Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Middle School Mambo

Don Wheeler

It's been five years, though it sure doesn't seem like it, since I wrote about our process of picking the best primary school situation for our daughter.  We have been entirely pleased with our choice.  At Hay Primary Center our Sarah has blossomed and thrived.  But we've run out of grade levels there and another choice must be made.

In South Bend, IN (in the public school realm) parents have a few options for grades 5 - 8.  Our district school is Jackson.  Parents can also apply to some magnet programs:  LaSalle (Academy Program), Jefferson (Traditional Program) and Dickinson (Fine Arts).  We explored all four options to some degree and I thought I'd share our experience.

The magnet concept grew out a desegregation order coupled with the recognition that programs were being narrowed due to continual budget cutbacks.  Not without some drawbacks, it is a fairly neat strategy.

The basic premise is to offer attractive stuff to entice advantaged children to buildings located in neighborhoods primarily populated by disadvantaged kids. The district residents enjoy preferred status in most cases (in terms of admission) but have other options as well.  As you'll soon discover, the magnet programs vary significantly in terms of offerings and resources.  This is due to significant portions of their programs being dependent upon grants - outside the resources of the School Corporation budget.  One can easily visualize the potential that there will be ebbs and flows - thus some worries about the stability of offerings.

The first step is the South Bend Community School Corporation Magnet Fair.  This happened last fall at the Century Center, and each magnet program had a table set up with literature and people to talk with. We were primarily focused on learning about the LaSalle and Dickinson programs.  We planned to explore Jackson's offerings at a future date.

It was nicely done.  Dickinson had student musicians performing, LaSalle had their robotics club, etc.  There was a big crowd coming to see the offerings. It was crowded and noisy, and pretty darn great.

The Academy and Traditional middle school programs have counterpart programs in the Primary Centers, and I'd never been clear about what differentiated the two.  When you read the literature you have the impression that serious study and discipline are the prime focus of both.  Adding to my confusion was the insistence by the Primary Academy spokesperson that their program was not a "gifted student" program.

Anyway, we spoke with the LaSalle and Dickinson folks, picked up an application and made note of their open house dates.  Then we noticed Jefferson's table. Though we hadn't considered Jefferson, we thought we'd take the opportunity of talking with their representatives as well.

So we wandered over to the table, where the woman there proudly expostulated about their "B" rating from the state this year.  We gamely nodded, but my wife and I are highly unimpressed with the Tony Bennett grading scheme - particularly since the school that has set up our daughter for success was saddled with a "D".  Still, it seemed a good opportunity to ask the question I had on my mind.  The woman seemed a bit flummoxed by my query and motioned to the man a few steps away - the Principal apparently.

Turning towards him, I explained my confusion and asked, "So how does your program differ from LaSalle's?"  He gave a bit of a smirk and replied, "Well, it's like Lyndon Johnson explained the difference between the Senate and the House - 'one is chicken soup and the other is chicken ....'"

I was taken aback, to say the least.  I was a serious parent asking a serious question, and this was far from a serious response.  Plus, he seemed to be implying that LaSalle's program was somehow inferior to his - a laughable proposition.  So I stopped taking him seriously.

My wife was more game and pressed for useful information.  We discovered that Jefferson is primarily a neighborhood school with a magnet subset.  The magnet program appears to be of the infamous "no excuses" ilk - where children are taught to submit and become useful worker ants in the collective.  Our inference in the end was that this program was aimed at parents who thought their kids are screw-ups or might become screw-ups in the future.  One down.

Our first open house was at LaSalle.  Small groups of parents were assigned three LaSalle students (each) as guides.  The students took turns describing the facility and answering questions.  LaSalle has pretty complete offerings in terms of curriculum - including three years of Spanish.  Bus transportation is available and the school enjoys an excellent reputation, even nationally.  Students must test in.

Next up was Dickinson.  The fine arts magnet was the one I originally thought might be the most comfortable fit for our daughter.  She's a bit of an artsy gal, and I thought she might really blossom with more opportunity to explore that.  I also have some concern about how she'd react to the pressure of an Academy program.

But Dickinson is very much a work in progress.  They don't have anything much like a science lab.  They offer no foreign language instruction.  Their arts program is heavily weighted towards the visual category - it would be difficult to do much music and theater in combination.  Also, no bus transportation (though we did know that in advance).  On the plus side, like LaSalle, they offer pretty extensive after school options.  It's pretty clear that a great deal of what they offer and what they hope to offer is dependent upon grants - which makes it's future less predictible.

My wife then made an appointment for us to see Jackson.  Unlike the other schools, we went while classes were in session.  A teacher showed us around the building and answered many of our questions - then we had a sitdown Q & A with the Principal. 

If the decision were to be made purely upon the Principal, the nod would have to go to Jackson.  Margaret Schaller is an extraordinarily impressive person and a clear force for good.  As for the school building itself, Jackson is a duplicate of LaSalle - they were built contemporaneously.  But they are very different in terms of what it is offered inside.

Thanks to the gradual de-funding of public education, our neighborhood school no longer offers any industrial arts, home economics, or drama.  The visual arts and science facilities are dubious in quality - and foreign language (Spanish only) is a three semester proposition (grades 7 - 8).  Phys Ed is only sporaticly offered.  And the only after school things available are athletic programs.

If that weren't discouraging enough, we were told all children are tested in math and English every three weeks.  The time allocated is forty-five minutes, and one would assume that would be per subject.  Ms. Schaller tried to put a good face on it, claiming "Kids learn by taking tests" - her only dubious claim in our meeting.

It's bad enough that kids lose 90 minutes of instruction time every three weeks (in service to only the ISTEP monster) but on top of that either teachers have to grade these tests, or some company is paid to - a significant waste of precious South Bend Community School Corporation assets.

I've known kids who have gone to LaSalle and (prior to that) Kennedy Academy, and many of them seem emotionally wounded.  It's a chicken and egg proposition to determine what caused what, but they certainly seemed ill suited for programs as demanding as these.  This knowledge in part caused us to choose Hay over Kennedy five years ago. I am also bothered by the knowledge that if you have a high acheiving kid and want to be in the public school realm - there really is only one clear choice in intermediate centers in South Bend.

But our daughter, who we view as sensitive and perhaps a bit delicate, comes from two very tough-minded parents.  She'll probably do fine in a more demanding setting, and course availablity and content begins to matter more at her current age.  Also, her three closest friends have picked LaSalle as their number one choice.  So they all four will be taking the entrance exam soon.

Since Kindergarten, our daughter has raced up the steps of her bus each day - she's that eager to go to school.  Our great hope is that that won't change.

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