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My twelve-year-old has been asking one too many questions lately about high school admissions, even as I’ve tried to shield him from all discussions and preserve whatever innocence might possibly be left of his childhood.
This week's seventh-grade state math tests prompted a new wave of anxiety.
Already, he's watched his brother go through rounds of tests, tryouts, portfolio preparation, and interviews last year that are part of life -- and school choice -- in New York City.
He’s seen older classmates sobbing in the hallways of his middle school when they were inexplicably rejected by their top choices. He’s internalized the worries of teachers who emphasize the importance of the state exams. On top of all that, he may have heard me casually mention attending high school information sessions the Department of Education is hosting for middle school students and families this month.
As a result, he has a lot of questions.
“So just how much do the seventh-grade tests matter?’’ he’s asked me repeatedly. “If I don’t do really well, could I be shut out of high school?”
I have tried to avoid this discussion, changing the subject to say, the opening of a new skate park or Iron Man 2. The pressure dogs him nonetheless, and I don’t know a good answer.
Once again this year, close to 7,000 students were not offered spots in the first round of high school admissions. And once again, judging from media coverage and from the comments on Insideschools.org, those left out included many fine students with excellent grades and test scores.
So there is no guarantee that getting top scores on the seventh-grade state exams will smooth a rocky and unpredictable admissions process.
Just how much do the tests matter? It's not always clear how schools and the Department of Education make decisions about who gets into high schools and how much weight exams get vs, say, grades or portfolios. I wish I had better answers, and some ways to ease all this pressure.
Shouldn't the emphasis be on the excitement of learning? How can we shift the conversation...and ease the pressure for our seventh-graders, who this week wrap up their state standardized exams.
Like many New York City public school parents, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about schools and anticipating the next move. To avoid stressing out my seventh-grader needlessly, though, I decided to put a moratorium on the conversation about high schools until absolutely necessary – like maybe next fall, when it’s time to sign up for tours.
All that came to an end this weekend when a friend had to cancel a planned activity because his son was busy preparing for the city’s specialized high school exams, which carry the ominous moniker SSHAT.
“Wait, you started test prep already?’’ I asked? Turns out, lots of seventh-graders are already in weekend preparation classes. I’m sure in some parts of the city it started last year or earlier. Others are making summer plans around test prep courses or lining up tutors already.
I broke the moratorium and asked my seventh-grader how he would like to prepare for the exams, which can be a ticket, if the scores are high enough, to some of the city’s finest high schools –like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. The schools have a rich menu of advanced classes, sports and activities and a tremendous track record when it comes to getting students into highly selective colleges.
“I’m not planning to take the test because I don’t want to go to any of those schools,’’ he replied evenly.
I told him it seemed a bit harsh to make that judgment before taking a tour of the schools, which offer amazing opportunities in math and science (along with humanities) but are very large and admittedly are not for everyone.
And it doesn’t hurt to prepare for the test just in case, right? After all, I know plenty of parents whose children just missed the cut-off scores for admission and wish they had spent more time in preparation or taken a different approach.
There are lots of different options for preparing for these exams, which include studying on one’s own with a book. Some children qualify, starting in 6th grade, for the Specialized High School Institute and spend 1.5 years preparing.
Insideschools would like to ask parents and students for some insight. What is the best way to prepare and when is the time to start? How expensive is it? Is it possible to do well on these tests without preparing? And finally, should parents insist that their children take the exams even if they don’t want to attend a specialized high school?
Specialized high schools are not for everyone. Does anyone regret choosing a specialized high school?
By the time your kid hits eighth-grade in New York City, you should be a grizzled admissions veteran. You’ve already negotiated finding an elementary school or perhaps chosen to live in a certain neighborhood because of one. You’ve most likely dragged your fifth-grader through countless middle school tours and interviews in search of the right fit. Perhaps you’ve even switched between private and charter and parochial, all in search of the best options.
You’ve done it all with determination to avoid the conformity of suburbia, where you’ve watched so many friends decamp. The verdant lawns of Westchester, Long Island, and New Jersey held the promise of a seamless, if not perfect, system of K-12 schools with playgrounds, pools, and fields. Neighbors and friends could move up together without lists, letters, matches, and the constant distraction of school decisions.
Those who left wondered how so many of us stayed, and even defended the insanity. I personally felt fortunate to have found not just good but truly great New York City public schools for my kids.
The last few months, though, have brought new waves of anxiety for public school parents, who can’t help feeling strained and constrained by the nation’s largest school system. Sharon Otterman of the New York Times noted the litany of vexing issues for parents in a recent column.
