Thursday, June 19

Middle School Muddle: Tips I wish I could give

by Liz Willen

After two middle school searches in three years, I wish I could pretend to be the seasoned pro, generous with wisdom, advice and pitfalls to avoid. But even though we did our homework carefully, visited lots of schools in District 2, and listened to the words of teachers, guidance counselors and district officials, we discovered that the middle school admissions process did not work well this year. Confusion and misinformation triumphed.

Part of it is a supply and demand problem, of course. There simply aren't enough good public middle schools in New York City, and as more parents choose to raise their children here and want to support public education, something has to change -- quickly. Demand for the best public elementary schools is on the rise, leading inevitably to crowding and more competition. So clearly, there is a need to improve the city's middle schools.

For the record, my complaints are not directed at the personal situation my family finds ourselves in. My now seventh-grader two years ago chose the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, where the language arts program has been absolutely outstanding. The teachers, principal and parent coordinators are warm, welcoming and approachable. Truth is, there should be more schools like Clinton everywhere. And more like Lab, Salk, MAT and East Side Middle School, to name a few of the terrific schools we've toured, some of them twice.

Two years ago, our middle-school search went well. We gave lots of schools careful consideration before ranking Clinton first of five choices. By April, it was over.

My current fifth-grader's class didn't fare as well. Graduation is Friday and several of his classmates are shut out of all of their choices, as are children all over the city.

The appeals process is underway. No one knows how it will go. This year decisions did not come in until mid-June. Many kids got the wrong letters. Some didn't get letters at all, leaving it to the patient elementary school guidance counselors, parent coordinators and principals to help sort things out.

How were decisions made? No one can say for sure, but we do know that the Department of Education decided to centralize the process -- meaning, take it out of the hands of the schools and districts, even though it was working well.

Did principals even look at applications this year? Was it just a numbers game, test scores and the like? I'm thinking about the carefully crafted hand-written notes my son and some of his friends wrote to their first-choice schools, describing why they wanted to be there. And those art and writing projects they attached?

Julie Shapiro wrote a good piece in the Downtown Express, describing the frustration and shock many families whose children are shut out of schools now feel. If I had a child entering fifth-grade next year, I'd be very concerned. Will the process be changed? If so, how? What should parents know? Whatever is decided, it's critical that schools, district officials, principals, parent coordinators and guidance counselors give out THE SAME INFORMATION, which was not at all the case this year.

My younger son, as it turns out, is also going to Clinton and I feel lucky. But I'm sick about all the great kids left hanging, and the unfortunate impression of contempt the Department of Education is showing to children and families who truly want to be here and support city schools.


Anonymous said...

My advice to ALL parents who will go through this next year....

1. Don't be afraid or hesitant about applying out-of-district schools. In fact, especially in Districts 15 & 2 where there are far too many kids and not nearly enough good MSs it is imperative.

2. Hold your nose and do apply to a private school. Ask for financial aid if need be. Let that be your safety school. If I had it to do again I would DEFINITELY have done this.

3. Make sure you list several acceptable alternatives on your application aside from your top choices. If not, if they don't get in their top schools they will be randomly assigned. not a pretty picture.

4. Try to get any negative teacher comments about behavior on your kid's report cards (no matter how minute) removed before you submit them. Even the inkling that your child may not be a perfect, little angel may kill their chances to get into some good schools. Sad, but very true.

5. Try to get letters of reference from teachers, etc at your school to submit with your application.

6. Most important. Don't follow the pack. Be creative. There is way too much of "All of his/her friends are going there." as a choice
rationale. Kids are really adaptable to new situations. Besides, couldn't your child do with a new environment and new friends after 6 years at the same PS with the same kids?

7. Don't sell your kid short. Don't be intimidated by schools requiring talents and auditions. You'll be surprised what your kid can pull-off with some coaching and encouragement. Of course, some natural talent will help.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Such a myriad of issues that clearly the DOE has left parents such as us wandering through blogs (thank goodness for Inside Schools), hoping for the sort of support and information that can empower us. I appreciate the last entry from 'Anonymous' and second the list of 'to do's ..

And on the other matter of G&T placements, I wanted to weigh in with some short points:

As a parent of a kindergarten child at NEST+M, I have seen how troubling the entire test process has been, and how much WORSE it became this year alone. Two years after re-creating the division, Anna Commitante and Joel Klein have managed to make the entire process even more rediculous than ever.

I recall how, this past fall, there was a public meeting, and subsequent documentation regarding 'creating more district wide programs'. Where have all those programs gone, I wonder. While the playing field was presumably made more fair, and testing expanded hugely from aprox 13k kids taking the G&T tests to more than 40K(!), wouldnt it be reasonable to assume the need for more seats??

Leaving that for the moment, I wanted finally to weigh in, as a commuting family from Brooklyn. There are, as people on this blog have so correctly pointed out, no 'citywide programs' for G&T...only programs in Manhattan which other borough's students are allowed to attend.

Perhaps redundant to mention: this past January 08, the DOE/Office for Pupil Transportation unceremoniously and very quietly began bussing for those 'citywide gifted and talented' programs for ONLY MANHATTAN RESIDENTS ! With some 30% of the children in my son's grade from outer boroughs, can you all imagine how we felt: the Manhattan families, with the most access to programs and schools, and LEAST distance to travel GOT THE FREE BUS. Wow. It seems just extraordinarily clear how prejudicial that is. ALL CITYWIDE G&T are in Manhattan and ONLY Manhattan students get a ride.

Do you know what we were given for transportation? My five year old, who does not travel alone (hmm..which 5 year old does in NYC?) was given a free metro card FOR HIS USE ONLY. He DOES NOT NEED A CARD... funny people at the DOE.

Clearly, the system is increasingly broke and simultaneously, as has been shown this past few months, increasingly unwilling to get its own act under scrutiny.

To all the families who tried and hoped for a spot, as promised, I wish everyone the continued best.