The Process of Choosing a Middle School

The Process of Choosing a Middle School
By the time children are ready to leave behind the self-contained classrooms of elementary schools and venture into middle schools, each decision parents make has the potential to have a more profound, longer-lasting impact on their children. Mary Barnes, whose son is a 7th grader at KIPP KEY Academy, knew that when she was choosing a middle school for her son, it had to be “a strong bridge between lower school and high school.” In middle school, students must “get ready for bigger responsibilities by remembering what they learned in elementary school to prepare for high school and college,” according to Ms. Barnes. When she selected KEY Academy, one of the deciding factors for Ms. Barnes was the “hands-on method,” and the way the program, “stepped up the requirements” for its students, whose school day ends at 5pm.

Parents in DC have many choices when considering what’s best for their middle-school aged children. In addition to public charter schools, such as KIPP, parents can choose to send their children to their local public school, an out-of-boundary public school, a parochial school or an independent school. For Essence Newhoff, whose daughter attends Stuart-Hobson Middle School, which is a Capitol Hill Cluster School, “making the neighborhood school work,” and remaining “loyal to the school,” was of paramount importance to her and her family. When choosing a middle school outside one’s neighborhood, Ms. Newhoff recommends parents consider carefully “the ramifications of commuting, paying for school and taking children away from their neighborhood friends.” There are several steps parents can take to familiarize themselves with the various options, and starting the exploration process when children are just learning to read will give parents time to make a decision that’s best for the whole family.

Visit The School

The best way to learn about a school is to visit it. Many schools offer open houses, which typically provide contact with administrators, teachers, parents and students and which provide parents with literature about the school, such as the school’s curriculum, mission and instructional approach. To gain a better understanding of a school’s mission statement, prospective parents should ask for specifics, such as: what anecdotes illustrate how the school embodies its mission?

If the open house is held when a school is not in session, parents should visit the school with their children. As much as parents can read information about a school’s educational philosophy, only seeing the students and teachers at work will give families a sense of those intangible but critical qualities of a school. When visiting prospective schools, Ms. Barnes suggested parents ask themselves, “What does the school feel like when they walk in?” Examining and understanding a school’s unspoken lessons will give parents a more complete picture than the school’s newsletter will.

The most critical piece of a school visit is a child’s behavior during that visit. How comfortable is a prospective student in that environment? By the time a child is ready for middle school, he or she has spent enough time in school to look for and perceive things that parents may miss, so children’s feedback about the school is critical.

Parents and Teachers: Critical Resources

The most successful schools are those in which parents, school administrators and teachers work in concert to support and care for the students. To capitalize on this partnership, many schools have active parent associations, which provide parents the opportunity to be involved in their child’s school and to get a better sense of what happens in their children’s day-to-day lives. Leslie Tolf, whose children attended Capitol Hill Day School, liked the “sense of community in a small school,” and “the sense of responsibility to the school” that her son and daughter felt. As her children entered middle school, “the academic demands became more sophisticated and robust;” however, she felt the teachers facilitated a “comfortable and graceful move to six different subjects,” while maintaining a level of academic rigor that prepared them for high school.

Ms. Newhoff appreciates that middle-school teachers are “matched to their subject based on their passions.” Another key factor in Stuart-Hobson’s success is the “high level of parent involvement,” which reflects an investment in their school. Talking with other parents will not only provide the facts about schools, but will provide the stories, as well.

The 3 R’s

Middle school is a time when children are at a developmental crossroads; they’re learning both academic and critical life lessons while discovering who they are and what is important to them. Parents should examine the curriculum, the learning resources and the ways in which the school fosters social and emotional development. Most schools have to adhere to certain standards of learning, but the specific curriculum will vary from school to school.

To gain a better understanding of day-to-day classroom instruction, parents should ask specific questions, such as: How is the school providing academic instruction that best suits middle-school aged students? At Stuart-Hobson, Ms. Newhoff noted there’s a “commitment to project-based learning” that interests her daughter. Successful instructional tools at KEY Academy include the use of acronyms to help kids remember steps, and making sure kids understand why they do what they do to know how to learn, according to Ms. Barnes.

To provide academic support and to ensure students are able to do their best work, schools provide supplemental resources for children. With an increasing number of children needing educational support, parents should determine their child’s needs to ensure that the middle school they’re considering will provide the type of instruction and support their child requires to be successful.

Beyond the 3 R’s

What happens outside of the classroom can sometimes be just as important as what happens within the classroom walls. To help develop a well-rounded child and to capitalize on lessons learned during the traditional academic day, some schools offer extracurricular programs that enrich children’s lives and offer opportunities for children to discover their hobbies and passions. Lois Mastel, whose children attend St. Peter’s School on Capitol Hill, believes that having her “kids participate in Hill-based sports and competing against other schools helps create a larger sense of community.” In addition to athletic programs in schools and in neighborhoods, some middle schools offer other extracurricular activities, such as arts and music programs, Robotics teams, debate, yoga and community service programs. Not only do these programs offer children enrichment, but they also keep children occupied while their parents are at work.

Interpreting the Numbers

One of the ways to learn about a school is through statistics, but parents should make sure to learn the story behind those numbers. Test scores, for example, will provide information on how students performed when their reading and math skills were assessed at particular intervals. In examining a school’s test scores, parents should look at the past several years of data to determine if a school is trending upward. Students’ growth and resultant test scores should be more like the tortoise than the hare: slow and steady. Test scores will offer quantitative data to “help gauge what’s being done all year” in the classrooms, according to Ms. Barnes.

What children learn in middle school will capitalize on the lessons they learned in lower school and will prepare them for what they’ll learn in high school. Looking at data about where 8th graders go on to high school will provide information about how academically well-prepared students in that middle school are to face the challenges of high school. Ms. Mastel pointed out that parents will choose a middle school that will give their children “the most options when going to high school,” and at St. Peter’s, “most kids get into the schools they applied to and achieve high scores on standardized tests.”

Another type of statistical data that will help paint a picture of a middle school is information about the people at the school. For example, how long has the principal been at the school? What is the attrition rate among the teachers? Ms. Barnes recommended that parents ask about the teachers’ credentials, specialties and passions, to learn more about the school. A school’s ability to capitalize on teachers’ strengths and to retain teachers and administrators can serve as a barometer for the health of that school environment.

Knowing the demographic profile of a school will offer a sense of its socio-economic environment. When reflecting on her choice to send her children to Capitol Hill Day School, Ms. Tolf appreciated that it is one of the most diverse schools, in terms of race, sexual orientation, and income.

After parents have researched various middle schools and have digested the statistics and the stories, the bottom line may seem obvious: parents know their children the best and their decision when choosing a middle school should be based on that certainty.

Ellen Boomer is an Eastern Market resident, former teacher, writing tutor and freelance writer. She can be reached at emboomer@gmail.com.

– This article originally appeard in The Hill Rag.

Skills

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March 11, 2015