Our Middle School Decision
It may seem self-absorbed to be writing such a long (really long) blog post about why we made this decision. Maybe it is. But people have been asking me for months, and it turns out people have been asking our friends for months “what David and Kristin are doing for middle school.”
Why would anyone would care what we do or why? For the past 10 years, we’ve been deeply involved in public education in our community. Seven years ago, my husband and I co-founded with friends the Pasadena Education Network (PEN) to promote parent participation in and family enrollment in our public schools. In addition, I’ve served on local committees, donated my facilitation services, and worked professionally through a variety of foundations to support our District and others like it across the country.
As a result of our involvement, we know plenty of people are genuinely interested in our perspective on this decision. We’re not naïve though. We also know there are people who will choose to judge us for this decision. I decided I’d rather that both those groups have the story straight from us. So here it is.
From the time we started Kindergarten at Longfellow people would ask us, “But what will you do about middle school?” We always answered, “We’ll do the same thing we did for elementary. We’ll assume the best of our public schools. We’ll visit our neighborhood middle school and several other public middle schools. We’ll visit private schools if we feel the need. Then we’ll make a decision that is best for our family.” This is what PEN recommends all families do, and that’s what we did over the last two years with PEN’s help.
We’ve been visiting most of our public middle schools off and on for two years now. The changes at our public middle schools over the last two to three years as a result of the Excellent Middle Schools initiative are remarkable. Literally every six months, I could see more progress – addition of an advisory period, advanced math options, the start of a foreign language program, new extra-curricular options, and a rise in test scores corresponding to the efforts.
As we visited, David and I both felt that this time around, we also needed to consider private schools. As a family we weren’t willing to consider religiously-affiliated schools nor single-sex schools, so the remaining list was pretty short. In addition, after initial visits to our public middle schools, we concluded that we weren’t interested in the more moderately priced private schools because we didn’t feel the marginal differences were worth the expense.
So we visited Poly, which starts its middle school in 6th grade and where I spent two years as the Director of Technology in the mid 90’s, and we visited Flintridge Prep, which starts in 7th grade and where David’s brother graduated from high school. While I was at Poly, I was always particularly impressed with the middle school because it is a model of exactly what our public middle schools are working towards – a middle school program intentionally structured for that unique developmental stage of a child’s life. When we returned to visit Poly this year, we found that model alive and thriving with block schedules, opportunities for project-based learning, advisory groups, exposure to the full range of arts, and community service projects among other things.
Having visited 4 of our 7 public middle schools, we applied via public school open enrollment to two public schools and applied to Poly. We didn’t get into either of the other two public schools and we were waitlisted at Poly. We decided we would attend our neighborhood middle school, which was the public school our daughter and we preferred anyway, unless we got off the waitlist. Late last week, we got the call there was a spot for us at Poly and we enrolled.
Our daughter was so excited when we told her she’d gotten in to Poly that she was literally bouncing. David and I are very excited for her too. Our excitement however is tempered by the difficulty of this decision – not so much on a personal level but on a philosophical level in terms of what it says about the lack of support for public education in our society.
We don’t think our public middle schools are bad. In fact we think they are improving dramatically every year. We don’t think private schools are perfect, and we do not think all private schools are of equal quality. Our assessment focused on what we wanted for our daughter in middle school, what she wanted, and external factors at play at the moment in time we needed to make this decision.
- Even though our assessment of the state of the middle schools is very similar to our assessment of the elementary schools seven years ago, key factors in our decision were different at middle school.
In California, 800 is the test score that indicates a school has made it. When we first visited Longfellow when our daughter was three, the school hadn’t yet reached 700. Still we could tell there were fabulous teachers and a visionary principal. We figured we could make up for everything else ourselves – take her to an outside theater class, music, whatever she needed. We would pitch in along with other parents to a school that was clearly on the rise. And we were right. Longfellow has spent two years over 800, and among other highlights now has an amazing orchestra, a garden, and strong parent support.
When we visited public middle schools, we again saw fabulous teachers and impressive principal leaders pretty much everywhere we went. In fact, we really didn’t see discernible differences among the core program at the public middle schools we visited. We did see some differences around the level of student interest in academics and extra-curriculars, student social culture, and the level of parent involvement and support.
The challenge is that unlike at elementary school, we don’t feel we can make up for the gaps we do see, nor that the best parent involvement can make up for those gaps either. Class size is one example. Our daughter has 35 kids in her 5th grade class right now, and that can work when you have an amazing teacher with them all day like we do now. But when that teacher is teaching four or five classes of 35 – 40 seventh graders a day? Grading 140+ papers every time a paper is assigned? Foreign language is another example. The couple of elementary dual-language immersion programs in our district launched too late for us to take advantage of them and we struggled and didn’t find alternatives to teach our daughter a foreign language before age 12 which is when research says is the best time to learn. Our public middle schools have just begun to offer Spanish, and it sounded like we could maybe get a semester or two of Spanish as an elective. At one school it sounded an awful lot like the Spanish teacher didn’t really speak Spanish and it was more of a Spanish culture class.