It’s not just the budget cuts (you will find them in suburbia and all across the U.S. too), although the cuts do hurt – they’ve already eliminated Advanced Placement, language,art, and music classes in my son’s high school.
It’s not just the lack of planning for the current space crunch (middle schools, including my youngest child’s, are being kicked out of their buildings, while overcrowded elementary schools are turning away children who live next door).
And it’s not just the delayed high school admissions letters, held up last month after a court ruling that the DOE failed to disclose how shutting 19 high schools would affect their communities.
The high school issue resonated most in the current Insideschools angst-poll, with 47 percent of those who have responded so far noting their frustration with delayed admissions letters. Forty percent are concerned about impending budget cuts, and some 23 percent worry most about kindergarten admissions.
Only five percent felt “the system is in swell shape.”
Parents just beginning, or contemplating the journey through New York City public schools, are right to be concerned. It would be hard to blame them for checking out real estate ads elsewhere and for wondering if it’s really worth navigating a system that slams doors before they even open.
I was intrigued earlier this month when I heard about a Rockland County superintendent’s proposal to start the school day at a later time. The idea of accepting and accommodating the natural rhythms of teenagers seems so humane, especially if you have ever tried to get a catatonic teenager out the door and ready for an 8 a.m. class -- let alone earlier.
Like many teenagers who are wide awake at midnight and immobile when the alarm goes off, mine stumbles into school in such a daze that his first period teacher has to say his name at least three times to get a grumble of recognition.
It’s hardly an ideal way to learn, and I’m sure it’s not ideal for teachers. A National Public Radio story on the topic noted that at least 20 percent of high school students fall asleep in class on a typical day. How can teachers, who are being held more accountable than ever before for student performance, inspire a roomful of drooling, dozing teens?
The Rockland superintendent’s proposal recognizes something researchers and parents have known for years: Teenagers are biologically disposed to stay up later at night and sleep later in the morning. A later start time could improve concentration and, in turn, grades, test scores and graduation rates.
Moving high school classes later in New York City, where students may endure brutally long bus and subway commutes, could be terribly complicated. Budget cuts have already slashed music, Advanced Placement, and other after-school programs. A later start could mean further reductions and could interfere with sports schedules.
Still, I’d love to put a permanent end to early classes. I’d be happier to keep my kids in school till 5 or even 6 p.m. and allow them to sleep a little later each morning. High school should begin at a much more civilized hour – like 9 a.m. Even 8:30 a.m. would be better.
Every minute counts when an exhausted teenager is begging for just five more minutes of sleep after the alarm goes off. I wish the answer to this quandary were as simple as imposing an earlier bed time. (I have tried, but the morning zombie remains wide awake at midnight, happily playing music or listening to it, reading or chatting electronically with other wide-awake classmates.)
Perhaps some high school students jump out of bed at dawn, eager to get to school and start learning, but plenty of others could be far more articulate and productive in class if they could start later.
Insideschools.org would like to hear from other high school parents (and students) about changing the high school schedule.
How about ditching early classes and starting school later? What are some of the arguments for and against?
The 1,082 page, 20-year-old world history textbook sits on a desk next to the 1,114 page biology book. They weigh in at a good five pounds each. There’s no more room for them in the already overloaded backpack, stuffed with an equally weighty Spanish textbook, lunch (quite possibly including some of the old and uneaten variety), a mess of pens, notebooks, binders, power bars, and gym clothing. The thing totaled close to 30 pounds at a recent weigh-in.The insanity of hauling heavy backpacks around in a city where kids have long commutes and lots of stairways is well known. The question I’m posing, though, goes beyond the backpack issue. I’m puzzled about why so many schools are still making use of these old textbooks.
A recent Scholastic survey commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and released last week found few teachers believe traditional textbooks can engage today’s digital natives and prepare them for success. Teachers say they prefer digital and non-digital resources like magazines and books other than textbooks.
Only 12 percent of some 40,000 teachers surveyed said textbooks help students achieve, while only 6 percent said textbooks engage their students in learning. Eliminating textbooks (a $7 billion market in the U.S.) is also cost effective in these cash-strapped times; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California proposed cutting the budget deficit by replacing "outdated" textbooks with electronic versions.
But what is replacing textbooks? I noticed that one city high school is running a workshop on how to use YouTube in the classroom, along with instructions on an animated tool called Prezi. Some schools are moving toward digital textbooks, known as FlexBooks, which can be downloaded, projected, and printed.
And some teachers are kind enough to make copies of the important pages in a textbook and hand them out in class, in my mind an especially kind and back-saving gesture – as long as the textbook is a good one.
“It's nonsensical and expensive to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form," Schwarzenegger was quoted as saying.
