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Too hard to pick the right high school

[This is my Local Living section column for Nov. 26, 2009. Happy Thanksgiving!]

Near the end of her struggle to find the right high school for a son who did not always share her tastes, Tracey Henley was overjoyed to discover that some of her son’s best friends had endorsed her choice, and his resistance had vanished. “So now we don’t have to forge his signature on the form, always a plus,” she said.

Where had this painful sifting of options occurred? Was it some struggling urban district? No, Henley lives in Montgomery County, like much of suburban Washington a mecca for those seeking the best in public education. Her story illustrates that in even the best possible circumstances, parents often have to work very hard to find the place that fits their child. I, like Henley, wonder if there is a better way to do this.

Henley’s son is an eighth grader at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring. He has attention deficit disorder, but the meds have been effective and through elementary school he performed well above grade level in all subjects. Then he entered middle school and “we were really unprepared for just how much his already-poor executive management functions would collapse in the face of increased expectations,” Henley said.

High school loomed. What to do? Like many families these days, the Henleys had a lot of choices. Large school districts in both the suburbs and the cities have become willing to let parents go beyond their neighborhood school if they have a good reason and there is room in their school of choice. Montgomery County has standardized this multi-option approach by dividing the district into consortiums of elementary, middle and high schools. Parents and students are encouraged to pick the high schools that work best for them.

In the Henleys’ consortium the choice was Kennedy, Wheaton, Blair, Northwood or Einstein. Henley and her husband thought Kennedy and Wheaton too far away. To them, Blair and Einstein were too big, and the open houses they attended at those schools too impersonal. “None of the kids or teachers that I spoke with could tell me what special something either school could offer my kid to make him a better prospective college student, other than an IEP [individualized education plan, for students with a learning disability]. Well, that’s a basket term for a process, not a defined series of steps that will help my son,” Henley said.

Her son was leaning toward Blair and Einstein because he had friends going there. In frustration, Henley cornered the representative of one of Blair’s high octane magnet programs and asked what she would do if it were her son. “Lucky me,” Henley said. “Her son, now in college, also has ADD. ..... She was very tactful but very truthful.” She said no matter how high performing her son was, a magnet program was not the best place for an ADD kid. She said “you need a place where you can bird dog him and his teachers.”

When Henley sought the advice of her son’s counselor at Sligo Middle, she was told that Northwood had a good reputation for providing extra help. “It’s the smallest school, it’s got some great intervention programs, it focuses on transitions, to ninth grade, to college,” the counselor said. The Northwood open house convinced the Henleys. They found teachers delighted to talk about their programs and specialties, particularly for kids who needed to learn how to organize their days. When some of their son’s friends also picked Northwood, they were set.

Figuring this out took a lot of time and energy. Henley says she likes the county’s consortium system, since “we didn’t have to move to chase a quality education for our kids or resort to wallet-busting private schools.” She is aware, like many Montgomery County parents, that people in other parts of the country would wallow in envy if they knew how much better Montgomery County services are.

But it seems to me more could be done. The Post education team is working on a plan for Web pages that would provide more information on each school, with input from parents. The suburban districts themselves employ people with encyclopedic knowledge of what is available for students of every learning style. Why not put them at prominent tables at those open houses with big signs that say, “IF NOBODY HAS ANSWERED YOUR QUESTIONS, ASK ME.”

The youngsters who greet me as I walk into Best Buy seem to know where everything is. We should make information easier to come by in our schools, too.

For more on Education, please see

By Jay Mathews  | November 25, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  ADD, Northwood High School, high school choice, learning disabilities, special education  
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And it seems to me that Montgomery County is doing, necessarily, badly what a similar number of independent schools would do well - provide options to parents.

The district still exists. The district still siphons off some substantial amount of funding to do nothing of obvious, or even in-obvious, value. The district still constrains the schools in various ways according to issues of importance to the district but not of importance to schools.

For instance, maintenance budgets may go to schools depending on any number of factors with need not necessarily being topmost. Districts are, after all, creatures of the political system and thus politics inevitably plays a role in decisions that ought to be made according to educational considerations. The Detroit Public Schools district, as an egregious example, was lining the walls of the central administration offices with a quarter of a million dollars worth of art of dubious artistic value while teachers had to ask students to bring toilet paper to school with them.

