Guest Blogger: Alexis Senger
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore!”
My fifth grader was at the end of her rope. No, we weren’t talking about her grades or her daily grind of Wolfgang at the keys. We were talking about choosing middle schools. Denver Public Schools (DPS) has a school choice process for middle school; one has to choose a school. For us, it’s within the Stapleton-Park Hill Middle School Boundary. We list five choices in priority order and the Great Algorithm behind the Curtain somehow assigns us a school. But first we have to choose. We want choice right? But do we really want everything that comes with it: stress, time, and personal accountability?
How does one make sense of it all?
It seemed appropriate that our daughter play a central role in the process. After all, it would be her school. I told her we’d approach school choice like a Chinese buffet: you don’t have to choose everything but you do want to look at all the offerings. With that, our stuffed animal wielding ten year old would be in charge. I’m pained to admit that at one point in the process I thought to myself that I’d have to override her, pull rank if her choices were poor.
What did she like? The promise of a computer and the pizza party. One school gave out T-shirts and cookies but others just talked and gave out pencils. Pencils, the equivalent of raisins on Halloween. She’s 10: she liked the pizza party and the T-shirt, and the school where her old soccer friend was going.
School performance data is helpful and also not helpful. It tells you case-mix and inputs to a large degree. Good schools tends to have wealthier neighborhoods and thus children of wealthier, educated parents. But how much of the ranking is due to the school? The SPF score that is watched like a heart monitor by school leaders is a good indicator but it left me cold. And it concerned me that some schools that score the highest on rankings are also the least diverse. “Who are we?” I think to myself. I grew up back east in a large urban setting and went to a large public university that boasted students from every continent. Diversity was a lifestyle. Now years later, I want the best for my daughter – but what does that actually mean? At what price?
Two middle schools recruited our daughter based on her academic scores:
As we head into the season of selecting a middle school for your 5th grade child we want you to consider……Another draw is our Honors program that meets the needs of our highest achieving students. Check out the attached infographic to see how our students compare against schools with high populations of GT/HGT students. In reviewing your child’s academic performance, s/he would qualify for our Honors classes at…. I would like to invite you and your child to attend our shadowing experience on December 19, 2017.
How did they know my child’s academic performance? Don’t her tests and grades arrive in sealed envelopes, handed to me at home with nervous anticipation? I was personally proud of her and told her someday colleges may recruit her thusly. But for now, in a choice based public system having some schools market to sway natural choice seemed, well, inappropriate. I worried, what does this mean for the mix of students at the other schools? “Good for them!” said one parent whose child had also received the same email, “That’s what choice is all about.” They were thrilled to be recruited and ended up selecting the school as a top choice. T-shirts, pizza parties, breakfast spread for parents, sunglasses, Frisbees, water bottles and yo-yos, all made for happy kids. Happy kids make for happy parents.
But we’re educated middle class parents that don’t buy happy meals. Well, except for that road trip where our dog got sick and everything went wrong.
I talked to everyone. I met for a drink with our piano teacher. She was thrilled to have a drink but alas but knew nothing of local offerings. Our math camp director suggested a school she’d heard of but a quick purview of the grammar free student comments on the website made for a quick result. I did personal interviews of parents whose kids attended one of the local schools which had been high on my list but was recently faltering. The feedback was mixed and I left with as many questions as I had arrived with.
We looked at all the offerings. The parent murmur at our school was greatly concerned about the highly structured discipline level at one school. My daughter is structured and sometimes anxious – I worried that adding to it would break her sweet spirit at a critical time. The parents of my daughter’s friend had toured: There are discipline electronic monitors in the hallway listing aberrant students! Orwellian. I quizzed the school’s science teacher about this at Middle School Night. What? No, ma’am we have no such thing. How could he not know this about his own school? Nonetheless, you look at the Chinese buffet so we visited the school. The school leader was surprisingly warm and charismatic. He was curious about our monitor questions and was curious where the rumors came from. The issues were practically legendary at our school. I felt like a fool but was glad I asked him. I carried the message back to our parent friends but found that no one believed me. The legend had become reality.