Insideschools.org would like to know just how much your child’s high school is relying on textbooks. How old are these books? And, are they interesting and engaging?
Has your high school student encountered any fascinating and useful facts in a textbook that sparked a discussion? What other ways are city high schools and teachers using to explore science, math, history and languages beyond traditional textbooks? Any tips on how to replace textbooks, or do they still play an important a role in teaching and learning?
There are many reasons why high school choice in New York City is so fraught and frightening for parents. In a city where parenting can resemble a competitive sport, important questions abound. But as our children age, we learn that these questions are only the beginning.
Concerns from parents who must decide on a specialized high school or other placement for their child have dominated conversation on Insideschools and in countless households. Class size, academic quality, commute time, and advanced placement offerings are all being weighed, along with the role of sports and arts.
Other pressing questions are close behind, because the inevitable and lifelong separation process is dramatically stepped up when your child enters high school. For example, what happens four years later? What percent of students graduate on time (in a city where half don’t) and how well prepared will graduates be for college? What is the quality of college counseling in city high schools, and how do college admissions officers regard graduates of say, Bronx Science vs. Eleanor Roosevelt? Just how much should college concerns weigh upon what happens after 8th grade?
Those who have survived the intensity of New York City school admissions all the way to high school may feel like grizzled veterans when it comes time to pick a college. Still, it’s a shock to the system to consider our unformed adolescents as young adults who will, if all goes well, be out the door and making their own decisions before long.
Assumptions we make while dragging our 12 and 13-year-olds on school tours may be struck down as their interests and abilities change. I’ve always found one of the oddest and most difficult parts of school choice in New York City, starting with pre-kindergarten, can be making choices based on what I imagine my child will be like a full year later.
As my older son makes his way through his freshman year in high school, I am surprised, suddenly, by how little of his childhood is left. A countdown confronts me with every inch taller than me that he grows, with every stuffed animal lurking in a closet or baby picture I might stumble upon. The sentimental moments at times obscure what must come next: SAT exams, transcripts, the proper sequence of courses.
The four-year countdown is now three-and-a half. The job, if done well, means throwing our kids out the door after senior year and, if all goes well, to a college that suits their needs and abilities – and hopefully, our budgets.
Insideschools would like all of you admissions veterans to share your wisdom on how well our city high schools are preparing our kids for college. Are enough high-quality schools visiting and reaching out to students? How did admissions officers view the offerings? If a school lacked sufficient advanced placement courses, was it an obstacle?
Students, please weigh in as well. What should parents consider when looking at brand new or charter schools with scant or little track records?
Let the four-year countdown begin.
New York City is such a peculiarly competitive place to live that even toddlers may receive rejection letters from pre-schools, so you think they might be prepared when it comes time for choosing a high school.
At the tender age of three or four, however, they have some insulation, as it’s hard to imagine telling a potential nursery schooler: “Sorry, you didn’t get in. They weren’t impressed by your sandbox play.”
There’s not much parents can do to cushion the blow of first round rejection for city high schools, though. It can be a pretty raw time. And the stakes are ever so much greater because the supply of excellent high schools does not meet the demand.
Last week some 27,000 New York City public school parents and students got news from the eight Specialized High Schools that require a competitive exam and from LaGuardia High School which requires an audition. Decisions are due Feb. 23, and are especially complicated because those who heard from the specialized schools also found out whether they were offered a spot at a non-specialized school.
It can be hard for parents to keep in check their anxiety about second round results, expected in late March. Some 21,000 students are in this category (compared with 5,261 who got into a specialized school). They can wait it out and check out some of the new high schools that are opening next year.
In all this madness (and it is madness) there are real and legitimate concerns for parents and kids who have to make decisions about where they will thrive for for the next four years. An acceptance letter means some homework must be done in the next few weeks, including attending open houses, visiting schools whenever possible, and asking questions. (It doesn't help that there's a week long school holiday coming up!)
It may seem an embarrassment of riches to have a few excellent choices, but that is the case for those who are accepted to a specialized school (or even two if they got into an exam school and LaGuardia) and another school on their list. A student who got into Bronx Science or Lehman High School of American Studies may also have an offer to attend the excellent Townsend Harris in Queens. An aspiring actress who got into LaGuardia may also wonder if the strong academics and drama program at Beacon would be a better fit. Or perhaps a math-oriented Manhattan student may want to know if it’s worth commuting out of the borough to attend the large and well known Brooklyn Tech or if they’d be better off in a smaller, but equally rigorous, academic program at Bard Early College.
