Got Middle Schoolers? Navigating High School Choice in Baltimore

With The New Century School on the verge of graduating its first class of 8th-graders, what comes next—that is, high school—looms large. Fortunately, that cohort is squared away thanks in large part to the efforts of Curriculum Coordinator cum High School Liaison Adriana DuPrau.

How to raise healthy, happy older children in downtown Baltimore is foremost on the minds of many city parents, however, if the turnout at Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance (DBFA)’s recent “Meet the Big Kids” event is any indication. On Wednesday, May 15th, DBFA hosted their annual presentation in a new format. For 2019, the event was held at Mother’s FedHill Grille, and DBFA provided food for parents and kids as they socialized prior to the joint presentation by the Fund for Educational Excellence (FFEE) and Heather Stone, Assistant Principal at Afya Public Charter School on navigating school choice for middle and high school. Staff from Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) was also on hand to answer questions during the presentation. While the presentation was happening, the “Big Kids” helped out by interacting with the younger students, answering their questions and being their heroes. Families were encouraged to stick around afterward to socialize and ask questions of the older students. Said Tony Stephens, DBFA’s Executive Director, “[Younger children] will have the chance to meet other children who have gone ahead of them, while parents will also learn what important steps they can take toward preparing for and navigating the selection process to middle and high school.”

So, if you weren’t in attendance but are curious (or even stressed) about how high school choice happens in Baltimore, not to mention how downtown parents manage “without yards, two-car garages, and shopping malls,” read on—Immersed breaks it all down! (Note that the focus will be on public high school options.)

What School Choice Means

To start with, Baltimore is unique in “matching” students to schools much like is done for medical students looking for a residency hospital. There are few neighborhood-zoned schools remaining. All 8th-graders pick five schools and rank them according to preference, then make their choice among those that awarded acceptance based on application, portfolio, or audition. It’s a bit complicated, but it means that your child goes to school where he or she wants to, which must make a dramatic difference in the overall high school experience. A few schools do offer a lottery-based acceptance.

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The high school process is not easy, according to parents and kids alike, but it’s well worth it—moreover you’re amply prepared for it in middle school; every school has a liaison dedicated to helping families through the process of applying to high schools.  Public choices are comparatively slim, but those we do have are actually pretty great. Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore City College, Baltimore School for the Arts, and Western High School, for example, are current or past Blue Ribbon schools nearly universally considered outstanding.

You’re probably asking yourself the logical next question: If my student has to apply and is competing for a limited number of spots at a given school, what are our chances of success? According to FFEE, for the last 5 years, students have been placed in their first- or second-choice school 70%–76% of the time. Encouraging, yes, but just how is that possible? As one dad explained it, the available spots in the top schools are enough to ensure that kids in the upper quartiles of eligibility will land one. “The fact that you’re here, concerned about your child’s education,” he continued, “says your child stands a pretty good chance.” Don’t worry—we will go over just what goes into eligibility.

Getting Ready: Managing the Timeline

Managing the preparation timeline is important, because key dates cannot be missed. BCPS advises starting to plan for high school in 7th grade, so here’s what to keep on your radar. No later than October of your child’s 8th-grade year, begin researching schools and attending open houses and shadow days. You probably know by now who your high school liaison is at your child’s middle school, but find out if not. As mentioned, that ministering angel at TNCS is Mrs. DuPrau. Make an appointment with the liaison to discuss options and get help with registering for open houses and shadow days.

The difference? Open houses provide an opportunity to see the school and meet staff, often when school is not in session. Shadow days, on the other hand, allow students to experience the school first hand by going through a typical school day along with a currently enrolled student.

Making Choices

Given your child’s individual talents and strengths will help you find the right school. Use DBFA’s handout to start evaluating and narrowing choices. Choosing a school is based on academic as well as many nonacademic aspects, and you and your child will make the choice based on what’s right for you and your circumstances. The number one piece of advise here is: Make sure your #1 choice is truly your #1 choice, and so on down through the ranks.

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Back to that timeline, in November, your child will get his or her first-quarter report card. This is the final grading period that will become part of your child’s composite score. Composite score??? Take a deep breath; it’s actually not as terrifying as it sounds.

