Every September, the parents of New York City fifth graders begin the dreaded middle school process. I know many of you are going through this process right now. As the mom of a 6th grader, I get lots of questions on the street. I wanted to write a piece entitled, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a 6th Grader,” but it’s not possible. The process is an ever changing event dependent on the dynamics within each district, each middle school, and within the priorities of the DOE and it’s mysterious algorithm. However, I can tell you how I experienced the process in District 15 through last year’s crop of kids. It was grim. The process pits kids against each other leading disillusioned parents to commonly liken it to “The Hunger Games”. Thankfully, there is a group of parents trying to change that, Parents for Middle School Equity and in Part 2 I will introduce you to their data. Then, because the 6th grade perspective is just as vital as the 5th grade application process, Part 3 will give you a glimpse at our child’s 6th grade transition.
Most of you already know, the middle school application process is typically guided by a school’s parent coordinator. The process is exhausting and time-consuming. It involves signing up for tours in October, the very morning that schools make slots available, only to have all the slots filled within two hours. The websites used for this get hit with such a high volume of parents logging on, that you get shut out. As a result, you will attend open houses to make up for the tours that you will not be able to get. You will also attend forums with administrators from the various middle schools. Since each school has it’s own admissions requirements that change yearly, you may feel compelled to take time off work to attend these information sessions. You cannot rely on what parents told you last year. Schools that didn’t consider the state exams last year, will be this year. Schools that had no interview process last year, instituted one this year. You may decide its just too time consuming and hire a private consultant, such as Joyce Szuflita to fully understand all the options. You will also have to attend tests and/or auditions at some of the “choice” schools, Mark Twain, MS 447, and MS 51, and New Voices. You will worry that if you don’t put in the time that this process requires, it might impact high school placement later.
Through these tours, forums, and open houses you will see things that force you to judge yourself and your beliefs just much as the schools. Parents at these forums will ask absurd questions about providing additional writing samples or audition tapes in an attempt to get a leg up. You may have internal debates about charter options based on your politics. You will both question the validity of standardized tests for your own child while simultaneously pondering the vast discrepancy between the listed class grades and standardized test scores published by the DOE for each middle school in the handbook you are provided.
Then, there are the social and environmental questions. Even the most socially conscious parent, will find themselves weighing the racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and economic makeup of a school and wonder if their child will find a sense of community and safety. You may observe parents and principals focusing their efforts to gentrify a school. You may feel pressure to take a chance on these emerging schools only find out later that the parent who cheered the loudest for these schools, sent their own child to a private school rather than take the gamble.
You will become competitive. You will see all your child’s peers gravitate to the same schools and start to wonder how many of these kids are going to get their top choices. You will anxiously ask your child for a detailed recap of the test or audition and their performance. You will develop a strategy for the ranking of your middle school choices on the application, that in the end may or may not have any relevance. In the back of your mind is a nagging fear that your child could get placed in a school you didn’t even rank because you heard this happened to so and so. Many of these conversations will happen in front of your fifth grader. They will be talking about nothing else with their peers and teachers for the entire 5th grade. They will internalize the stress.
You will probably get a school you ranked, though. You may be lucky enough to attend an elementary school where nearly all the kids get their top choice, so this won’t be your problem. Or, you may get a placement lower on your list than you would have liked. You will then appeal the decision of the DOE for a more desirable MS placement while waiting to see if you’ve got a shot at a charter. During that appeal process, you might be instructed to collect teacher’s recommendations that turn out to be unnecessary because the middle schools have suddenly decided not to consider them. Your principal who used to lobby for students by phoning the DOE in previous years might be backing off from that behavior now because it’s unfair. And it is unfair. Your principal may have always felt that making these calls was inappropriate and never lobbied for students. In the end, your appeal will probably not be granted.
You will receive emails from upset parents asking what school your child will attend. You will see children cry on school grounds because they observe the “smart” children getting their choice. They may cry because they think “not so smart” children are getting better placements. They may cry most of all at the loss of friends. Communities of children will be dispersed across the city. Then you may begin a desperate summertime hunt for camaraderie to ease a first independent commute age 11.
Or, it’ll all be fine… Stay tuned for Part 2, Reforming the District 15 “Hunger Games.”