My son, a fifth grader at Park Slope’s P.S. 321, begins his middle school interviews in our “school choice” district this week. With any luck, he will remember to sit up straight, make eye contact, and mention interests – other than video games. I hope the interviewers can appreciate that he’s just a kid, still wide eyed about a range of topics and not yet ready to narrow his “talents,” as some of the schools require. He assures me the schools will like him because he’s “awesome.”
But even in his elementary school, with its impressive reputation and placement record, anxieties run high among fifth-grade families this time of year. At my job, a short distance away, I work with children my son’s age who share much in common with him. But, because they are poor, they face a more questionable trajectory toward mobility and success. There may be fewer choices in their school district, and their families confront challenges that make the competitive middle school admissions system that much more daunting. The contrasts I see every day led me to this question: does middle school choice actually deliver on its mission for everyone?
Last year, our principal advised nervous fourth-grade parents to focus on our children’s attendance and punctuality. Excessive unexcused absences and lateness could interfere with school admission, she said. Absent or late students miss out on instructional time and, as a parent coordinator at a top middle school said, latecomers would miss the early departures for school trips that are central to the school’s curriculum.
On the surface, good attendance and punctuality can help equalize the field of applicants across class lines. Regardless of socioeconomic status, children who make it to school on time regularly can be considered for the same seats as peers, presumably with similar grades and test scores. I worry, though, about the large numbers of fifth graders whose low-income status brings the kinds of big and small stressors that interfere with the ability to get to school regularly and on time. There are plenty of low-income students who maintain excellent attendance records, of course. My concern is for those who don’t.
I witness these challenges frequently among the children with whom I work. Mothers on the overnight shift who sleep through the alarm, sick family members, transportation delays, lack of time to follow up on a doctor’s note — all of these factors, and many others, can result in a report card with high rates of absences and lateness. If the challenges of daily living interfere in many low-income household of dedicated parents and guardians, they increase exponentially in less organized families. How do their children fare in this competitive admissions environment?
In my most idealistic moments, I imagine parents and guardians of diverse backgrounds and classes coming together and demanding quality education for all children, regardless of grades and test scores, so-called talents, and regardless of punctuality and attendance records. No more competitive middle school admissions, especially at a developmental stage when children benefit from broadening and branching out, rather than narrowing. I would like to see greater recognition that academic functioning among pre- and early adolescent students is far from predictive of later success. And, above all, I wish there was institutional respect for the significant challenges faced by lower-income families who, despite their best efforts, face serious obstacles to climbing out of poverty, even when clinging to the promise of education.
What are the chances we could reduce the competition for insufficient middle school seats? What would it take for our educational system to foster more middle schools that nurture children’s hearts and minds, while keeping them safe at this exciting time in their lives? Or is it more realistic to segregate students from less organized homes and maintain the best settings for the middle schoolers whose families can get them there on time? I hope not. As we fret over our children’s upcoming interviews – perhaps anxious that someone else’s child will provide the perfect answer that will elude our own son or daughter – I hope we will find ways to stay unified as parents, all seeking bright and better futures for our children together.
Nancy Workman is a child/school psychologist at Kings County Hospital Center as well as a parent.