Ay, Middle School! Advice on Options from a Mami & LAUSD School Board Member Dr. Ref Rodriguez

If your Baby Girl or Baby Boy is in the fifth grade, it’s time to start looking for a middle school.  This is a stressful time for lots of reasons- they’re growing up, moving to middle school is stressful for them and you, and finding a great option for them can be scary.

If you’re saying “I don’t want my kid to go through what I did in middle school,” don’t worry. They won’t. Things are different now. You have options, allies, and you know what’s best for your kid.

Just don’t leave it to chance. Educational research shows how a kid does in middle school is more important than high school, when it comes to college and life readiness.

Don’t let that overwhelm you. Take a breath and a step back. Most of us have painful memories of middle school. It’s an awkward time for kids. That doesn’t change, but options have changed — for the better.

Start by talking to your child. Although you are the parent and ultimately will make the decision, your child’s voice and opinions matter. Don’t let your child talk you into sending her to a school because all of her friends are going there, and don’t let your fears and anxieties get in the way of validating what your child wants.

Here are some quality options, all public, all free! The taxes you pay, pay for these schools.

Traditional district schools that have brought enrollment in line with facilities and staffing. They’re still composed of students coming from several different elementary schools. But because of declining enrollment, they’re essentially smaller schools. To offer families options, some have created specialized programs or themed academies like Irving Middle School’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) Academy in Northeast Los Angeles, or the School of Social Justice located on the Walnut Park Middle School campus.

Magnet schools specialize in areas like Humanities, Aerospace, Global Awareness, Business, Performing Arts and Public Service. Magnet schools may seem exclusive, almost like a private prep, but they’re actually open to all LAUSD students. They’re part of a voluntary integration program, so your child’s ethnicity — not grades or test scores — are most important. (There’s an exception; magnets for gifted students) Lots of parents want to get their kids into magnet schools, and demand outstrips supply. You can only apply for only one. There’s a point system that’s a little complicated, but you can manage it.

Dual language programs are for kids who attended dual language programs in elementary school and those who have a certain level of academic fluency in a particular foreign language. These schools provide students instruction in English and a target language. The goal is academic proficiency in both languages.

Charter schools are public, open to everyone, but operated outside of the school district under an agreement known as a “charter.” Many charters were opened in neighborhoods where parents were previously stuck with only one option. Each charter has its own character. Some are high-performing, and dedicated to college preparation. Many LAUSD charters serve Latino families.

So how do you choose? The steps are simple, but they take time. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the answers you’re looking for right away. Keep at it.

Find out what’s in your neighborhood. A school that’s close to home has a built-in advantage. Is there a charter, magnet or traditional school close by that appeals to you?

Get to know the school. Schools may look like they’re locked up tight, but they’re open to parents like you. Call and ask for an appointment. Ask about student performances, art shows, back to school nights or any event open to the public.

Take a school tour and visit classrooms. Most schools are happy to schedule tours and classroom visits with the principal or lead teacher. When you visit a classroom, look around and observe. Are students engaged? How’s the energy level? What’s the relationship between the teacher and students? Are students in rows or are they in cooperative groups? How is technology used? Look around the room, and see if student artwork or artifacts are displayed on the walls. It’s a good sign.

How does the campus feel? Is it warm and inviting? Is it clean? Are you greeted by office staff? If this ends up being your kids’ school, that will be important. Just keep one thing in mind: As a well-known southeast LA Latina community leader has said many times, “Someone being nice to you is not quality education.”

That’s a caution light. Look at data. Does the school have a good reputation for academics? Did graduates feel ready for high school? One quick resource is Greatschools.org This site provides API (Academic Performance Index) scores. Those scores aren’t up to date because the state suspended the program, but they still can be useful.

Choose coring or a traditional program. The traditional middle school program offers a different teacher for each subject. That specialization can be an asset. It can also be jarring, as kids move from one classroom to another throughout the day. Middle schools that use a coring system link students to just two teachers, who guide them through the core subjects of English, math, science and history.

Talk to your Comadres and allies. Other parents, especially those with kids who are in or just past middle school, are a great resource. Your kids’ teacher is another. That teacher sees your kid learn every day. They can give you an educator’s perspective on what kind of middle school is best. And don’t forget your son or daughter. They probably have some ideas about what they want. Listen.

Remember when you pick a middle school, you’re not signing a contract. If it doesn’t work out, you can transfer. Changing schools isn’t ideal, but it’s better than keeping your kid in a school that isn’t right.

Finally, treat your middle school choice as a balanced meal. Round it out. Your kid doesn’t need just one thing. Don’t let a single subject, area of interest or one factor overrule everything else. Like you, your kid has many characteristics. Take all those into consideration. Piece by piece, you’re putting together the middle part of the future.

What do you think?

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Alma V. Marquez and Dr. Ref Rodriguez


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