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Navigating the Road to Middle School

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Seems like it wasn’t so long ago, my son was heading off to preschool!

Navigating the road to middle school is not easy these days. A few weeks ago I attended Middle School Information Night at my son’s elementary school. My son is in fourth grade, and in his opinion I was attending this event too early.

“I still have a whole other year to go,” he told me.

“I know.  I want to go just in case your school doesn’t offer this next year,” I told him.

Other parents think I’m much too late.

Because for many Los Angeles parents, it all starts in second grade. That’s when you can start playing “the game.”

In fact, the first thirty minutes of the presentation were all about how to play the game — tricks and tips on navigating the Los Angeles Unified School District’s point system. Learning how to accumulate points to help guarantee acceptance into your top magnet school choice for your child’s middle school years.

I haven’t played the game and I won’t, because I don’t believe in it. I was a Los Angeles public school teacher for twelve years. Out of principle, I refuse to apply to schools I don’t truly want my son to attend, in the hopes of getting turned down so we earn points. 

I remember what my mom said back when I was getting ready to transition into junior high (“back then” as my son would say, junior high was grades 7, 8, 9 compared to today’s middle schools which are grades 6, 7, 8): “There are good and bad teachers at every school” and “There are good and bad kids at every school.” 

From both a student’s point of view and a teacher’s point of view, she was right. Though I would rephrase it differently: “There are good teachers and less effective teachers at every school,” and “There are kids who make good and bad decisions at every school.”

There’s no way in the world I can shield my son from all negative, unsavory behavior. And I don’t want to — completely. Because life isn’t always happy and good and positive. Bad things sometimes happen, and part of going to school is learning how to navigate different, and difficult, situations and interactions with a mix of people. 

I want to send my son to a school where he feels safe and respected. I want him to continue to go to school with a positive attitude and a love of learning. We at home have never emphasized his grades; those are secondary. His effort is the primary thing his dad and I are most concerned about.

I want my son to attend school as close to home as possible. My husband and I have always lived and worked in our community. We believe in supporting our neighborhood, in putting our dollars into local businesses, which allows us to know the barista at our local coffee house and the cashier at the Ralphs. And after sitting in class for several hours each day, I don’t want my son’s school day to also include long commutes.

My son already has told me he’s not happy that many middle schools require uniforms. I can see both sides of that issue.  From a teacher’s perspective, uniforms level the playing field, and reduce the amount of distractions that can be caused by t-shirts advertising that “homework kills trees” or girls coming to school in tank tops and itty-bitty shorts. But from a child’s point of view, I get it. The minute someone tells you to wear something specific, you don’t want to.

The middle school representatives who attended the Information Night were essentially advertising agents, selling their schools. When did that happen? I suppose I was so busy teaching in an elementary school classroom and raising my son that I missed the shift when parents now shop around for schools for their pre-teen children. 

And here’s a confession:  I’m not in a rush for my son to become any more college-prepared or career-ready than he already is. Representative after representative spoke of their rigorous programs, their large student population, and I felt as if I was listening to a college admissions officer. I want my son to be a child, because this is his one shot at it.

When I was a teacher, my son was cared for by a nanny. He didn’t attend preschool until he was four. At that time, I found it challenging to find a preschool that was a ”preschool.” Some of the facilities I visited boasted of their computers, their uniform requirements (for four year olds!), and their foreign language lessons. My son was four. I wanted him to sing, and play, and continue practicing writing his name and numbers. I wanted him to learn independence and socialization skills. And that’s what he did, because I found a preschool that reminded me of the one I attended. With teachers who sang and hugged and gave out stickers.

And so now the search begins for a school that will challenge my son without making his middle school years all about test scores. A school that will allow my son to explore and gain new experiences and allow him to stumble and fall and try again. Because that’s what our family believes should be happening in these middle school years.

Parents who have navigated this road before me — I’d love to hear from you!  Leave your suggestions and words of wisdoms in the comments below.

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