Visiting Schools is a Full-Time Job!

The search for quality high school options in a city where the supply can't possibly meet the demand is an arduous one, fraught with obstacles and uncertainty.
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I'm getting close to asking New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or even Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, to sign a letter to employers around the city, asking them to grant parents in the midst of choosing middle schools and especially high schools some flexibility -- and some time off.

The business of finding a high school can pretty much eat up your fall, as well as your child's. It's all part of navigating the country's largest school system, home to 1.1 million students. The search for quality options in a city where the supply can't possibly meet the demand is an arduous one, fraught with obstacles and uncertainty.

Any parent planning or coping with another large life event simultaneously -- a job or apartment search, college, middle or elementary school tours, a pregnancy, a divorce, a Bar- or Bat-Mitzah or, God forbid, an illness -- is pretty much screwed, unless he or she started way in advance. Finding a high school is a job that ideally requires involvement of both parents or partners if at all possible. It's way too large for one to tackle alone. Yet many do.

Mr. Mayor- - they'll need even more time off.

I'm not knocking school choice. I don't advocate simply assigning students to random high schools, although I do wish the city had a strong network of high quality neighborhood schools. Because it does not, the most coveted choices are frighteningly competitive. So that's why, after I started signing up for tours, auditions and assessments, and after I marked off dates for high-school fairs and interviews, I composed the following template for a letter the mayor might want to circulate:

Dear Employer,

During the next three months, please show patience, flexibility and understanding to ____________ as s/he will be out of the office for hours at a time to visit at least a dozen New York City public high schools, and possibly some parochial, private, and charter schools as well. Some of the tours will take place in the morning, and some during after-school hours. Please understand why ____________ is late some days and leaving early on others to beat the staggering lines at evening open-houses. In addition, there are certain days when ____________ may be pre-occupied with simply signing up for an interview request or tour date before all are full. Calls may sometimes have to be made from work to ensure adherence to deadlines for entrance exams, portfolios and tryouts. In addition, ____________ may seem unusually stressed out, first while awaiting the results of exams or tryouts for the city's nine specialized high schools and numerous others that also require exams or interviews. Those results are due in February, but without a match in the first round there's another wait till March when the rest of the matches are announced. Finally, there is also a chance that ____________'s child may not get into any high school at all, in which case ____________ will be visiting even more schools in the secondary round -- or departing New York City altogether. Thanks in advance for your understanding.


Michael Bloomberg

I understand now why, while touring high schools two years ago for my older son, I ran into the hyperventilating parent of sixth-grade twins who had just navigated the middle-school mess. What was she doing starting her high school search two years ahead of time? She apologized and said middle-school tours had pretty much brought her to her knees, so she was starting early. She came armed with detailed spreadsheets and notebooks and a tape recorder for those endless Q&As, which seem to me mostly about who gets in and why.

She was starting in advance because she was frightened by a painful downside of choice: every year, thousands of eighth -- and ninth -- graders get no match at all, even plenty of students with fine grades and test scores. All kinds of variables can delay notification, keeping parents -- and kids -- on edge for weeks or even months.

The over-anxious and über-organized parent can be pretty annoying, even though I know where s/he is coming from. Part of me just wants to avoid the topic of school searches altogether, especially when parents ask in front of my already too-anxious-child, "So where are you thinking of applying?" Even more irritating is when they ask how his grades/test scores were last year.

One strategy I'm actually considering is to shun all the tours and simply list the same schools in the same order for my younger son as I did for my oldest two years ago -- and hope for the best. Give or take one or two, the same six to eight Manhattan high schools (in a similarly ranked order) are likely to be on the list once again, for many of the same reasons (location, teacher quality, academic reputation, activities).

In all fairness, though, my son will probably want to visit schools since he's the one who will actually have to attend one of them.

So I might as well drag along. But I'm going to need some time off from work, as are thousands of other city parents.

What do you think about that letter, Mr. Mayor?

This post first appeared here on Liz Willen's "High School Hustle" blog for Insideschools.

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