Composite Scores

Most Baltimore public high schools will be looking at the composite score to determine a student’s eligibility. This is made up of final report card grades from each quarter of 7th grade; first-quarter grades from 8th grade, as mentioned above; and standardized test score. This could be the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test and the iReady and, possibly (depending on your target schools), the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE).

Note that for TNCS students, Mrs. DuPrau has an important piece of news: “TNCS will begin using the iReady curriculum in both reading and math next school year, 2019–2020. This will help support our existing curriculum and help better prepare students to take the iReady exam in the fall that will be a part of their composite score,” she said. Also new for the 2019–2020 school year, it will be mandatory for all TNCS middle school students to take the requisite standardized tests. “This will help with practicing taking the test,” explained Mrs. DuPrau, “and some schools actually look at your test scores from 7th and 8th grade.” Current TNCS 8th-graders agree that this practice will be very helpful for the future middle schoolers facing this transition to high school. They also urge their successors to start prepping early!

Attendance in 8th grade may also be factored in but isn’t always. In addition, each school weights aspects of the score differently, depending on the thrust of the school (i.e., science or art driven). Important points to bear in mind about composite scores include:

  • Composite scores consist of final course grades from 7th grade, standardized test percentile, 1st-quarter grades in 8th grade, 8th grade attendance (sometimes).
  • There are a total of schools seven that require a composite score: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore City College, Carver Vocational-Techmical High School, Edmondson Westside High School, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and Western High School.
  • Minimum composite scores range from 475 to 610. In 2018, however, Poly’s lowest-scoring admission was 701.4; City’s was 672.6.
  • The minimum composite score does not guarantee admission. Eligible students are admitted by highest rank.

Citywide Choice Application

A “citywide” school does not have an attendance zone and serves students all over the city. You may choose to apply to schools in or near your neighborhood, or, you may apply farther afield, in which case, free transportation services may be available. This is where the “choice” in citywide choice becomes apparent because you are not limited by city region to what schools are available to your child.

But then again, you do have to apply. This application is where you rank your five choices, again, in order of importance. It can be submitted to the school by the liaison, completed online, or mailed to the Office of Enrollment Choice and Transfers.

Note that some schools do not require a composite score, and admission is determined by lottery if the number of applicants exceeds the number of available spots.

The takeaway message here is to get that application in and verify that it made it on time. What happens if you don’t? Your student will still be able to attend high school, don’t worry, but will face a Round 2 application period. During Round 2, even fewer optimal spots will be available, having already been snatched up in Round 1.

Types of Programs

Baltimore has choices. BCPS advises, “Think about who you are, what interests you, and what motivates you to go to school in the morning.”

Ingenuity Project

Then there’s Poly’s Ingenuity Project, a free, STEM-based, highly accelerated and challenging curriculum. Applying for this program means you’ll be jumping through a few extra hoops: there is an additional application usually due in December of the 8th-grade year, applicants must rank Poly as their #1 choice on the Citywide Choice Schools Application, and they must take the Ingenuity Ability Test in January of their 8th-grade year.

Work-Readiness Programs

Baltimore is home to many Career & Technology Education (CTE) schools as well as graduating high school with an Associates degree in a P-TECH school, both of which ready graduates for the workforce and easing the transition to it.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are yet another option, and these are independently operated. They may, therefore, have different approaches to instruction. Visit each school’s website for details on application requirements. They may hold a lottery if applications exceed spots, but know that neighborhood children will get priority placement.

Key Dates Wrap-Up

  • 7th-Grade school year: Keep those grades up and absences down!
  • October of 8th-grade year: Attend Open Houses and Shadow Days to start your selection process.
  • Fall of 8th-grade year: Take applicable standardized tests.
  • Early December of 8th-grade year: Consider attending the annual Choice Fair at the Baltimore Convention Center.
  • Mid-December of 8th-grade year: Ingenuity Project application is due (if applicable).
  • Early-Mid January of 8th-grade year: Take the Ingenuity Ability Test (if applicable).
  • Late-Mid January of 8th-grade year: School Choice Application is due.
  • Late January of 8th-grade year: Audition for Baltimore School for the Arts (if applicable).
  • Early March of 8th-grade year: Look for a letter from BCPS telling you what high schools you were placed in.
  • Late April of 8th-grade year: Submit your Statement to Decline High School Choice Placement of the schools you opt out of (probably because you got your #1 choice!).