Also, every year there are hundreds of private school students used to small settings with lots of personal attention who are contemplating leaving their close friends and familiar settings (and saving more than $30,000 a year in some cases) for a much larger and equally prestigious program at say, Stuyvesant.
At an event last week, I had a chance to discuss high school choice with Randy Asher, the fairly new principal at Brooklyn Tech, who is happy to talk with parents and kids. Above, all, he suggested they come visit and spend lots of time observing and asking questions. Asher urges parents to think carefully before committing their child to a long commute, no matter how prestigious or attractive a school may be.
I also met an exhausted student from Far Rockaway in Queens who attends the High School of Sports Management in the Lafayette High School Complex in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He told me his commute can be as long as two hours and forty-five minutes – one way!
I couldn’t understand his choice. The student told me that he and his mother had no idea the commute would take so long.
In the coming weeks, accepted students will be invited to open houses and will have a chance, with their parents, to ask lots of questions. Measuring the commute time is essential. If possible, you and your child should try out the commute by taking the train (or bus) at the same time he'll be going to school. In the meantime, learn as much as possible from students, other parents, principals, and teachers. Attend a concert, play, or sports events. Make lists of what is most important.
Insideschools would like to invite parents who have been in this situation before to share helpful insights.
For those who must wait until March for a answer, my sympathy. In my household, we have another year before facing high school applications for the second time, and I have a strategy that will only work for a very short time: Denial.
I looked at the scattered notes and index cards covering my dining room table last week, struck by a distant but very real memory of my college freshman self during finals: Sprawled out at 6 a.m. in a study room in my freshman dorm, surrounded by textbooks and index cards after pulling an all-nighter.
Trying to absorb every significant event in the history of Western Civilization in one sitting, I learned, was not such a good idea.
Last week many New York City public high school students faced their first round of high school finals, in some cases digesting large quantities of information at the last minute. This week, many of those same students will also take New York State Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate.
Those who know how to keep up with assigned reading and to carefully organize, outline, and study their notes well in advance probably sailed through their finals. Others found the experience daunting, judging from frantic text messaging and Facebook posts proclaiming imminent failure and pleas for help finding the right notes.
As I observed the stressful spectacle unfold from a distance, I couldn’t help wondering if excellent students are born or nurtured. Why do some students just know how to study and have an innate sense of what teachers want? How do high schools prepare freshmen to take multiple exams, in some cases three in a day? Why didn’t some of these students learn study and time management skills in middle school? What kind of preparation works best?
I asked Gary Natriello, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, what conclusions might be drawn about the way study skills are taught – or not taught -- in U.S. high schools.
Natriello noted that it would be most useful to equip students early in their career, say at the end of elementary or the beginning of middle school, with the ability to read, review, and organize notes. In some schools, that is exactly what happens: special study skills programs and seminars are offered to help students, especially freshmen, get organized.
I know these are not skills I learned in my suburban high school; I had to acquire them years later, the hard way, on my own. Or was I not tuned in?
“High school students often have no idea why their teachers think they should take notes, even though some hold them accountable by grading their notebooks," Natriello said. “Teachers must communicate the rules and what kind of strategies will make them successful."
And while it should be the obligation of schools to make sure study skills get communicated, it’s not entirely clear where the responsibility lies and how it gets translated.
“Kids don’t inherently know what it means to study hard, and that is something we know from studies," Natriello said. “Kids might report that they are working hard, but if you ask them what they are doing, they in fact are not putting in much time and effort."
In today's multitasking, electronic world, moments of highly focused, uninterrupted study can be hard to come by. According to a recent New York Times article, the average young American now spends practically every waking minute connected to an electronic device.
A student who says she is studying on Facebook with friends could be chattering away about next week's dance. And let’s not forget the random sighing, snacking, spacing out, and texting that may accompany study sessions, along with glances at, say, Rolling Stone magazine.
Even with total concentration, it can’t be ideal to absorb the complexities of the human digestive system and the life of a cell in one sitting. Natriello suggested parents reinforce the concept of reviewing notes well before a final exam so that when it comes time for the test, students are refreshing the material -- not learning it for the first time.
“The danger is very smart kids get by with a lot of things early on and sometimes all the way through because they are smart enough that the study skills are less important to them," he said. “So the kids who kind of skated through middle school because they are pretty smart and didn’t need to study much will at some point get clobbered."
Insideschools would like to hear more about how New York City public high schools and middle schools that precede them are preparing students for finals. Was your child ready? What did the school do, or not do that you wished they had done? What was finals like in your household? Any suggestions or ideas on what really helped, or on what schools can and should be doing to prepare kids for the world of constant testing they live in?
