Every year as a NYC principal I would get calls from the NYCBOE high school placement office (Jackie Charity, a most appropriate name for a wonderful child advocate!) In Washington DC I would get the call from a parent. Usually after the 2nd or 3rd marking periods of problems. Some young person and their family thought they hit the educational lottery by being accepted to a highly acclaimed admissions restricted specialized high school or program*.
These students were surely academically capable, but for complicated social-psychological-cultural reasons I won’t go into, “things were not going well, and getting worse by the day”. However, there was always a happy ending to these stories as all of these students who transferred to my schools (SSCHS/Phelps), went on to do well in high school, college and professional careers. Sometimes it is as simple as having a school administrator or faculty member who actually knew their name, and constantly checked in, with and up on them. These students were clearly academically capable; for when I looked at their middle school standardized test scores and course grades, their score on the specialized high school entrance exam (SHSAT); I’d say to myself (but not to the parent): “In what kind of crazy school system world are we in that we are not able to get this kid to pass 9th grade biology or algebra?”
Often, all these students needed was to be surrounded by other smart students who looked, talked and lived like them; as well as having culturally aware and efficacious teachers/administrators, for which many of whom they shared a cultural link. In essence we modeled the traditional HBCU mission of seeing student academic success as a political and social activist calling—educating the next generation of servant leaders!
And then there were those students (especially at SSCHS); who were accepted to a NYC specialized high school/or a specialized program in a comprehensive high school, but chose instead to attend SSCHS. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a parent who against the passionate advice of her child’s middle school counselor (one of the few GC’s who mistakenly advocate not for the child, but rather to boost their “placement stats”); decided to send her child to SSCHS and refuse the NYC specialized high school acceptance. “I know my child better than anyone”; she said, “she was the top in her middle school, and one of the reasons was the tremendous support, inspiration and encouragement she received from the ‘old school, in your business’ Black principal, and the diverse caring teaching staff; if I let her attend _________; she is going to be lonely, isolated and get lost”.
The student like so many like her did go on to do extraordinarily well. The point here is that selecting a high school (not an option in most of the nation); should be a carefully thought out decision, utilizing the same strategic thinking and energy that goes into a choice of a college.
Every school (no matter how ‘good’ and ‘exciting’) is not for every child. Which is why the below article and referenced study published by The Atlantic Magazine is so important. The conclusions it presents are very much aligned with the smart intuition of that parent who explained to me why she was turning down a specialized high school seat for SSCHS.
Importantly, it challenges the concept of ‘high performing school’ (which is worth its own posting as a topic); and whether that school is high performing on behalf of your individual child? More pointedly, does that school have the capability (mission-philosophy, operational practices, leadership and staff) to make your individual child a high performing student? Or, do you just become one of those calls a principal receives asking them to now, academically save your child from a specialized high school underperformance performance!
*Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School Of Music & Art and Performing Arts in NYC, and Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC; are the two schools for which I would not receive calls.
“Why Parents Make Flawed Choices About Their Kids’ Schooling: A new study shows that families act on insufficient information when it comes to figuring out where to enroll their children.”–The Atlantic