Reeling from all of this info? DBFA plans to host the Meet the Big Kids program again in the fall. Also, BCPS has created a handy guide to school choice that you can download here. Ultimately, said presenter Ms. Stone, “if you have a student in 4th grade or younger, focus on getting good the best education possible. In 5th grade on, really focus on grades and readiness for standardized assessment. After you get through 7th grade, it’s time to start homing in on your high school choice. If you chunk it up that way, it becomes a little bit more manageable.”

TNCS 4th- through 8th-Graders Build Their Own Robots!

In the past couple of weeks at The New Century School, 4th- through 8th-graders explored a very special new mini-unit in science—robotics. Robotics is the interdisciplinary branch of technology involving the design, construction, operation, and application of automatons (you know, robots). It integrates mechanical, electronic, and information engineering as well as computer science for the development of ‘bots in addition to the computer systems that control them, captures their sensory feedback, and processes the information they gather.

Benefits of Robotics Class

Cool, right? Even cooler in school, right? You bet your motherboard. Robotics in education is one way that schools can prepare this generation for a (near) future in which technology is ubiquitous and, frankly, has already changed the way we do almost everything, almost everywhere. (“Siri, look up the history of robotics.” “Alexa, play some background techno.”) Students are going to need to be prepared in adult life with the programming and other skills required to . . . pilot a spacecraft to Mars, say.

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Much more importantly, though, is how robotics gets students really thinking creatively—from designing their ‘bot to building it—this baby is all theirs, and the level of concentration they bring to executing their ideas is a testament to how engaged they are. Speaking of concentration, research shows that hands-on learning activities (like robotics) actually enhance concentration and attention levels. And then there’s the perseverance that robotics demands. Problem-solving and trouble-shooting through any obstacles along the way helps students develop determination. There’s a built-in payoff after all—if they work through their frustration and maintain a mindset of try, try again, they get a working robot out of the deal!

Depending on the particular activity, collaboration and teamwork—two more super buzzwords—might also come into play.

Above all, kids love robots! R2-D2, WALL-E, HexBugs, Iron Man . . . robots and robot gear have clearly fascinated them for decades. (Don’t even get us started on Leonardo Da Vinci, who began constructing robots as early as the late 1400s . . .). The point here is that when kids enjoy an activity, they want to do more of it, which, in the case of robotics, translates to exponentially more and better learning.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Robotics!

That’s where TNCS dad Travis Hardaway enters the picture. “I’ve been building a robotic lawnmower since last fall because we have a very steep and dangerous hill to mow,” he explained. “Last summer I rolled my John Deer and decided I’d see if I could come up with a different approach to cutting the grass. Both of my children have taken an interest in watching my progress, and we’ve gone to several classes at The Foundry (which has sadly closed down) in 3D printing, laser carving, and other things.”

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So, he brought his ideas to Mrs. Sharma’s middle school science class to see what the 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders would do when handed a soldering iron! “Robotics is an important and growing field and will play an increasingly bigger part in our lives in day-to-day interactions, and other unseen ways,” said Mr. Hardaway. “I believe that robotics now is in a similar state to computers in the 80s and early 90s, and kids who get involved early on will be in a position to help shape the field. Robotics is also great for kids because they get to make physical things and learn about fundamental electronic principals.”

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The middle school session was such a huge success that Mr. Hardaway returned to do a session with the 4th- and 5th-graders. This time, though, he says, “I thought I might solder the transistors in place beforehand to save time and give the younger students a greater chance of success.”

When asked what prompted him to take on such an ambitious project with TNCS students, given that his “real job” is in the field of music, he replied in this way:

I don’t have an education in robotics or electronics, but I’ve been taking things apart and tinkering for my entire life. I got a BigTrak when I was a kid for Christmas and spent hours programming it to drive around our house. In high school, I was interested in both music and computers, and, although I took the AP in computer science and did several summer internships, much to my parents dismay, I chose to pursue a degree and career in music. While I haven’t tried to tie music and robotics together yet, it is appealing. When I was teaching at Hopkins, I did have my students invent their own electronic instruments to perform on, and they came up with some pretty clever ideas.

And his impression of the experience?

