Friday, October 17, 2014

The week my life became an episode of 60 minutes

First things first I have not ever nor do I want to ever be on 60 minutes. I'm happy with my boring anonymous life.

Middle School
My daughter is in 5th grade. We live in Miami, Florida (an area not known for it's educational excellence). Her elementary school only goes through 5th grade.
So, Wednesday I toured 3 middle schools.

One is our home school a public school that is open to all the kids in our district. One is a highly-ranked magnet public school. The last was an extremely expensive competitive admission private school.

The three could not be more different. That is perhaps the most obvious statement ever made. Until this week I thought I understood our options. I thought we had a good plan which was if we got the magnet great - if not our suburban home school for middle school would be okay.

At the end of the day. I had a headache. I was confused. My husband and I were a little cross with each other and my poor kid ... well who knows what she thought about the whole thing.

I didn't sleep well last night with the pressure of the situation weighing on me mightily.

Change is hard. Change when you don't fully understand the options is harder still. Change when you aren't in control of any or all of the situation is especially hard.

I'm not sure why but this feels like a super complicated and really important decision.

Also, there is no perfect solution and that's just a giant pain in my tooshie.

People say, "you have to know your kid."

Well I do know my kid. She's 10 years old. She'll be 11 this month. She's not a fully-formed person yet. That's what I know.

Here's what else - She's very independent. She wants to post on Instagram but I won't give her an account yet. She plays Minecraft, she can do Sudoku puzzles that her father and I can't complete - she loves math and wants to be a cheerleader and she still travels with her American Girl doll. She does not like to brush her teeth and she hates Brussels sprouts.

How in the world does any of that relate to helping her choose a middle school? It doesn't so to all those people who keep saying that I say, "please shut up." Don't be offended - I said please :-)

I want her to have the least traumatic middle-school experience possible and if she didn't come out of middle-school hating learning that would be pretty great. Is that even possible? What was your middle school experience like?

So wait, what's the problem?
Lets take a look at the schools and what we saw.

The Community School
First lets look at our home school. I called to find out about tours and the phone rang 11 times. Seriously, not an exaggeration. When it answered I was transferred to the voice mail of a counselor (one of 4 I know because her message was 90 percent explaining which group she was responsible for) It was a very long message because it was in English and Spanish. We are a bilingual city - it's complicated. I left a message and I didn't hear back. Ever. I still haven't heard back.

So, I just went over in person. I parked and I walked around the campus. It's fine. Not amazing but big fields outside and outdoor gym stuff. Some portable classrooms - not a ton. Then I went inside. I saw the security table but nobody was there. I then actually ran into somebody I knew a daughter of a friend who is happy there. She is happy and her parents are happy. There are plenty of people who are happy with this school option. She took me to the office because she does an hour of her day in the office instead of taking an elective course because as she told me, they're really bad. The office on first glance seemed unstaffed. Weird. I thought.

Finally somebody came to their desk and when I asked for how I would see the school she said she didn't know, the principal wasn't in because they were teaching and the vice principals were busy dealing with a "violence issue" but I could see if one of the counselors was in if I wanted to.

She waived me back toward the back of the office to talk to a secretary. She had this entire conversation with me without even looking at me. Pretty rude actually. But we're in public school now so I know people are overworked and underpaid.

Let's take a minute and digress. While I tell you this story please understand I live in a suburb called Pinecrest. Look it up. It's not inner city at all. But we are a part of the Miami-dade school district which is the third largest in the country. It serves over 300,000 students. I have lived in at least two cities smaller than that.

At this point I was getting a bad vibe. But I took a deep breath and walked into the office to find the secretary and counselors. I walked in to the only other occupied desk and found a very busy secretary. Who was helpful but clearly very busy. On my way to the counselors office (also on my own) I found the assistant principals and part of the security team. They were talking to the child I know about the "violence issue" and this child was being given the responsibility of calling the parents and finding other kids to give written statements. Um, what? So I asked this child whose 13th birthday party is this week how often this happens in the school and she grinned and said, "oh every day."

I did meet with the guidance counselor who was nice. Harried and overwhelmed and busy but nice. Who told me that in a few weeks there is a curriculum fair where we can come and meet teachers and stuff. I should find out about it from my school.

And then I left. Not impressive. Actually not even acceptable. The words I would use are actually shocking and upsetting. In all honesty while she would probably be happy here there is not much chance that we'll send her here. Of course there are some kids who can excel in this school but I think the odds are against it.

Magnet School
At the start of this process this is our first choice. My daughter actually heard about the school from a friend. It's her choice which makes it a pretty great thing.