Without the district to dictate policy to the schools the people whose interest is exclusively the safety and education of each child - their parents - would do the dictating.

Posted by: allenm1 | November 26, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, it's horrible that we have public schools like Montgomery County's where everyone is pretty much sure of a good education if they want it.

Independent schools are wonderful, if you have a child without problems, the money to send them to school (current selective private schools would raise their fees such that they get the socio-economic group they desire. Translation: Your troubled or poor kid isn't going to Sidwell), and the ability to truck them to the school they want.

Rip on public schools if you want. I teach in DCPS, a complete disaster of administration, but the concept of public education is hardly the problem.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | November 26, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I have found that including high school students in the process of selecting their high school is essential to gaining their trust and cooperation. A motivated student can soar, and conversely a begrudging student can regress rapidly. After all in four years they will be making most of their own decisions. High school is a perfect time to ease into personal choices that young adults will need to be making in the very near future.

I noticed that homeschooling was not on the list of possible options for Henley's son and I wonder why. It is not just like "school at home". And parents are rarely the sole teacher at the high school level. For a rapidly growing number of families home schooling is a great option. Students can create their own program adjusting each area to their own needs and abilities and often can include some college classes in their plans. When it comes time to enter college full time they will have some experience already and are ahead of their peers.

I have counseled many families with mixed ability students and usually include homeschooling in the list of options.

Posted by: darleensun | November 26, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

While I'm a big fan of homeschooling (and have chosen it for my own kids), I'd be dubious about it for a teen with ADHD unless there's a parent able to directly supervise him/her. It doesn't sound like that's the case here.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 27, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Had her son been accepted at a magnet program? Advice as it their acceptability for ADHD kids seems moot if the child hasn't actually been admitted.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 27, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Yes Wym1, it is horrible that we have public schools like Montgomery County's. Not for the kids who go to Montgomery County schools but for the kids who go to all the other schools that are horrible and because Montgomery County schools, if they are indeed as good as presented, are the uncommon exception. DCPS, and DPS, Detroit Public Schools, are rather more common and that's the problem.

What's horrible about it is that due to the way public education system has been structured a good district can share a border with an awful district and the awful district doesn't suffer for the contrast.

Why, let's take Montgomery County school district as an example shall we?

It shares a common border with DCPS yet the stark contrast has resulted in nothing in the way of improvement in DCPS. For all the difference it makes Montgomery County might as well be in a different dimension and politically, it is. That splendid isolation in which each school district in America resides means lousy school districts can sail on, untroubled by their proximity to a well-run and successful district.

School district exist for several reasons and they're all bad reasons.

Whether your aim is - racism, class/income discrimination or religious intolerance a school district is an admirable solution. Sort of educational gerrymandering that allows the rich folks to lavish their ill-gotten gains on their spoiled brats and while keeping the kids from the wrong side of the tracks on the wrong side of the tracks. But educationally a school district serves no purpose and generally it's a net negative educationally.

Any time you feel like revealing the crucial educational advantages a school that's part of a district enjoys please do. I'd love to find out what those advantages are.

Posted by: allenm1 | November 28, 2009 9:33 PM | Report abuse

Not all of Montgomery County is served by consortia that offer a choice of high schools. It only exists in the eastern portion of the county in what are mostly lower income schools known by Jerry Weast's term - the red zone. Some of the economically advantaged schools with very low percentages of students receiving free or reduced meals whose boundaries abut those of the consortia - Bethesda Chevy Chase and Walter Johnson for the Downcounty Consortium and Sherwood for the Northeast Consortium - refused to be included in the choice program or were not even approached by the county. The 5 schools in the Downcounty Consortium have some of the lowest performance indicators in Montgomery County, most notably their poor eligibility percentages (the % of students who earn at least a 2.0 GPA with less than 2 E's or failed classes).

The negative characteristics of public school districting noted by allenm1 are alive and well in Montgomery County.

There are also some negative consequences of consortia choice such as: fragmenting communities established in elementary schools, lack of articulation support from school to school, and lack of a k-12 articulation pattern for schools as each high school tries to carve out its niche for attracting invested and supportive families like the one in the article.

Posted by: EducatorParent | November 30, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

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