SCHOOL TALK Middle School Choice

Everywhere they meet these days, parents of 5th graders are beginning to commiserate with one another over how to squeeze middle school tours into their busy schedules. More important, they wonder how to decide which school is the best fit for their children.

For many, the search begins this month with the District 2 Middle School Fair on Wednesday, Oct. 10, at P.S. 40 (320 East 20th  St.), when families can learn about all the schools at once,  and speak to principals, parent co­ordinators, and, sometimes, students. Reac­tions to this fair range from “In­credible!” to “Mayhem!” With 16 Dis­trict 2 middle schools, plus several citywide programs to which any city student can apply, the search can seem daunting.

It hasn’t always been that way. The only public junior high for Lower Manhattan children was once I.S. 70 on West 17th Street (now home to the NYC Lab School). But in the 1980s, Down­town parents, uneasy with IS 70’s reputa­tion for large classes and rough students, wanted more options. Dis­trict 2 began opening small, themed middle schools and the choice process was born.

A look at District 2’s directory of middle schools, which 5th grade parents re­ceived in September, shows how far that choice has come in the last 20 years. In addition to details about the application process, the directory outlines the schools’ programs and specialties, as well as what they consider for admission. (Yes, many parents compare this process to a college search.) The Salk School of Science, for instance, has a partnership with the NYU School of Medicine, and gives its own assessment to students who put it first on their application. Quest to Learn, whose theme is “Systems-Think­ing/21st Century Skills” works with Parsons and admits students by lottery.

After checking out the directory or at­tending the middle school fair, parents are ready to sign up for tours, which begin this month and continue throughout the fall. Some look at citywide schools such as NEST + m (New Ex­plo­rations in Science, Technology and Math) on the Lower East Side, which has its own application and admissions pro­cess, and PPAS (Professional Per­forming Arts School) on West 48th Street, which requires an audition. Learning the acronyms alone can be a challenge.

With so many schools to choose from, parents sometimes wish that 5th graders moved en masse from elementary school to junior high, the way it worked when they were growing up. But choice, the cornerstone of educational initiatives these days, means you can consider a school on East 91st Street (East Side Middle) as well as neighborhood schools. In recent years with I.S. 276 (in Battery Park City) and the Lower Manhattan Community Middle School (in the Financial District) joining I.S. 289 on Warren Street, Downtown parents who don’t want their children far from home have additional options. Of P.S. 89’s June 2012 graduates, more than half  are attending one of those local schools.
For some families, the middle school process is an adventure—a chance to tour different schools, hear principals present their programs and see teachers and students in action. For others, it is an ordeal that adds to the pressures of raising children, and offers only the illusion of choice. Those parents argue that in fact the more popular middle schools pick the students they want.

Others consider many of the schools simply too far away. After years of walking their children to school or seeing them off on a yellow bus, parents have strong feelings about sending their 11-year-olds to distant schools, imagining all sorts of horrors awaiting them as they negotiate street corners, traffic lights and, worst of all, the subway system.
But in the months after 5th grade graduation ceremonies, those 11-year-olds go to sleep-away camp, grow a few inches, and wander the neighborhood with friends. The invisible thread connecting parent and child stretches and strains. “I wish I had expanded my middle school search,” one parent told me when her child was in 7th grade. “He’s all over the city now.”

At a middle school tour I once attended, the principal said something I have always remembered: There is nothing taught in middle school, he said, that will not be taught again in high school. Parents looked puzzled. What middle school teaches, he went on to say, is how to take notes, do homework efficiently and become organized, key skills needed for their success as students—and, someday, as adults.

Connie Schraft is the P.S. 89 parent coordinator. For questions about Downtown schools, write