19 August 2009

A New School Year Begins

Our whole family gathered once again to send off our two children to our neighborhood Denver public schools elementary school for a new school year.

This year was a quieter one than most. As always, the trip was short, a third of a mile walk from the house that the four of us have shared for the entire time that they have been in school. Each hauled a year's worth of school supplies (a couple of picture frames for a project much later in the year for one child excepted).

My eldest is going into year three of a year year multi-age classroom with the same teacher, and has had a first day of school here for five years before this year; two-thirds of her classmates were also classmates last year, and she knows all of the incoming third graders

My younger child has started school here for four years before this year; he has a new teacher, with whom he will have three years of classes. But he knows his knew teacher, is just down the hall from his sister, and knows almost all of the children in his class; many were classmates in prior years at the school.

The school yard was full of familiar parents and children as we gathered outside before entering its doors on the first day.

The school has some new teachers this year, but unlike three prior years, none of our children were assigned to new teachers. The school has a new principal, again, the fifth since our students started to attend the school, but we are hopeful that the new principal, with many years of experience in the Douglas County Schools, will work out. The usual coffee reception for parents on the first day was dispensed with, perhaps due to the new principal, or perhaps because the PTA is short on funds this year due to Financial Crisis impaired fundraising.

Our neighborhood school doesn't have the best CSAP scores in the city, measured either in absolute terms or in student growth. But, it also isn't failing at any great rate or suffering from serious safety or community spirit problems. It has typical for the state average levels of poverty. It is merely on the good end of the ordinary range for the state. It has some innovative programs (British primary education, and seed to table gardening among them), it has some decent teachers, it is very popular - filled to the brim due to student choice elections in a district with 30% of its classroom capacity, more in older neighborhoods like ours, vacant.

Our children have stood out there, winning awards, making friends, getting involved in activities and learning. We wouldn't dream of disturbing the stability that they've enjoyed to chase after some other choice that might be marginally better in an objective sense.

Choosing a Middle School In Denver

This fall, however, it is time for our eldest to apply to the middle school of her choice. It is a critical time for us and for the district. There are a great many middle school options for our children at the Denver Public Schools.

This is also the age at which Denver loses a lot of its middle class children to suburban schools, private schools, and charter schools, because many of the middle school choices, historically and today, are not very attractive. There are enough viable good quality choices in the system now, and we are comfortable enough that we can navigate those choices productively, that we don't expect to leave Denver for suburban schools or to elect private schools.

Our short list of possibilities includes about seven middle schools, and the other middle school possibilities will need to receive at least cursory review as well. Vetting and applying for them this fall, in time for school choice election deadlines this winter, will be an activity almost as consuming as applying for college. We will list options, consider programs and their materials, visit schools, consider transportation logistics, listen to what other kids are doing, and make a decision involving both our eldest child and us as parents about what programs to apply for, and then get those applications into the system correctly. The hardest part of the decision making process will be the "know thyself" dimension. Most of the the choices involve some special program or another that involves specialization, which requires a student, very early in life, to make choices that fit with that child's learning style and academic aspirations and strong points.

* There is an intense and prestigious but unstructured and big project program at Morey (in Capitol Hill), which is a convenient location for us.

* The Denver School of Science and Technology (near Stapleton) has secured good results, but is specialized (as the name suggests), so it may not be best in its non-core subjects, and it has rather strict behavior modification oriented discipline which reputably leads to a rather high washout rate at first. It is also a long way from our home.

* Our generalist neighborhood school Merrill (in Belcaro) is considering some big changes from what has been an unexceptional to mediocre program, based about concerted parent input and pressure from Corey Elementary parents (which draws from an affluent neighborhood and houses a gifted and talented program) that would like to have the option to keep their elementary students on the same campus in further years if the program could meet their high standards. But, will it be ready for prime time next year?

* Hill (in Hilltop), another generalist neighborhood school not much further away than Merrill, has a better reputation for its program.

