The struggle to get into High Tech High

Kids, parents must plan at a younger age than they hoped

As another year rolls around for High Tech High School – an intensely competitive county-run public high school – middle school students in local towns begin preparing for the demanding application process.
Established in 1991, High Tech High, part of the Hudson County Schools of Technology, is located at 2000 85th St. in North Bergen. The school enrolled 162 students for the coming school year out of 1,250 who applied, according to Phil Swibinski, a spokesman for the school district.

“We take in 150 kids, so West New York gets 15 spots.” – Frank Garguilio
With free tuition and an award-winning reputation, the school draws students from the county’s urban districts who would rather go there than the school in their own neighborhood (Jersey City, for instance), making for heated competition.
The school has a demanding application process that requires students to begin to plan ahead several years in advance. The application deadline each year is Dec. 1.
High Tech offers performing arts, science, and communications in a “technology-based environment.” Students select majors based on their career interests.
According to Swibinski, there are roughly 620 total students enrolled in all four grade levels for the coming year.

Start in fifth grade

All applicants must include a lengthy portfolio detailing the student’s extracurricular activities.
“I would tell prospective parents to start thinking about high school in fifth or sixth grade,” said Caroline Leavitt of Hoboken, whose son Max will enter his sophomore year when school commences Sept. 7. Leavitt said that she started saving playbills and certificates from her son’s activities as far back as fifth grade.
“Max had to have a 40-page portfolio, a DVD movie about his life, numerous recommendations, and he had to take a really tough test,” said Leavitt, who said that the many of the recommendations must come from people outside of the school system.
“The whole thing is really intense and really difficult,” said Leavitt. “I thought it was sort of awful, to tell you the truth.”
“You have to have an interest in something we’re doing,” said Hudson County Schools of Technology Superintendent Frank Gargiulo, referring to the performing arts, science, and communications or design. “You have to fit into one of those three categories.”

The politics

Due to the intensely competitive nature of the applications, accusations are made about the politics behind the application process.
Parents like Leavitt feel that Jersey City residents are given preferential treatment.
“That’s what all the parents seem to think is true,” said Leavitt, who feels that the school accepts more Jersey City residents in order to compete with McNair Academic High School, a prestigious Jersey City school that only accepts residents of its town.
According to Gargiulo, admissions are based largely upon populations of each Hudson County municipality.
“I try to give every town an option based on their population,” said Gargiulo. “[For instance, in] West New York there’s 10 percent of the [county’s] population. We take in 150 kids, so West New York gets 15 spots.”
“Jersey City is about 40 percent of the population,” added Gargiulo, who said some of his accepted Jersey City students choose to go to McNair instead. “It’s not so cut and dry.”
He noted, “I think Jersey City is undersubscribed, if you want to know the truth. They are certainly not given preferential treatment.”

Are there other viable options?

Some parents and students worry that a rejection to High Tech High could hinder success in later life.
Class of 2007 graduate Steven Shterenberg, who recently graduated from Cornell University, said the school appealed to him was because of its strong science program and awards, the latter of which he was able to list as part of his own accomplishments on his resume. According to Shterenberg, he would have never been able to attend an Ivy League school such as Cornell had he been rejected from High Tech High.
“No, definitely not,” said Shterenberg. “I think there were a pretty high percentage of students in my year that got into Ivy Leagues.”
Shterenberg added that he believes local public schools are still a viable option.
“My sister went to Secaucus [High School] and she’s doing well,” said Shterenberg with a laugh.
Leavitt said that her son Max had considered attending Hoboken High School.
“We were really pleasantly surprised with the changes in Hoboken High,” she said. But Leavitt knew that because her son’s specific interests were in theater and the performing arts, High Tech High was the best match.
“I don’t feel like there are a whole lot of options for high schools around Hoboken,” said Leavitt, “[and] private schools are expensive. It puts a whole lot of pressure on the kids and a whole lot of pressure on the parents.”
A few charter schools have popped up in Jersey City and Hoboken over the last 10 years, but not all include high schools.
“High Tech is a really rigorous school,” Leavitt said, “and we’re all happy he’s there.”
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at

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