Friday, January 4

Middle School Muddle: The Lab mystique

I’ve toured New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea twice in three years for my very different sons, and each time I’ve had a similar reaction to the hothouse of high achievers. I’m fascinated and slightly overwhelmed. I thoroughly wish there could be more middle schools like it.

Lab is diverse, eclectic and brimming with excellent teachers and students who enjoy working in groups and swapping ideas. During my visits, I heard enlightened exchanges between teachers and students. I gazed at walls covered with elaborate and worthwhile collaborative projects the school is well known for. I was impressed by the many opportunities for students who love to learn.

Each time, though, I found myself recoiling at tours jammed with high-anxiety elementary school parents already obsessed with high school and college admissions. A battery of obsessive queries about tutoring, test scores and Who-Gets-In dominated conversation, taking away from a truly interesting academic program I wanted to hear more about.

No wonder both my kids rolled their eyes. I had to remind myself the school is for kids, not parents in a city where the supply for high-quality public education does not meet the demand.

My older son declared that “cruel stories about hours and hours of homework’’ turned him off from listing Lab as his first choice two years ago, even though I hoped he’d want to go there. He was probably right to trust his own instincts. He’s been delighted with his first choice, the Clinton School for Artists and Writers -- smaller, less selective and strong in two of his favorite subjects – writing and art.

My 5th grader found himself put off by crowded hallways (mostly with touring parents) along with large class sizes (between 32 and 34 students). He declared the school of 583 to be “too big,’’ in part because Lab also houses a high school (in my mind, a distinct advantage) and he couldn't always tell what he was seeing on the tour.

Both whirlwind visits provided only a small piece of the Lab story, so I consulted my well respected former colleague on the education beat, Joe Williams, author of Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005). He's the father of a Lab 7th grader and we'd swapped middle school impressions last time around.

“The $18 billion question is why there aren’t more schools like this,’’ said Joe, a former reporter for the New York Daily News and now the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Joe pays equal attention to larger education obstacles in the U.S. along with the vexing smaller kind city parents face, like keeping your kids from losing multiple Metrocards. Lab, he explains, is built on high expectations and creation of an ideal culture for a school. It has a distinct philosophy, articulated on its website and evident in all instruction.

“It’s the kind of place where it’s considered okay to be intellectual,’’ Joe says. “That alone is hard to pull off.’’

It also adds pressure that in Joe’s mind “can be both good and bad. At some level it pushes my son to do as much as he can. The downside is he’s stressed out. The homework is intense. There are a lot of kids who are at that high level without having to try that hard.’’

On balance, Joe said his 7th grader “is very happy at Lab.’’ He hopes he’ll consider staying through high school, and that his 4th grader will choose it for middle school as well.

For a New York City parent, that’s the ultimate endorsement.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

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