child fits into the Byzantine, ever-changing process of admissions. And this year, the Department of Education released this number before you submit your list of schools. That’s in response to parents filing freedom of information requests for it and demands for greater transparency around how seats are allotted. 

Here are the two best explainers we’ve read on the lottery system: 

In a post last year titled, “Decoding the NYC School Admission Lottery Numbers,” New York City school parent and computer scientist (because that’s the background needed to figure this out) Amélie Marian lays out what the digits mean, the various ways school admissions by lottery could have gone, and — importantly — how to decipher your kid’s number. “The numbers are compared left to right, in increasing order: from 0 to f (0–9 then a-f). This means that the first character is enough to give you a rough idea of how good your number is: a lottery number that starts with 0 is in the first 1/16th (6.25%), one that starts with F in the last 1/16th.”

Bottom line: You want a lottery assignment that starts with a number. (Disclosure: My kid’s does not. This tutoring site’s calculator was even more blunt, telling me ours “is not considered a good number.”)

We followed up with Marian, and her Q-and-A is below. She also says she’s updating her data and will be out with a new post soon. 

Here’s another helpful post from PLACE, which stands for Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum in Education. As its name implies, it is an advocacy group; for example, it is fighting to keep and expand gifted-and-talented testing. The key part of this post is the table with the first two digits followed by where it places you compared to everyone else. It uses the example of a lottery assignment starting with 6b. “Look for 6b in the table below. This correspond(s) to 42.2% …This means that 42.2% of students have the same or better lottery numbers than your child.”

We’re going to keep tabs on how this plays out. Like New York City’s public schoolchildren, our sister newsletter, The Unmuted, is on vacation this week. Another area of concern for us: word of mouth (among parents at pickup and dropoff, on the playground and at activities) is a critical way school research and decision-making goes down. We hope parents who are not on Facebook groups or glued to the Twitter accounts of certain schools, PTAS and education reporters can ascertain their chances and plan accordingly. 

Photo courtesy of Amélie Marian

As promised, here’s Marian with some answers; she wants to make it clear she is not with the DOE and these answers are based on her data and observations. Edited excerpts: 

Epicenter: Thanks so much for that post explaining hexadecimal numbers.  It was a most thorough explanation on lottery numbers for middle school and high school. Do you have updated information since it was posted? What do you think this year’s admissions will look like?  

AM: I have some updated information. I am working on a post right now. However, the data I have on cutoff, while informative, is bound to change this year for high schools with all the modifications to the process. For middle school, I would expect the situation to be more stable.

Epicenter: How does declining enrollment at schools affect who gets in and the numbers? Do lower enrollments translate into higher chances? 

AM: Fewer applicants would translate to higher chances IF the number of offers does not change. It is possible that some schools will open fewer classes (this routinely happens in kindergarten enrollment). There is evidence that this happened last year with middle school enrollment so that less-popular schools would not bear the largest share of the decline in enrollment. In addition, for high school the pool of applicants eligible for screened schools is likely to be larger, so that may have the inverse effect of decreasing the chances of admission. It is hard to tell.  

Epicenter: Why do some coveted schools still have 80% probability of getting in, while others have an under 1% chance? What factors besides lottery affect who gets in and why? 

AM: I am assuming you are talking about Booker T? [Booker T. Washington is a middle school on the Upper West Side.] That was one big surprise of crowdsourcing last year. The probability of getting into a school depends on how many seats are in the schools (Booker is a large school with more than 800 students), how many students apply, and how they rank the school. Anderson and Nest are citywide [gifted-and-talented programs] and had very few seats (because of continuing student priority) for a large number of applicants, hence the under 1% chance. As for factors, it depends on the school admission procedure. High school, last year at least, had a wide variety of admission factors, which impacted the chances of admission.

Epicenter: If you know your kids’ lottery number is low (meaning a majority of kids have a better number and thus higher likelihood of more coveted choices), what is the right strategy? Should you focus on BIG schools that have a higher shot of getting them in up high in the list? 

AM: With a “bad” lottery number, large schools are definitely a better bet. 

Epicenter: What if you do not rank your zoned school? Does the DOE have to give you one of the other 12?

AM: No. If you don’t match anything on your list the DOE can assign you to ANY school. It doesn’t have (and likely won’t be) to be a school on your list. If you have a zoned school that is your most likely default assignment UNLESS it is full.

For more on school admissions, remote learning and vegan Fridays, subscribe to The Unmuted.

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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