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 http://washingtonpost.com/education
| 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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