The school was old, but well maintained. We saw the kids change classes and they were well behaved and sweet. We saw a presentation from the lead teacher and then we got a tour from two- eighth grade students. They were normal and sweet.

If she gets in here she'll be happy.

The middle-school magnets are all random select. If you meet the basic criteria you throw your name in a hat and if you get picked - yippee. If not too bad so sad. For example the school we visited gets 1600 applicants for 150 spots. 1/10 get picked.

So the pressure of this randomness is kindof annoying.

Going Private
I'm hugely blessed that we can actually consider private school as a potential option. It's massively expensive and it comes with it's own set of problems but it's an option. We would have to make huge changes in our life but it can be done. So we went to the open house for the only true selective addmission preperatory school here. This was the only school I took my daughter to. The others were just my husband and myself.

So one other short digression. I have adult step-kids. They both were in a local private school for their entire education until college. So in one sense we've done this and we're a little jaded. We do feel that the high-school tuition was money well spent but kindergarten through eighth grade we feel was just the best of bad options. If we don't have to pay for middle school we don't want to. There are lots of reasons why private school can be the best option but being a good value isn't usually one of them if anybody is being honest in my opinion.

There were at least 1000 people there. Parents and children all hoping for the chance to pay more than a years worth of minimum wages for the privalege of attending.

The sales presentation was spectacular. Some very talented kids sang and danced and performed and extolled the joys of the school. There was a disco ball and confetti. It's a great campus. We knew lots of the kids and parents who were there. After there was a reception with punch and cookies and mini hot dogs and the kids could ask questions from teachers. My daughter loved the cookies and had fun with her friends who were there. I made her go to the math table and she did actually enjoy playing math games with the teacher.

This school is application only. She takes a test, is interviewed, we fill out an application that in all honesty is as much about us the parents as it is about her and if she is accepted she can go.

It's a great school. She would probably be happy there. But is it worth the money? Nope. How could it be? How could any school ever be worth that much money? It can't. But it might be the best option out there.

We are also considering 2 other private schools if she doesn't get into this the most competitive. The reality is that it's totally possible that she might not get in. That's life. 

Must have COFFEE
The next morning in my bleary-eyed state of sleep-deprivation as my coffee brewed. I was so desperate for the caffeine that I was standing at the brewing machine waiting for the coffee to drip into the pitcher (in case you're curious). I took a second to reflect on my own middle school experiences. My parents were divorced and lived in two separate states. My mother when I was young was of the belief that a full life included moving states or cities on close to an annual basis potentially even more often. But she lived in the mid-west where to be honest the schools were fine. There were no huge safety issues - there was no magnet program - I don't think there was a gifted program. My father lived in NYC which has got to be the biggest school district in the country. It had lots of safety issues but hidden in among the just bigness was a system that sometimes worked to get smart kids where they needed to be for the best chance. It was there that I was tested in 4th grade and determined to be a smart cookie.

So I think I attended at least 3 middle schools for a variety of time in 3 separate states. That being said I'd be shocked if combined my parents spent a total of 5 whole minutes even thinking about where I would go to school.

It just was a totally different situation. The total of their research probably included one question: what is the school for this address.

My husband and I had a brief chuckle over that. His parents were middle school teachers - they probably thought about it a lot but he went where they taught and that was that. He had no choice. If I was on site where my kid would go to school I would make that choice too. Nevertheless what they did worked he went from new york public schools to the Ivy league. Something that's always impressive. He's a smart guy.

Its a big problem
Somewhere during my sleepless night or my run the next day I made the connection that I was now neck deep in a problem that has been the basis of documentaries and news programs. It was a bit of a releif but doesn't make it any more fun.

I don't think public schools were ever amazing. I think that's a myth just because people want to believe it. They weren't great when I went through them but I think in Miami it's gotten more complicated.

By creating magnet and charter schools they have succeeded in pulling the most motivated parents/kids out of the community schools and into the magnet/charter schools which does have a good effect if you can get into one of those schools. But there is also I think a rebound effect in the community schools.  What I see is basically a brain drain of good teachers, parents and students. So then the community school (the one in your neighborhood) is not really a good option. I mean it's a good option if your other choice is no school but otherwise not really.

Here's why I think that. The standardized test scores for the 3 elementary schools that feed into our community middle school all average in the 90th percentile. But the standardized scores for the middle school fall to 60th percentile. Yikes. The only way I see that happening is to add poor students and to lose high achieving students. The magnet schools we're looking at all maintain the 90th percentile scoring. 

So what's a parent to do? Drink beer and hope for the best apparently.

I'm kidding - just kidding. Wait am I kidding?

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