One of the schools we had been most excited about had lost its leadership and the teacher turnover was increasing at a spectacular rate. We toured it anyway with hesitation and likeminded families. The interim principal shrugged her shoulders. We hope to have a new principal on soon, she forced a smile with tired eyes. I felt for her. We roamed the school: the classrooms felt unmanaged, like substitute teachers, students and faculty all waiting for help to arrive.
I also gulped and momentarily cast away my public school values and quietly visited a private school. I’m someone who buys umbrella insurance because, well, you never know. Sitting in that comfortable room with relaxed, smiling parents, the school praised their emphasis on the whole child and boasted of 15 minutes of homework a week. I stole a glance at the math homework the 5th graders were doing next to me. Stunned, I recognized it from 4th grade. I stole a glance at my husband and he nodded knowingly: he saw it too. We missed dinner and homework time to do the visit but when I left the school with my family that night I found myself unintentionally redirected toward my local DPS offerings with gratitude and spirit. Common core, college ready, preparation for our beloved East High. It was a watershed moment.
At another school when the school leader other parents deemed too cocky choked up when he spoke of his school mission, my eyes also welled up with tears. I hoped my ten year old hadn’t noticed.
Kids ended up being the best messengers. One school’s kids displayed a 3D printer that had never been touched or assisted by an adult. Their kid-only autonomy and pride said it all. I think I’m going to like this school.
The principal laid it all out. She was known as a straight shooter by her teachers. This is what we have, this is what we don’t have. Take a look for yourselves.
The kids’ faces reflected America, they smiled with pride. The math teacher had on time results showing on the front screen and entreated: “Okay Mathematicians! Move to the next project!” This teacher was wonderfully nonplussed by visitors to her classroom: Don’t bother me, I’m teaching.
One school had a strong school leader but lacked a language curriculum, another had a rich liberal education and language choices but had leadership challenges and only first year teachers. Another felt strangely off as we toured, with students chatting amongst themselves in class until our arrival became known to chatting teachers. One school was known for disciplinary problems; that same school was recommended by a teacher we deeply respect. One out of boundary school told us that if we attended we would not have the same potential electives as their own boundary kids. Some principals spoke only of their school, others had knowing digs directed at local competition. We are not a school trying to be the size of a university. We are not a school where you can’t talk in the hallways.
What to make of it all?
The choice rumors abounded: If your child went to that school four years ago you are an automatic in, put your second choice first because you never get your first choice, or it’s not really a choice process, DPS makes it all up. The instructions for the choice process are 28 pages long, just a suggestion, you may want to allow enough time. And of course Facebook fueled the fire with discussion threads from nervous parents. My child’s gifted and I mean really gifted, will he get the differentiation he needs even in an honors program at x school? I don’t trust the school to tell me but I trust Facebook. Yes, my daughter is working on her post doc but for now she has peanut butter in her hair.
Unbelievably some parents began their process the last week, making panicked eye contact in the hallways. What schools are you looking at? What did you choose?
What was it all about? It all came down to what we already knew was important: teachers, curriculum, depth and diversity of community, school character. Nothing new here, just the same values our parents had 30 years ago when they trustingly pushed us out the door to our neighborhood school. Our parents didn’t sweat choice but we demand, and must endure, choice. Am I more fortunate to have choice or would I prefer to have the choice made for me? Would I rather have a decision to argue against rather than choices I must embrace? The latter forces me to become a willing participant rather than a passive critic. The responsibility is unsettling.
After weeks of frowny silence my ten year old said her list out loud. It was thoughtful and strategic. It was also our list. She didn’t pick the pizza party and she didn’t pick her old buddy’s school. When I pressed the final select button and submitted the choices an immediate display came back stating the choices in a text and accompanying email. I had a written record of our quiet plea to the Gods. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
And then the wait began. For the text telling me that we will get our first choice and the subsequent texts from our good friends with whom we crossed arms during the choice process. We hope, we hope our kids can be together still next year. The Homework Club, friends who learned to walk home from school together in 5th grade. Friends who had your back after school. Likeminded parents who you trust to steer your child on the right path while you weren’t there.
I bring my cell phone to the bathroom and I keep it by my bed. Waiting.