It was a lot of fun! The experience at TNCS was fantastic and exhausting. I learned a lot about working with younger kids in the classroom. I was really impressed with how quickly they picked everything up. Some of them didn’t follow the instructions exactly and had to improvise, but they came up with interesting adaptations. Not every robot worked, but there is a lesson in that, too, and they had a great attitude about failure, which is definitely a possibility when you are building something for the first time.

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Want more robotics for your kids? Baltimore does not disappoint. Digital Harbor Foundation, FutureMakers, and Baltimore Robotics Club are just a few of the opportunities available for kids to explore and create in the innovative world of ‘bots.

TNCS Dean of Students/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali Presents at the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Conference!

Alicia Danyali, The New Century School‘s Dean of Students and Head of Lower School, makes it a point to stay abreast of trends in education, and, more broadly, how educators and parents influence the lives of the children in their care. On March 22nd, she had the extreme honor of presenting some of her ideas at the Community College of Baltimore County‘s fifth annual Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Conference. (See the mission of the CRT-L by downloading this pdf, read about the keynote speakers here, and see a line-up of presentation blurbs here.)

Mrs. Danyali was kind enough to share the highlights of her presentation, “Understanding iGen and How to Forge Acceptance, Accountability, and Agents of Change,” in a sit-down with Immersed as well as her experience attending a presentation at a different but related conference.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Z Generation

“I submitted a proposal last January based on my fascination over the last 5 years with understanding acceptance and accountability, and how we become agents of change. Particularly, I wanted to focus on iGen.” explained Mrs. Danyali. (Henceforth we’ll use the term “Gen Z” instead of “iGen” to describe the demographic born between 1996 and 2009, because, according to some Gen Z-ers themselves, they don’t want their identity tied to the invention of the iPhone, and they also didn’t influence its creation. Also of note, others define the generation as having been born in 2000 and up.)

“Kids these days do not experience a lot of failure,” said Mrs. Danyali. “And, they have internalized this message that, if you do fail, don’t worry, you’ll get bailed out. I wanted to highlight, ‘How can we not get to that point?’ and instead to where we’re cultivating partnerships and trust in the schoolhouse, and we’re providing resources to create a different path,” she said.

Much of her talk was inspired by the work of University of San Diego professor of psychology Jean Twenge as well as by The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, a book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. (As an aside, the word “failure” is typically used in this post as a positive—in the context of, “let them fail as children so they know how to be successful as adults.” As paradoxical as that sounds, it should be our mantra as parents, according to many.)

Said Mrs. Danyali:

Dr. Twenge is considered the expert in the area of generations and how generations vary. She has been conducting studies for more than two decades of what defines a generation and what trends have been changing. She looks at a generation as a 20-year period, and I used her definition in my presentation. She acknowledges that someone born in the first year of a so-called generation will have a very different experience than someone born in the last year of that generation. For example, if you’re a baby boomer, what’s your first memory of NASA (or another life-changing event)? That moment identifies you at a point in time. Whereas, for Gen Z, the defining event is 9/11, which defined the timeframe in pervasive ways, from socioeconomically to socially, as well as in how it affected the parents.

Dr. Twenge also hosts a podcast, “Speaking of Psychology,” and was featured on a recent episode of “Adam Ruins Everything.”

Conscious Uncoddling

The Coddling of the American Mind was really a game-changer for Mrs. Danyali, and she says that book is how the accountability piece of her thoughts came to be. “What does it look like in the real world to have Gen X’ers being parents and propagating the mentality of ‘everybody gets a trophy’?,” she asked. “How have we adjusted for this new generation? Well, we have the new “safe space,” with videos of puppies playing and bubbles blowing where students retreat to when they feel anxiety.” We have “safetyism,” she continued—the idea that children should be protected from, rather than exposed, to challenges—and the “call-out culture”—the practice of denouncing people on social media who may not even be personally known to the denouncer. “I want to explore how this all came to be and what we can do at the preschool, elementary, high school, and college levels to forge ways to not enable students and create more independence,” she said. Instead of creating a school culture of enabling, create a culture of student empowerment.

Some of this also comes down to my observations, and I want to be clear that I’m not judging or criticizing, but we need to be able to admit, as parents, that sometimes our children are acting out in class, even if they are not necessarily doing so at home, or need extra support with a development milestone. So how can school and family partner to ensure that we’re making the child successful? First admitting, not enabling, then accepting. Instead of passing the buck, let’s just rule it out—it’s so much easier to put interventions in place at the preschool level than it would be at the high school level.

