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 Welcomes DBFA and the “Big Kids”!

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For the second year in a row, TNCS hosted this DBFA event, providing plenty of space in the gymnasium.

On Wednesday, January 28th, The New Century School once again had the pleasure of hosting the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance‘s annual signature event, “Meet the Big Kids (and Their Parents).” This event featured participants from neighborhoods all over the city (e.g., Fell’s Point, Butcher’s Hill, Otterbein, Roland Park, Federal Hill, etc.) to provide the inside scoop on the challenges and benefits of growing up and going to school in our urban environment. TNCS was perfectly situated to host again, with plans to open its very own middle school in the fall of 2016 and welcome some big kids of its own!

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Hors d’oeuvres from Lebanese Taverna gave attendees time to arrive at a leisurely pace, mingle, and recharge before getting down to business.

The event, designed to accommodate working parents, commenced with a happy hour with hors d’oeuvres from Harbor East’s Lebanese Taverna, while children were given pizza and snacks in an adjoining classroom with childcare by Wondersitters. The audience turnout was high—how to raise healthy, happy older children in downtown Baltimore is a popular topic! DBFA solicited questions for the panel in advance to make sure everyone’s concerns were addressed in a timely fashion. Said mediator Beth Laverick, “[This event] is 150% worth your time, and you will walk away with more information than you thought possible.”

This year, the event took a slightly different tack, focusing more on the kids themselves and letting them express their opinions in their own voices. One especially nice touch was in the variety of perspectives that the panel shared. In addition to middle school–age and high school–age kids, parents were also on hand to provide their viewpoints. Thirdly, the panel included two young working professionals who had grown up in Baltimore, gone to college, launched successful careers, and returned to Baltimore to live and work. The resounding message was that staying in Baltimore to raise a family is not only fine, but it has many advantages—big advantages—that the panel was happy to enumerate.

So how do they do it? How do downtown families manage “without yards, two-car garages, and shopping malls”?

DBFA Executive Director John Bullock introduced the event by explaining DBFA’s mission to keep Baltimore families connected and to provide the resources they need to enhance family life in Charm City. Mediator Mrs. Laverick then took over to introduce the panelists. Each was asked to describe where he or she lives and what it is about Baltimore that has him or her committed to city living. Walkability was a key theme as was the sense of community pervading the neighborhoods. Many consider Baltimore a “small, close-knit community within a big city.” In other words, you get the best of both worlds here. All of your neighbors know you and keep an eye out for your family as in a small town, while first-rate theatre, dining, farmers’ markets, and shopping are abundantly available—big-city perks. “There’s never a dull moment,” said Big Kid Sebastian Towles, which got a laugh from the audience. We could all agree with that statement!

Discussion Topics

Not surprisingly, schools were the biggest issue, just as they were last year. In some ways, this issue is fast becoming a non-issue. Almost soon as the Big Kids opened their mouths, audience members’ concerns about Baltimore City high schools were quelled. The panelists were smart, witty, eloquent, and extremely self-possessed. They were perfectly at ease speaking from the stage to a large audience, all of which says a lot about the education (a mix of public and private schools) they are receiving. “Do you have concerns that the education your child is getting is not on a par with national standards? parents were asked. “Not even a little bit,” said one, which was echoed unanimously. If anything, it’s the opposite. Fun fact: students graduating from Baltimore City public high schools get free tuition to Johns Hopkins University upon acceptance! (See below for a list of the top-performing Baltimore City high schools. Also note that Baltimore is nationally renowned for its private high schools (e.g., Gilman, Calvert Hall). “Where did you go to school?” when asked of a Baltimore native, does not refer to college, but to high school.

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This year’s panel included the kids, their parents, and a couple of “former kids”!