* Hamilton (near Bible Park in far Southeast Denver) has a pre-International Baccalaureate program that is heavy on homework but is well rounded, although it is reasonably long trip in the opposite direction of my office. We don't know as much about it as we should. For example, how much room would there be to continue the language study that we've started?

* The Denver Center For International Studies (in Baker) is close and a front runner based on our eldest's facility with languages (she is in her fifth year of studying Spanish which we routinely use for chores at home and it is a favorite of several friends) but we've heard mixed things about the program as a whole in non-academic matters and in non-specialty academic areas.

* There are Denver School of the Arts (near Stapleton) programs for people whose specialties aren't performance, like stagecraft and creative writing (for a child who is avid in pursuit of fabric crafts and has received recognition for her poems, but isn't big into acting or music performance), but has issues of breadth and recent school administration issues, as well as concerns about distance from home and the notion of being at the fringe of a performance oriented school.

There may be options that we've overlooked as well. Kunsmiller (in Southwest Denver near Harvey Park), for example, is opening up a new "Creative Arts Academy" program, apparently focusing on the visual arts, after its unspecialized program flopped, but it is new and unproven. Even its website is a work in progress.

The buy in and enthusiasm for the ultimate selection that this process will create will be as important for how well that choice ultimately works as the quality of the choice itself. I have a rather jaded view, based upon the research I've seen, on how much of a difference the distinctions between basically decent schools make on student learning. So, I'm not worried that the stakes in a middle school decision are particularly high.

I had no choice at all over middle school. There was one in town (other than a small private school that mostly kept its elementary school classes at the middle school level and didn't have a great reputation either). It sucked. I lived, enjoyed high school, and went on to do acceptably well a good colleges, and to graduate with honors from a top ten law school. My kids will make it as well. By the time that they finish elementary school they will already be as literate and numerate as an unfortunately large share of Denver Public Schools high school seniors.

They have their individual academic and personal challenges, which we watch like hawks, but we aren't deeply worried that they won't eventually "get it." A little prodding here, a little encouragement there and the fullness of time will solve most of the issues. More serious interventions if anything gets too far out of line would be forthcoming. We aren't immune to trouble, but trouble never comes out of nowhere By late elementary school, the seeds of academic and disciplinary disaster later in school are usually already planted. We aren't seeing the green shoots of those kinds of problems yet, so we have reason to believe that if we stay the course, that they will do well enough.


BSR said...

Hi Andrew. I saw your wife on the playground this afternoon, but didn't see you this morning. Our son is also starting with a new teacher and new 3-grade classroom.

If you're open to suggestions, I'll put a vote in for Hill. Our daughter is starting 8th grade there this year. She choiced into Hill for 6th, after we were unimpressed by Merrill, and got into what they call the "Honors Program". There is also Honors X and Honors X2 for the even more above average kids.

Her 6th grade was a bit rocky (grade-wise) but I think this was partly to do with missing her friends in Colorado Springs where we moved from earlier that year. It also had to do with her attitude. Some-time late in 6th grade she made a decision to really work hard, and it paid off with honor-roll grades all through her 7th grade year. We have high hopes for 8th grade, and feel we made the right decision.

It's a bit of a pain getting her there from the Wash Park area. If there were a more direct route, I'd let her bike, but with University, Alameda, 1st, Colorado, and all that Cherry Creek mess in between, I don't feel safe doing so. We carpool with a family in the next block, so it's not every day. If you end up picking Morey, I think there is a bus that runs from Steele. Hill doesn't have that option.

Good luck with your search!

DSST Board Member said...

Hi Andrew. I would like to clear up some of the information in your post. DSST is a liberal arts school with a science and technology focus. I believe that our liberal arts classes are well designed and the teachers are highly qualified in their subject areas. Our School Culture:
Shared Community, Diversity, Values-Centered, High Accountability/High Support, and Holistic Accountability (The school is grounded in the belief that all students can learn and that it's our collective responsibility as educators and staff to ensure that they do). Thanks. Robby