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Freedom of (Middle School) Choice

"School Days" takes a look at all things related to education in Baltimore City.  This week's entry was written by DBFA's Education Chairperson Hugh Bethell and talks about the middle school choice process...

Not long ago, conventional wisdom held that families living downtown had to move out of the city once their children reached school age. Now, many local elementary schools are filled to capacity with students from families that have made a choice to stay.

As those students reach fifth grade, though, a new line of thinking tells these families that the system doesn’t have strong options for middle school. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In keeping with the overall theme of offering parents as many options as possible, City Schools transitioned to a “middle school choice” process several years ago. As a result, students no longer automatically move from their elementary school to the middle school they are zoned for.

Instead, like the process for selecting a high school, they are now afforded the opportunity to shop around and find the school that best meets their child’s educational needs. 

As you can imagine, with so many different options out there, it is important for families to understand both the choice process and the choices themselves.  Here is a brief overview of what to expect as your child enters 5th grade and the process for selecting a middle school begins in earnest.

If you haven’t already done so, you should begin by reading the “Baltimore City Public Schools Middle and High School Choice Guide” published by City Schools, available in print from the central office and also online here.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the process, the next step is to attend the Middle and High School Choice Fair, typically held in mid-November. At the fair (last year’s was at Camden Yards), representatives from schools across the city provide you with information about their programs, offering families a “one-stop shop” opportunity to build a list of prospective choices.

Although there are many fine middle schools throughout the system, some choices are especially popular: The Ingenuity programs at Roland Park, Mount Royal, and Hamilton offer rigorous academic instruction with an emphasis on science and math. The Advanced Academic (AA) programs at Roland Park, Mount Royal, and Francis Scott Key provide the opportunity for accelerated learning. Crossroads, a charter located in Fells Point, boasts some of the top test scores in the city. And new charter programs, including the Design School, the Baltimore Montessori adolescent program, and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women are all attracting large numbers of applicants.

Here is a brief admissions summary of each to keep in mind:

  • Students already enrolled in a K-8 school have the option of staying in that school for grades 6, 7 & 8.
  • Charter schools conduct an annual lottery in the spring to fill their open slots.  If you want to be included in the lottery, contact the individual school for instructions on how to apply.
  • Traditional (non-charter) middle schools and the Advanced Academic programs fill slots based on student preferences however students must also qualify academically to attend the AA programs.
  • The Ingenuity Program administers its own test on a Saturday in March, and combines that result with grades, earlier test scores, and recommendations when determining who to admit.

Confused yet?

Because Charters, AA programs, and traditional schools operate independent of each other, the admission process is not standardized.  Each of these paths involves its own steps and schedule, and because many families participate in more than one, it’s possible for a student to receive offers from several middle schools at different times and/or be put on multiple waiting lists.  This is where things can get a bit frustrating.  Imagine your child getting accepted to his or her second choice of traditional school one month, finding out you won the lottery at a charter school you liked another month, and then after you decide which one to choose, one of the AA programs calls a few months later and says a spot opened there and you were tops on their wait list.

Because of this domino effect that occurs when even one student switches their commitment from one school to another, some schools end up continuing to admit students well into September.

So, plan for the chaos. Do your homework so you are not blind-sided by the process.  Attend one of DBFA’s Meet The Big Kids’ Parents events to hear how others did it. 

Bottom line:  Know what to expect. 

And as you walk through the middle school choice fair, try not to fall in love with a single school. As attractive as one program might be, it will have its drawbacks – every school is a tradeoff between big and small, new and established, rigorous and relaxed. Try to identify three choices that would appeal to your fifth grader. Starting the process with that flexibility, and a good idea how the system works, will help ensure that your student gets the most out of middle school in the city of Baltimore.

Hugh Bethell is DBFA’s Education Chairperson.

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