A host of parental postings on this blog in recent weeks have included the following concern: “My child has so much homework and gets so little sleep that I feel really sorry for him/her.”
High expectations mean that students will be expected to keep up with what in some cases might feel like a daunting work load, while adjusting to huge schools filled with ambitious classmates and teachers who may not have time to get to know them.
Beyond academics, exciting opportunities exist at the schools for everything from research to sports and clubs, so it’s not surprising for students to feel a little lost and overwhelmed. Some will thrive, despite long commutes and challenging courses. Others will flounder.
7th 8th and 9th-graders will learn if they scored high enough on the SHSAT (Specialized High Schools Admissions Test) exam to win acceptance at one eight specialized high schools in New York City that requires a test (the ninth, LaGuardia, admits students based on an audition.) Getting in is just the first hurdle, though, and many parents and kids will need to do a little more investigating and some soul searching to be sure the school will be a good fit.
There are plenty of articles that describe how good these schools are; US News & World Report, for example, just looked at the friendly rivalry between Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, and noted all the Nobel Prize winners and other luminaries who are graduates of both.
But what’s life really like inside the specialized schools, including some of the newer ones that get less publicity? Insideschools would like parents (and kids) who attend these schools to be honest and post helpful insights.
“Think about what all the pressure does to these kids,’’ the mother of a Bronx Science student told me, noting that her child’s workload has a big impact on family life. The sophomore routinely has two to four hours of homework a night and as much as seven hours on weekends.
Informal conversations reveal that many parents are shocked at the amount of drugs and alcohol at the specialized schools. (In fairness, you may hear this complaint about any high school in the city; what’s different is the parents of these very bright and ambitious kids say they did not expect it to be part of the culture.)
“These kids have already been weeded out [intellectually] but they still have all the curiosity of adolescence, and they while they may not want to talk about the pressure they are under, they might choose adult things like alcohol and drugs for an escape,’’ a Bronx Science parent noted. “They still have immature brains, but they think they can handle it.”
Parents have expressed concerns about the uneven quality of teaching, a concern at all high schools, since the quality of a teacher sets the tone and is considered the single most important factor for student success.
There’s also another question for parents whose children get into the specialized schools but are also weighing other choices: If your child is not oriented toward math and science, where most specialized schools are especially strong, will they get as rich an education? Do humanities teachers care as passionately about literature, history, and the quality of writing? Are the arts encouraged and celebrated? Can creative types flourish with the lab rats?
Are there any parents, or kids, who attend a specialized high school and wished they’d known what they were getting into beforehand? Would the same decision be made? What else can you share with parents and students who are trying to decide?
It was hard not to feel empathy for the aspiring dancer depicted on the front page of the New York Times last week, in an excellent piece by Jennifer Medina that looked at the grueling schedule of auditions for ninth-graders hoping to snag a spot in a performing arts high school.
The endurance test had to have struck a chord with parents who are going through auditions. It for me brought back the frightening moment a year ago when I thought I heard my now 9th grade son tell me that his much practiced musical audition to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School was “awful,’ – instead of "awesome."
Auditions are rife with tension and drama, but lost in the piece was an ever present question for parents whose children ultimately get into a performing arts high school. What will the quality of the academic experience be, and what trade-offs, if any, will kids and parents have to make?
Insideschools would like to hear more from parents at schools like Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Professional Performing Arts, Talent Unlimited, and Brooklyn High School of the Arts, to name a few. If your child is a talented actor, dancer, artist or musician, will acceptance at one of these schools mean sacrificing a challenging, college oriented curriculum?
What opportunities will they have for advanced placement, honors, or International Baccalaureate courses that can only help with college acceptance? Are many of the students in these schools so tied up with their performing careers that their academic experience is secondary?
Does a school’s intense focus on the arts mean certain courses might have to be sacrificed? In an era of budget cutting, when schools are dramatically scaling back programs, will your child lose out in the arts, academics or both? Do the schools offer an honors track? And, how about the quality of teaching?
In a city where the supply of excellent high schools can in no way meet the demand, some students will be fortunate enough to get into both a performing high school and one of the eight specialized high school like Brooklyn Tech that require a competitive exam. If that is the case, they may also be matched with one of up to 12 other schools they ranked, and will have to make a choice come March.
In the city, having choices is a blessing -- last year more than 7,000 students initially had no match at all -- which is why many parents choose to prepare their children for admissions exams and send them on multiple tryouts just for options.
In subsequent weeks, Insideschools will take a closer look at other specialty high schools and ask parents to share some of those experiences. For now, though, we ask: Is your child thriving at a performing arts school, pining away for a more academic experience, or perhaps exhausted and overwhelmed trying to navigate both?