What about school safety? What about transportation to school? In Baltimore City, no high schools are zoned, so all are by choice. Prospective enrollees apply to their top picks and make the decision based on where they are accepted. This system is really wonderful for matching a Big Kid to the right learning environment (some schools focus on The Arts, others on STEM, for example). It also presents a couple of challenges, such as getting to a school that isn’t located in the immediate vicinity. Are parents forced to spend hours each morning chauffering their kids to school and making all manner of sacrifices for this inconvenience? Panelists laughed off the very idea. Part of urban living is developing the competence and independence to navigate the city. Most of the school-aged panelists take the MTA busses and are happy to do so. Carpools can also be arranged in certain instances, but to hear the kids themselves, availing themselves of the public transportation at hand clearly makes the most sense. Busses on the school routes are full of students, and it’s easy to develop “bus buddies” should a helping hand or just some companionship ever be needed.

As for safety in the school, this was again a moment during which the panelists impressed the audience. It’s true that cell phones and valuable items get stolen in Baltimore (as anywhere, city or no). These kids seemed almost puzzled by the idea that they wouldn’t use common sense en route to school or anywhere else. Don’t display valuable items; travel in groups. Duh ;)! As for larger safety issues such as bodily harm or worse, look at the statistics, said one of the grown-up “kids.” Violence in schools not only happens everywhere, but actually seems to be more prevalent in non-urban areas. This fact seems difficult to fathom until you consider that with a greater population density comes correspondingly more infrastructure to maintain order, such as police presence (and number of streetlights, pointed out Amuse Toys owner Claudia Towles, winning another audience laugh). The grown-up kids were quick to point out the harrowing experiences they met with after leaving Baltimore for college in small towns. The kids are right: It’s all down to using common sense, and urban parents might be more likely to begin instilling these lessons early, resulting in some pretty savvy young urban dwellers.

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More than 40 parents turned out to Meet the Big Kids (and Their Parents) to learn about the next phase of parenting and schooling in Baltimore.

From this point, a unifying motif emerged during all topics. City kids are resourceful. They are creative, innovative, and welcoming of a challenge. No yard to play outside in? Text your buddies to meet up at the neighborhood park or initiate a ball game in a very-low-trafficked alley. “Learn your community like the back of your hand,” they advised. Walk around; get to know the city. Parents agreed. Grant independence in increments, said Fell’s Point mom Melanie Hood Wilson. Teach them their boundaries and to be mindful of their surroundings.

As happened throughout the night, what was presented in question form as something to be overcome turned out to be a clear advantage in panelist answers. For example, no backyard (or one made of bricks—another laugh) opens up the city as a playground with a wealth to do and explore. Mrs. Wilson shared an anecdote that when her teenage daughter had just finished a grueling morning of exams and had an afternoon available to do with whatever she chose, she and her friends opted for a visit to the art museum. And, Baltimore’s walkability and abundant public transportation means that our teenagers aren’t driving as much, which parents and grown-up kids say translate into fewer accidents and fewer DUIs compared to teens in the suburbs who tend to have to drive almost everywhere.

Although the view was overall pretty rosy, it isn’t perfect. But Baltimore families and stakeholders are working on establishing more high schools, especially charter schools, to increase the number of excellent options. The DaVinci Academy for the Arts and Sciences (working name) is in development in Southeast Baltimore, for example, with hopes to open in fall 2017. “Baltimore has a way to go,” said Mrs. Wilson, “to develop the same diversity of options for high school that we have for elementary. And that’s only going to happen if families stay in the city and demand it.” Another way you can make your voice heard on the topic of schools in Baltimore is by visiting the Baltimore City Public Schools website, which actively solicits feedback. This organization also conducts annual School Effectiveness Reviews (SERs) that are published on the site for your perusal.

Finally, if you would like a deeper dive into the most frequently asked questions and their answers, please see Immersed‘s write-up of 2014’s event, which dealt with many of the same topics: Meet The Big Kids.

School Daze: Where To Educate City Kids?

