Monday, December 17

Middle School Muddle: Why middle school tours are not exactly love at first sight

Anyone who expects to come away from a New York City public middle school tour with a “THIS IS THE PLACE FOR MY KID” feeling should adjust expectations. I’m told this does happen to some parents – and to some kids – who feel instantly comfortable after brief visits.

It just has not been our experience so far. Instead, we climb a ton of stairs, strain to hear our tour guide, lose our tour guide and get separated. I scan walls furiously, gauging artwork, writing and projects at a glance. We enter classrooms ever-so-briefly; never long enough to understand the purpose of a lesson.

After every middle school tour, I get a headache and my 5th-grade son complains that the school – no matter how small – is way too big.

“I didn’t like it,’ he says, as I root around in my pocketbook for a Tylenol. “There are too many people.’’

I try to explain that the “people’’ he objects to are hundreds of parents and kids, who show up for the tour armed with questions – usually about getting in. The reason for that is simple – there aren’t enough good public middle schools in New York City, and the best get way more applicants than they can take.

So naturally, tours segue into a barrage of test score and high school queries. Then come the detailed, lengthy scenario questions unique to a child’s individual issues. Mercifully, most principals recognize they probably shouldn’t be addressed in a packed auditorium or hallway and get the tours moving.

The kids ask about sports and clubs. And always, they want to know if they can go out to lunch.
My son looked so unhappy after his last tour that I wondered what he really learns from all these visits. He insisted he really likes seeing the buildings and hearing from “the kid tour guides.

I’m not blaming educators and parent coordinators for the crowds and chaos. Tours are an added pressure at a time when schools are being judged and evaluated by test scores and student improvement. Their first responsibility has to be to educate the kids already there.

My advice, based on about a dozen tours over two years? Don’t judge a school by the tour alone. Find a way to get back into the building for a different event. Talk to kids, parents and any of the educators who will give you the time in less pressured circumstances.

Call the schools you may be interested in and find out if there is a talent show, performance, PTA event or potluck supper where you might meet staff, parents and kids. Some districts are holding middle school fairs this winter where you can also meet kids and staffers in less pressured circumstances.

That’s what we did last week. We attended a talent show at a school with a disappointing tour, but one we know is terrific nonetheless. My son met teachers and the principals, saw the kids in action and had a great time. He came home smiling and optimistic for the first time in weeks. This extra step may feel like a headache but it will save you a much bigger one later on.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

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