Just up the highway from here is another large DC-area school system that is giving its students, or at least 2100 of them, a choice of where they will attend high school the following year. Rather than automatically heading to the neighborhood school, eighth graders in select middle schools will get to choose among several high schools based on the theme program that each "academy" will offer. Those themes include international studies, sports medicine, biosciences and media.
I’m not so sure about giving 8th graders a choice of anything considering how scattered their thinking is at that age.
Mairi Breen Rothman, a Takoma Park Middle School parent who has been listening to her daughter Sarah and friends, said, "Adults, appropriately, are thinking about it from the standpoint of the choice of academic interests, and the kids are thinking about it as, ‘Where do I want to hang out?’ "
Sarah and her friend Rosie Kaller explored many options before settling on their home school, Montgomery Blair, where their friends will be. Rosie looks forward to learning about film and photography there, but in the meantime, she said, "it’s kind of nerve-racking. I like that we get options, but I also don’t like that we get so many options. It kind of feels like choosing colleges."
I’m also not comfortable with kids being channeled into one area of study at this point in their lives when high school should be a time when you explore different areas to see what you might enjoy and be good at.
To some students and parents, high school academies feel paradoxical: Children are encouraged to try new things to see whether they like them, while at the same time they are asked to focus their interests. There is not a professional consensus on whether this works.
Patrick Akos, a professor of school counseling at the University of North Carolina, said, "Developmentally, middle school is a time for exploring, and eighth grade should be a time they aren’t narrowing choices but expanding them." Jill Cook, director of programs for the American School Counselor Association, said that, by eighth grade, "I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect they have a notion about where they’re headed."
I guess things have changed since I was in junior high. But this issue of choice does bring up one big truth about school choice programs no matter what they look like. The only way they will be successful is if parents and students receive not only facts and data about their options but also some guidance. Just handing everyone a lot of brochures and a web site with an FAQ is not the way to educate anyone about the benefits and consequences of their choices.