We’re not singling anyone out; we’re not judging. We’re trying to establish a partnership for the best possible outcome. There’s a lot of danger in self versus social rules and perception versus fact. What are the social norms, and why should there be exceptions for one or two individuals? That’s the resistance to partnership.

Referring to the recent college admissions scandal, “that’s enabling at the highest degree,” she said.

Mrs. Danyali’s Recommendations

“My goal with the presentation was to bring some valid recommendations to other educators,” she said. “I gave some anecdotal examples of what might be considered enabling and then suggested alternative methods to handle the situation.” You may see some familiar themes!

Guidelines and Strategies to Ensure Relevance, Practicality, and Accountability

1. Assume kids are more capable. Form boundaries of trust—have an internet use agreement at home and school. Create boundaries, not frustrations, and be the first person your child or student can come to with any topic.
2. Avoid enabling at any age. Provide opportunities to take risks, fail, and problem solve. Building confidence and resilience is not always about being “right.”
3. Encourage productive disagreement, and, most importantly, model listening behaviors.
4. Teach mindfulness. Done consistently and with intent, this will lead to being in the present moment and ultimately to less judgment. This can lead to compassion (for self, too), perspective taking, and strengthening emotion regulation.
5. Give people the benefit of doubt. Listen, question, and cultivate intellectual humility.
6. Look into how schools are handling identity politics. Is the curriculum lumping kids into stereotypes of “good” and ”bad,” as opposed to providing them individual experiences that are authentic in nature?
7. Reject the notion that experiencing anxiety is an excuse for poor behavior. No more crutches.
8. Encourage your district school to assign less homework for younger grades, to provide more recess with less supervision, to protect middle school recess (if it happens), and discourage the word “safe” for anything other than physical safety.
9. Believe in a world that is personal device–free in the schoolhouse; place clear boundaries on device time at home; and, most of all, have oversight on and conversations about habits with technology.
10. Lastly, protect your child’s sleep!

Alphabet Soup

All of the ideas and threads Mrs. Danyali had been exploring really came home to roost when she serendipitously attended a presentation (not part of the CRT-L conference) by 17-year-old Josh Miller on defining Gen Z and XYZ University, which is the brainchild of CEO Sarah Sladek. Mr. Miller, the Director of Studies at XYZU, gives talks across the country about how he and his generational cohort should be educated based on their unique Gen Z-ness. Every day, he claims, students should be given time to work on a passion project because the current education model of learning facts has proven inadequate. That claim in and of itself is nothing new (TNCS itself in part grew out of opposition to the idea that learning should be rote; rather it should be inquiry driven and organic), but it is somewhat different to hear it from the perspective of the learner.

Mrs. Danyali shared an interesting irony that another audience member had pointed out, however. That kind of education would not be possible were it not for the support of the adults in the child’s life. It sounds kind of like needing to be coddled in order to reject the coddled life. (This is an oversimplification, of course, but it underscores just how the zeitgeist of one generation can become the catalyst for change in the next, which, meta-ironically, was one of Miller’s points.)

“This was so telling,” said Mrs. Danyali. “It brought all of my presentation together.”

I’m focusing on how much has shifted, but this shift has grown out of the ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy-culture’.” If everyone gets a trophy whether for winning or not, how will anyone learn how to cope with actual failure? Let’s start very early to put tools in place to be able to cope with failure—not for children to compare themselves with others as better or worse—but to cultivate independence so they can take care of themselves rather than having their Gen X parents intervene and fix everything. It’s okay to have negative emotions. And, our self-worth should not be based on the amount of likes we have.

“Mr. Miller was very well-spoken and gave many valid points about how Gen Z is perceived versus the reality,” said Mrs. Danyali. She is going to be reaching out to him to tie in another initiative she may be getting involved with, which is the Elijah Cummings Youth Program (ECYP), a 2-year leadership fellowship in Israel for Baltimore high school students. ECYP’s stated mission is: “Our Fellows lead their generation by gaining first-hand cross-cultural knowledge and skill. Our efforts are infused with the desire to further historic African-American and Jewish bonds.” Mr. Miller would also make a great presenter for next year’s CRT-L, said Mrs. Danyali.

Read the CEO of XYZU’s thesis here.

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