Blog · School Choice

Letting My 14 Year-Old Make His Own Educational Decisions

Today, Monday, March 26, is the day when all New York City eighth-graders must either decide which public High School offer they are going to accept or, if they were given no match during the First Round, turn in their application for the schools left in Second Round. (For tips on why and how you should do your best to avoid that latter fate, click here.)

Because I was the cruelest mother ever and forced my middle child to practice taking the (yes, I agree) “ridiculous” Specialized High-School Admissions Test (SHSAT) over the summer, he received an offer to the same Specialized High School that his brother graduated from last year. (For those playing the diversity game at home, my son is African-American.)

He also got an offer to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High-School of Music and Art & Performing Arts, as well as to a gifted, citywide Screened School. Three is the maximum number of different public high-school offers a student can receive, though they can also apply and be admitted to a variety of charter, religious and independent private schools. (More details about that, here.)

Now it’s decision crunch-time.

My older child’s experience with a Specialized High School was decidedly mixed.

I will never run out of gushing superlatives about his peer group – bright, hard-working, primarily immigrants and children of immigrants who are much more supportive of each other than media coverage would lead you to believe. And bullying was never an issue. As my son explained, “in order to bully, you would have to give a moment’s thought to other people. And we are all much too self-centered to do that.”

The teaching quality was uneven, ranging from engaging, open-minded instructors willing to entertain various points of view (including from teens who, like the musical version of Alexander Hamilton, always assume they’re the smartest in the room), to the one who told my son, “Don’t think, just tell me what’s in the book.”

The curriculum was standard Department of Education issue, with freshman biology being a particular disaster, and Advanced Placement classes so oversubscribed that the majority of kids who wanted – and qualified – to get in, ended up shut out.

The workload, also despite media reports, was manageable, maybe 2-3 hours a night but, oh, my God, so much of it was busywork!

The extracurriculars, on the other hand, most of them student-run, were superb. Along with peer group, truly the best part of my son’s experience.

I’ve written before about my boys attending a K-8 school which, while it would never call itself a school for the “gifted,” not only accommodated my child who did test “gifted,” but also left my “non-gifted” child testing “gifted” by the time he’d graduated.

As a result, my older son spent his first two years of high-school redoing work he’d done in middle school, and his second two years taking AP classes which the Ivy League university where he’s been accepted doesn’t give credit for.

On the other hand, he did get into an Ivy League university, if that is your ultimate end-goal. But I will always wonder if he did it because of his high-school… or in spite of it.

Five years ago, my older son also got into LaGuardia, and another Screened school. He ended up turning down the former because he didn’t think the academics were as good as they could be, and the latter because it was smaller, with fewer extracurriculars, as well as further away.

For his younger brother, the Screened school hit the cutting room floor first, once again for transportation reasons. Had that been his only choice, he’d have bitten the bullet and done the two subway/multi-block commute, but, this time, it didn’t seem necessary.

For him, though, dropping LaGuardia is a much more difficult choice than his brother’s had been. My younger son currently dances 16 hours a week – much more seriously than his brother ever pursued the art major he was admitted for.

If he chooses the SHSAT school, my younger son doesn’t think he’ll be able to keep dancing at his current level.

The night we received his placement offers, I agonized over which option would be best for him, from an educational, social, and strategic perspective.

And then I had an epiphany: It’s his life. It should be his choice. (I was more adamant with his brother, but he was a different kid. And I was a different mom. Live and learn.)

You have no idea of how difficult this was for me. I write about NYC education. I consult about NYC education. I know way, way too much about NYC education. I know where all the bodies are buried, and the strengths and weaknesses of multiple schools.

But, in addition to my epiphany, I also felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders.

It’s his life, it should be his choice. Not mine. And he should have to live with the consequences of his choice. That would be the most valuable lesson of all.

No matter how difficult it may be, I am still grateful that my son has choices – choices that are unavailable to the majority of NYC kids due to the weakness of their K-8 education.

Monday, March 26 is the day when all New York City 8th graders must decide which public High-School offer they are going to accept.

And, as of right now, I still have no idea what my son will do.

What do you think?

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