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.”

Check-In with TNCS Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau!

The New Century School‘s Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau has been very busy heading into the third quarter of the school year. That’s due, of course, to the fact that she oversees the curricula of both elementary and middle school divisions, which is no small task, but there’s another aspect making this particular year rather special—in 2019, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade class!

So, let’s just get this out of the way. In Baltimore, it’s not where you went to college, it’s where you went to high school. It’s a thing.

High School Readiness

The implications of graduating the first 8th-grade class are huge. First, it’s important to get it right and pay close attention to the process to be able to replicate it seamlessly in subsequent years as well as to avoid pitfalls. Most importantly, however, the students must be ready for high school, and that readiness entails a lot, especially here in Baltimore City, where high schools are not zoned; rather, students choose the school they want to attend and then apply to get in. This is true for both public and private high schools. Many city high schools have unique identities, so students can match up their individual strengths and interests to the particular school that is going to meet their needs. Ultimately, they are embarking on a path that should prepare them for future success, whether that’s in college, career, or whatever else they envision.

This process takes planning: School choice starts by exploring available options to learn what each school offers; where it’s located; and, importantly, what special academic (e.g., results on a standardized assessment) or admissions requirements (e.g., audition or portfolio) must be met to be accepted. Attending school Open Houses and doing Shadow Days are also typically part of the process.

So, Mrs. DuPrau has been supporting this effort in many ways, starting with testing. “We learned that some of our 8th-graders had not taken many tests, and so we need to provide more test-taking opportunities. Next year, practicing for tests will take the place of teacher’s choice time for middle school students. Let’s learn how to take a test. It’s also important to have a test for students coming in to TNCS to see where they’re at,” she explained.

Wait—TNCS doesn’t do standardized testing, does it? Although the TNCS approach is the antithesis to “teaching to the test,” as mentioned above, the results of a standardized assessment are probably going to be necessary for any student bent on getting into the school of choice.

Oh, I See!

That’s where the Independent School Entrance Exam—the ISEE—comes into play. This test comprises Reading Computation, Essay, Quantitative Reasoning, Mathematical Computation, and Analogies. Dean of School Alicia Danyali began implementing test-taking skills instruction as well as practice time during the 2017–2018 school year.

“Most private school students need to take the ISEE, and then their score is what the majority of private schools will look at. That’s the big standardized test,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. She signed up TNCS to be an Education Records Bureau (ERB) member so that the ISEE could be administered on site. (“ERB is a not-for-profit member organization providing admission and achievement assessment as well as instructional services for PreK–Grade 12,” according to the ERB website.)

Said Mrs. DuPrau: “We opened the ISEE up to 6th–8th graders. It was optional for 6th and 7th grade and mandatory for the 8th grade because they need that score.” The 3-hour test took place on November 14th and was proctored by TNCS Language Arts teacher Ilia Madrazo. “It ran all morning,” said Mrs. DuPrau, “and was the first time our students had taken a real test.” (A practice run took place last May.) “To prep the 8th graders for this test, [TNCS Co-Executive Director/Co-Founder Roberta Faux] worked with them weekly, especially in math,” she said. How did the students fare? “They said it was super hard,” said Mrs. Duprau. “The ISEE is hard. Out of all the high school testing they have been doing, they said the ISEE was by far the hardest.” (But they scored highest in math!)

It’s important to note that the ISEE is required for applications to private schools.

And Are They Ready?

For public schools, on the other hand, the i-Ready is a required test, which, unlike the pencil-and-paper ISEE, is administered online and took place a month after the ISEE, on December 14th. “From my understanding,” explained Mrs. DuPrau, “the computerized test will first assess ‘where the student is’ and either build on questions if the student keeps getting everything right, or it will go back. In this way, it’s similar to how SuccessMaker works.” Thus, i-Ready is both intuitive and differentiated.

After students had taken the test, Mrs. DuPrau escorted them to Taco Fiesta for lunch!

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Having taken both the ISEE and the i-Ready, TNCS 8th graders now have the option of applying to both public and private schools. They also took both tests early enough that they could retake one or both if desired.

Students applying to Institute of Notre Dame additionally had to take the High School Placement Test (HSPT), which was administered at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

High School Applications

While all this testing fervor was happening, students had to begin completing their high school applications, which were due December 14th for most private schools and approximately a month later for public schools. Some other schools they are applying to include Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and Western High School—for those of you true Baltimoreans sure to inquire!

