By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor
"I'd like to explore my options. Public might work, but I'm also interested in private."
Yikes. Did that just come out of my daughter's mouth? Be careful what you wish for – you may raise a child with just the same wishes.
My daughter just started 8th grade, so in the new world order of American cities with their plethora of public, charter, parochial, and private high schools, we're in full-throttle school choice mode. Like her mother, my daughter has become attuned to the value of finding *just the right fit* in a school. But unlike in the past when she knew we were ultimately the decision makers, this time she thinks she's in the driver's seat.
To be fair, we gave her the keys. Her middle school gave her a full tank of gas and a map, emphasizing that she'll be making this trip on her own: "This is your life, your mother isn't going to high school." Which is all very technically accurate, but last I checked we are still paying for it (or not), living within a bus ride of it (or not), embracing its values (or not). So whose choice is it really? It's a delicate balance – with every family winding their own path through the quagmire – and we are still swamp side.
But with the proliferation of school choice, the pressure on kids to make adult decisions is increasing in a way that makes be uncomfortable. With every new option, we're ratcheting up the time, energy, money, and anxiety burned. Awkward pre-adolescents who once had nothing more to think about than memorizing the meaning of pi and the latest dance moves, now are expected to: juggle homework, prep for standardized tests, file online applications, attend school shadow visits/tours/open houses, write essays narrating their greatest failure, compile portfolios – all packed into the last few months of childhood.
In some ways, I think it's a great coming-of-age experience for 13-year-olds. Like a bat mitzvah, the ritual encourages self-reflection, hard work, and behaving like an adult . On the other hand, it's just WAY too much. My husband and I had forsworn getting drawn into the high school vortex. We'll check out the options, we said, maybe apply to a private school or two and all the relevant publics. Yet here we are.
So far we have contemplated public and charter schools in four cities, as well as a collection of private and parochial high schools in three cities, some of whose price tags approach those of private colleges. Like many middle class families (who can't afford private school tuition, but are not shoo-ins for financial aid) our strategy – much to our own dismay – is to cast a wide net. This means more hoops to jump through, more decisions to make. Between the public, private, and parochial schools in our area, there are not one, two, or three, but four different standardized tests that may be required for admission. Some of the applications require not only multiple essays by the students, but also by the parents.
In preparation, we have already gone to briefings at our middle school, as well as a one-on-one meeting with a teacher about the process. Then we attended a citywide high school fair in which sweaty parents pushed and shoved to shake hands with admissions directors and introduce their budding social entrepreneur or baby-faced origami expert in a speed dating ritual that rivals the most agitated bee hive. Then just this week we attended another school meeting in which a professional high school admissions consultant (not kidding) advised parents on the do's and don’ts when filling out the parent application. (Don't lie about your child's learning disabilities. Do frame them in a positive way.) At the end of the night, these parents dove for her cards, not so much I’m guessing because they're gunning to give their kid an edge at the mini-ivy leagues (our school attracts remarkably low-key parents), but just the prospect of anything making the process a little more manageable.
"I don't remember doing anything like this for my daughter who is 26," whispered a mother sitting next to me. "This is almost like applying to college!"
As I survey our calendar of the weeks ahead jam-packed with open houses on the weekends, shadow visits during the work week, essay writing, financial aid forms, and if we're really committed, attending various high school performances to get to know the school, I realize we have only just begun. Over the last few years, I've watched parents navigate the process with varying amounts of savvy and bewilderment. Some worked the process like they were launching a start-up: investing in coaching, pulling personal strings and networking like mad to boost their child's chances of admission at a given school. Some parents left the decision almost entirely to their child – with only the simplest limitations – an easy commute, say, or a free education. Most parents in my experience do as much as they can, involving their child as much as possible but attempting to temper their hopes. Ultimately, it's not just a matter of choosing but of being chosen – whether by the luck of a lottery or a selection committee. This is a process that adults invented – presumably in the interest of the child's education, but let’s face it the whole circus also pumps fresh cortisol into their growing brains, undermining the very learning we’re trying to cultivate.
In my experience no kid is immune to this stress. It can affect the academic strivers as well as the jocks, the artsy kids as well as the those deemed well-rounded. It can even take its toll on the ones who don’t face so much as a wiff of disappointment. I remember the response when one 13-year-old daughter I know gained admission to every high school she’d applied to, and I mentioned to her parent that she must be thrilled.
"Actually, for the last two days she's been weeping and locking herself in her room."