As parents of school-aged children, one of our biggest and most important decisions is where to educate our little ones. Keep them at home? Send them to school? Where?! Which one?! Choosing can elicit more questions than provide answers. In this post, we invite you to participate in this ongoing and important dialogue. Please share your experience, your thoughts, your ideas—whatever you like—to help us flesh out this issue. And please note, no value judgments are meant to be expressed within. Please excuse generalizations, which are made only for the sake of starting the conversation. We urge you to listen to the podcasts (links below) to hear details and specific anecdotes, if you have not done so already.

Last month, WYPR ran a story on The Lines Between Us, about this dilemma. Three mothers share their experience with Baltimore schools and the choices they made: public, charter, or private/independent (download the podcast here). One mother on the show spoke about hearing profanity and observing alarmingly disruptive behavior from students in grades K through 8 at her neighborhood public school, leading her to enroll her daughter in a private parochial school. Though certainly not seen at every city public school, this vignette is all too common, unfortunately. Sadly, quality of education is actually a secondary consideration to safety in some of our more beleaguered schools. Also unfortunately, neighborhood schools are not created equal. Poor neighborhoods tend to have worse schools. Roland Park residents, by contrast, have access to arguably the best public schooling in the city.

Not so long ago, families simply moved out of the city into the suburbs—in droves, in fact—to avail themselves of better school prospects. Also profiled on WYPR (on Midday with Dan Rodricks; download the podcast here), Maryland resident and father Michael J. Petrilli writes about the issue in his book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools:

Many of today’s parents yearn to live in or near the lively, culturally vibrant heart of the city–in diverse, walkable neighborhoods full of music and theater, accessible to museums and stores, awash in ethnic eateries, and radiating a true sense of community. This is a major shift from recent generations that saw middle class families trading urban centers for suburbs with lawns, malls, parks, and good schools. But good schools still matter. And standing in the way of many parents’ urban aspirations is the question: Will the public schools in the city provide a strong education for my kids? To be sure, lots of parents favor sending their sons and daughters to diverse schools with children from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But can such schools successfully meet the educational needs of all those different kids? How do middle class children fare in these environments? Is there enough challenge and stimulation in schools that also struggle to help poor immigrant children reach basic standards? Is there too much focus on test scores? And why is it so hard to find diverse public schools with a progressive, child-centered approach to education?

Recently, a report of  Baltimore City schools showed that enrollment in city schools started upticking in 2008, the first increase in 40 years. In the last 5 years, ~3,000 more students have been enrolled in city schools. Now that families are staying in Baltimore and investing in the city (or are stuck with an upside-down mortgage, as may be the case), where are we sending our children to school, and what goes into making that decision? Spoiler alert! Mr. Petrilli and his family moved from Takoma Park to Bethesda, where their neighborhood school happens to be attended by mostly students from the middle and upper eschelons of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Many of The New Century School parents have already faced this decision and opted for TNCS for the long haul. Others move their kids to public schools when the kids are old enough to be eligible or they win a spot in a charter school lottery. Still others are prolonging the decision. Does a stigma exist for those who choose private schools over public? Critics argue that parents should be investing in the city as a whole by sending their kids to the local school and that by not doing so, they are turning their backs on their community. On the other hand, say some, we don’t want to use our kids as social experiments and possibly risk squandering their education years.

But the key here is not that TNCS is private so much as it is independent, free to strike out and forge new educational territory, to revolutionize learning. We need choice. Hands-on, progressive education is hard to do in public schools, where test scores are used to measure a school’s success, too often forcing teachers to “teach to the test.” It’s also very true that TNCS cares deeply about the surrounding community and actively demonstrates this support in a number of ways such as by hunger outreach, investing in sustainable energy, and engaging in city programs.

We close by acknowledging that there is no single right answer here; ultimately, this is a personal decision for each family, taking into account the particular factors relevant to each. So, please, chime in to keep this important dialogue open and productive!

TNCS is an independent yet very city-oriented school.

TNCS is an independent, yet very city-oriented progressive school.