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When I look back on the full-time job of finding a New York City public high school for my kids, I’m reminded of looking for my first apartment.
Anyone else remember coming to New York City with big dreams and a tiny paycheck? And being shown moldy, tiny apartments, up endless flights of stairs, in neighborhoods no one wanted to visit?
Remember fantasizing about fireplaces, decks and duplexes? Maybe the dreams weren’t even that big. In those early days, I would have happily settled for views of anything other than brick walls, proximity to a subway, and maybe a small washing machine.
Sorry to say that the real estate comparison is valid when you are searching out high schools in Gotham. Your fantasy apartment is out of reach; the perfect high school does not exist.
No matter how you feel about the end of summer (I am always sad and counting the days until the next one), this week marks the start of what may be a four-year fight for parents of high school freshmen.
A fight to make sure they get the right classes, the right teachers and even a lunch period. A fight to make sure they get support for what could be a tough adjustment from middle school.
A fight to make sure they are ready for college; too many U.S. students are not.
For New York City public school parents, it's likely an ongoing battle -- even at some of the city's best and most sought-after high schools.
The first week of middle school a few years back, I learned that two cherished rituals were soon to be stripped from our lives: bringing cupcakes to our children's class for birthdays and traveling to school together with them.
"Your kids are going to be taking the subway alone to school soon, deal with it,'' the principal told an auditorium full of parents on day one, as some cowered in fear and uncertainty.
Soon enough, parents got used to the subway ritual, after following close behind for a few days – just never close enough to be seen. The principal just laughed at the parent (me) who asked about bringing cupcakes, and it never came up again.
By the time your child starts high school, you are deep into what I call "The Age of Embarrassment" and long past cupcakes and drop-off worries. Still, you may be filled with uncertainty about what your role should be during these four critical years.
Wondering what it might cost to get your kids to help make the world a better place? Parents willing to fund volunteer work might find promises like these:
“An unforgettable summer! Kayaking! Horseback riding! Service and Surf!”
Over the years, there have been plenty of articles about the price of tagging turtles or monitoring zebras – and how little it will help with college admission. I remember reading about one such trip to Fiji a few years back where a student spent more than $3,295 to work – and enjoyed the infinity pool and view of the ocean.
None of this was what I had in mind when we first started contemplating New York City public high schools a few years back. At the time, I was particularly impressed by schools like Beacon, where community service is part of the program. In some parts of the U.S., a minimum of 20 hours of service is required for graduation, so the volunteer work is all part of the curriculum. Some city high schools require it, others simply suggest it.
Finals will begin in many New York City high schools next week, and I already have a vision of what "studying,'' will look like in my household.
Banish forever any image of notebooks, highlighters, textbooks, index cards and teenagers hunched over a desk.
Instead, picture headphones or ear buds and dozens of open windows – the digital kind – with sites ranging from Facebook to i-Chat, spark notes, Twitter, Hulu or even Netflix. One hand will undoubtedly hold a cell phone with multiple text messages coming in and out.
As a parent, you may be tempted to shout: "Turn it off! You have finals! Study!"
It's most likely a losing battle; in their minds, they are studying – and to some extent, they are. How much is being retained is subject to debate.
A catalogue arrived the other day from Urban Outfitters, the ubiquitous clothing chain that dresses so many U.S. teenagers. Along with hipster uniforms of skinny jeans, chunky jewelry and platform sandals, I saw photographs of long-limbed girls wearing shorts so skimpy they might as well have been bathing suit bottoms.
With so little left to the imagination, I couldn't help asking the teenage boys who reside in my household if this was how girls dress at their New York City public high school.
"All the time,'' was their answer, and I should not have been surprised. Since middle school, I've repeatedly noticed girls coming to school wearing not much at all.
Apparently, I'm not the only one who has taken note. A lot of New York City public school officials aren't terribly happy about the scantily clad students whose desire to shed layers increases as the weather warms up.
When report cards arrive, vigilant parents turn immediately to what could be a confounding and heart-stopping grade in a subject with no bearing on academic averages: Gym.
That's right, gym, also known as physical education or PE. At least a dozen high school seniors I know are either failing it, coming close or getting lackluster marks like 70. And some of these are terrific students, headed to top colleges.
Can schools please stop giving out grades in gym?
I agree that if students repeatedly don't show up to gym class, they shouldn't pass. I also understand the frustration gym teachers must have when kids show up for gym in impossibly tight skinny jeans or skimpy dresses and platform shoes.
These not-quite-spring days of March can be terribly anxious ones for eighth-graders and their parents, waiting to hear where and if they are matched for a New York City public high school.
Now’s a good time to spin a few fantasies before harsh realities kick in.
Anyone who has already dragged through the full-time job that touring schools entails already knows the first reality: There’s a real supply and demand crisis in this city’s public school system. There simply aren’t enough high quality high schools, leaving kids vying to get into about a dozen top institutions that don’t have enough spots.
And even these very top, highly coveted schools all are beset by budget problems, large class sizes and an inability to provide sufficient guidance counselors, sports, arts and individual attention.
I’ve concluded that the high school I would love to send my two teenagers to in New York City simply does not exist – yet.
Can they please go back to school already?
Once again this morning, I woke up to a sprawl of sleeping teenagers in my home, their books, music and snowboarding equipment scattered about. They had no school today, due to a "citywide chancellor's conference day for teachers and staff,'' whatever that means.
They had no school last week either. And yet, in the weeks leading up to Regents week, they were buried in finals, while the seniors were simultaneously overwhelmed with essays and college application deadlines.
Not that my gang -- a senior and sophomore -- complained. They were thrilled to have the time off, even if I can't help wondering how once again, how I was caught unprepared for this onslaught of unstructured time.
"By the time we get to college applications, it's going to be so easy,'' friends and colleagues joked over the years, watching -- or participating – in the scramble to find pre-schools, then elementary, middle and high schools for our kids.
Too bad they were wrong.
Starting at age 4, the interviews, tours, tests, essays, letters and lists – it seemed just endless. Yet after years of searching for public schools in a city with more than 1,700 of them, I find myself in the middle of a college search for my oldest child.
And it is anything but easy.