Mrs. DuPrau was instrumental here as well. She worked with TNCS scholarship students during the school day as needed to help them navigate the less-than-straightforward application process. She got the students accordion binders so they could organize materials by school—one tab per school. “For each school they applied to, we made checklists, put in our applications, made copies, and made sure we scheduled a shadow day and an interview,” said Mrs DuPrau. With binders in hand, they attended the Baltimore City Schools Choice Fair at the Convention Center on December 9th. Explains Mrs. DuPrau: “All the high schools from Baltimore City go there and have their own booth. A few representatives from the school man the booth and share about the school. There were also a lot of performances—singing and dancing and things like that. The girls would visit the booth and ask questions, and there were also students from the school on hand whom they could talk to.”

“The girls had so much fun with it,” recounts Mrs. DuPrau, “and I also taught them how to research information on their own. They’re binders are still growing, and they keep adding tabs!”

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Mrs. DuPrau also had the good fortune to meet a representative of the i-Ready test whose job is specifically getting 8th graders into high school. She invited Mrs. DuPrau to join a committee on how to prepare 8th graders, follow up with them, make at least two visits throughout each high school year, and later help them apply to colleges.

Other Areas

As busy as she was with the 8th-graders, Mrs. DuPrau still made time for all of the other TNCS students, for tutoring, for setting up programs around campus, for doing dismissals (always with a big smile) as well as for teachers and faculty.

Self-Defense Class

For students in grades 4 through 8, Mrs. DuPrau arranged a self-defense/self-empowerment workshop on December 18th with author and mindfulness guru Jillian Amodio. The class focused more on promoting self-confidence and respect rather than combat techniques and was divided into boys and girls sessions, with slightly different curricula. Tips for online safety and other common-sense habits were also encouraged.

This video gives an idea of what her workshops might cover; however, they are tailored to context and age.

Finally, Ms. Amodio gave the following mantras for the students to reflect on.

Mantra for Respectful Males
I respect myself, my body, my mind, and my emotions.
I respect the bodies, minds, and emotions of others.
I respect that others feel differently and value our differences.
I am allowed to express sadness and hurt without being seen as weak.
I offer to help others when I see they are in need.
I will not place myself above anyone else. We are all equal and worthy.
There is no place for unnecessary aggression in my life.
Gentleness is a something I value.
Sensitivity towards others is something I take pride in.
There is no reason to be rude.

Mantras for Strong Girls
I respect myself, my body, my mind, and my emotions.
I respect the bodies, minds, and emotions of others.
I respect that others feel differently and value our differences.
I am allowed to express sadness and hurt without being seen as weak.
I offer to help others when I see they are in need.
I am in control! I am Strong! I am worthy!
Bold is beautiful!
I will never settle for less than I deserve!
I will not apologize for others! I will not apologize unnecessarily!
Every great woman has encountered fierce battles. Wear your battle scars with pride and rejoice in all you have conquered!

Learn more about Ms. Amodio at jillianamodio.com.

Staff Support

Although her official title is “Curriculum Coordinator,” Mrs. DuPrau’s responsibilities stretch beyond the classroom. She works closely with TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan, for example, and also meets regularly with teachers. “[Señora Duncan and I] work together on how we can help with or improve the curriculum. I also help her observe teachers as well as with applying for federal grants (e.g., Title II and Title IV). We are also trying to figure out how our school can be recognized on school choice applications.”

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She notes that morale among teachers has been especially high this year, which makes her job more fun—as well as trickles down to happier students. Part of this, she reasons, is the wonderful teachers themselves and another part of it is how valued they feel by the administration. In general, a spirit of collaboration and positivity pervades.

Coordinating the International Trip

Another first for TNCS this year is the international service trip middle schoolers will take this spring. They are planning to go to Puerto Rico, where passports are not required. “That is a big project,” said Mrs. DuPrau. “Figuring out all the details and coming up with fundraising ideas has been challenging.”

But, never fear! It will happen, and Immersed will fill you in on all the fun! In the meantime, thanks for all you have done to make the 2018–2019 school year such a huge success, Mrs. DuPrau!