Another thing that’s different about this transition is that our daughter’s needs and interests are clearer, and she was involved with the decision-making. She visited all the schools with us and talked with us about what she wanted and what she saw. For example, our daughter has been doing musical theater year round since she was five, and the performing options and student involvement in performing were next to zero at our neighborhood middle school and only marginally better at others that we visited. Middle school is precisely the time when we wanted our kid to be able to explore her interests AT school so that she could find friends at a time when peers become very influential. We felt we would struggle to find outlets for our daughter’s particular interests at the schools we were considering and would have to continue to support them outside of school instead.
- In our opinion, the gap between what our public schools and even the high-end private schools offer at elementary school is very minor; at middle school the gap is far wider.
Last year, in a single week my husband and I visited our neighborhood public middle school and then that weekend we took our daughter to the Flintridge Open House.
We came away from that juxtaposition fundamentally depressed. We were viscerally saddened by the chasm between the two schools and by the fact that our society could ever let there be such a huge difference between the education you get if you can pay top dollar for it, and the education you get if you can’t. Further visits to more public middle schools and Poly itself simply confirmed that initial assessment and deep disillusionment.
At the public middle schools we mostly saw classrooms that were full of more students than the room seemed designed to hold. Kids were engaged and working, but the rooms felt packed and sometimes claustrophobic. Our daughter noted immediately as we visited one of the private schools, “Look there are only 16 desks in the room!”
Our public middle schools offer extra-curriculars, sports, and instrumental music in particular seems to be thriving. The options seem to vary by school and the longevity and support for them seems inconsistent and often dependent on parents. Given our interest in theater, we noted that at one school a theater club was starting after school and hoped for a performance the next year. At another they were adding a drama elective this year. In contrast, both private schools had two first-class performing spaces on campus, dedicated drama instructors, and multiple performing options for middle schoolers every year.
As I mentioned above, our public middle schools have begun offering foreign language – only Spanish and only for a semester or two across all three years. Both private schools we visited offered several languages at middle school and students would take 2-3 years of a language before even getting to high school.
Our public middle school had to pull a rabbit out of a hat to hire back a librarian after the previous one had been part of the budget cuts. At both private schools we visited, we saw brand new libraries, with rooms of new computers all with subscriptions to online databases for research. The librarians had been there for years developing the program and their connections to the students.
These are simply examples of some of the things most relevant to what our family cares about at middle school. Foreign language, theater and a student culture that supports performing, class size (especially as it supports teaching writing skills), and 21st century libraries matter to us.
- Our timing stinks.
We are making this decision in a year where we happen to be on the bleeding edge of PEN families. We just don’t have that many connections to families at our school that are moving on to the same public school or public school at all. Our daughter’s closest three friends are going to three different schools – two to private, and one to public after they got into the 6-12 public school only available via lottery. Even within her slightly bigger circle of friends at her elementary school, they are mostly scattering to a variety of public and private schools. Our discomfort with this confirms part of what PEN does and why. When you are connected to other families, it’s easier to take a leap of faith together and then pitch in to contribute what you can. I fully expect that families we know a year or two behind us may make different decisions as a result.
- There’s a HUGE amount of uncertainty in public education in this particular year.
Our Superintendent, one of the best I’ve ever met, just resigned. We have no way of knowing who will be leading and hiring for middle and high schools next year. The school board is divided and a runoff election in April will likely determine the future for the next 6-8 years since that board will hire the next Superintendent. (Vote Tom Selinske April 19!). The state budget is in total meltdown and schools are waiting on a special election that may or may not happen in June to learn just how much they have to cut next year and how that will impact class sizes and the ongoing work of improving the programs. That’s just too much uncertainty for us at this particular moment in time.
- Our community, our state, and our nation are not stepping up to the plate to properly support and resource public education.
Our local parcel tax failed last year after receiving 54% of the vote but needing over 66% to pass. Try explaining that to a 9 year old. “I don’t understand mommy. How did they win if we got more votes?” Though improving greatly, much of our community still holds outdated perceptions about our public schools and the level of support needed from the community isn’t there yet.
Even once the state budget situation for next year is certain, it’s not getting better anytime soon. Our state has allowed itself to slide from a leader in education to the target of jokes for our lack of investment in education.
At the national level, people seem to prefer fighting over unions, teacher pay, charter schools, and the like over really working together to support and resource a collaborative transformation of education as we know it. In my humble opinion, it isn’t that public education has gotten any worse since I was a student, it’s that the world has completely transformed in those 20+ years and we haven’t yet figured out how to work together to help education catch up.
Any one of those three is enough to give you pause, all three together add up to a crippling lack of resources and support right now.
We are keenly aware that we are one of the fortunate few who have many options. We are keenly aware that we are repeating a history in this community that David himself lived through. He was bussed to two different elementary schools as part of the desegregation order, went to a private middle school, and back to a public high school. Our “liberal guilt” is nothing compared to what it feels like for families who don’t have options or what it feels like to teachers and administrators who do amazing things in the face of devastating cuts in resources. Our own sadness is nothing compared to the loss of economic and human potential we as a society face if we can’t come together to support public education so that every child gets a first-class experience.
We expect to re-examine all options again at the high school transition. We also expect to remain involved in and supporters of PEN and of public education in our own community and beyond. We hope that our openness about our decision and our reasons provides an opportunity for conversation with us and not about us.
I welcome your questions and conversation here.
PS. If you are interested in education issues, you might be interested in this recent post Education Needs Remodeling not “Fixing”