Choosing The Right High School
Janice Gladstone with her son David.
The Linden School's Principal Janice Gladstone shares her journey selecting a high school for her Grade 8 son.
It is an unusual moment in one’s life when one gets to be simultaneously in opposite roles where you see the same process from different perspectives. Currently, I am heavily involved with the enrollment process as principal of Linden and, at the same time, my family is navigating the admissions process for our own son. This is particularly impactful for me given he is at the most difficult transition in K-12 school life: middle school to high school. Like so many of our Grade 8 students, our son is deciding whether he should remain at the small, nurturing, academically-focused school or go to the big, neighbourhood public high school. I chose to use the word “we” intentionally. You see, I don’t believe that, at 13, he has the perspective, knowledge or judgment to make that decision effectively on his own. Allow me to elaborate.
My son is a very bright 13-year-old with some learning challenges. As such, he can be very insightful and is age-appropriate in his desire to be social. That desire has taken priority in his thinking and behaviour. Fortunately, at his school, he has a great deal of one-on-one support and can remain in school to complete any unfinished work each day. The result is that he is managing to do better in school now, in Grade 8, than he has ever done in his life. He is also growing and thriving socially outside of school and, as he says, the social pressure is completely off while in school. He is starting to develop toward his academic potential in ways he would not in a large public school with large classes. He is really enjoying school for the first time.
So it is obvious, right? He should continue at this small school that is perfect for him, where he can thrive academically, with minimized anxiety. Did I mention that he can be anxious? That’s another reason this small school is so wonderful for him. If only the decision were that straight forward.
The other day, an older friend of his, was extolling the virtues of the local high school and encouraging him to go there. Is there anything more enticing to a 13-year-old, than to have a 15-year-old you look up to, say, “you should come, it will be so great!” As I mentioned, he is bright, so his wheels started spinning immediately. In the ensuing conversations here is where his creativity took him:
- Mom, I need the challenge of making new friends in a big crowd.
- They have really good support for kids with learning needs.
- The academics will be the same stuff so that won’t matter.
- I want to go to school close to home. Think of all the time I’d save with the commute.
- I need to learn how to speak up in a large group (this is his most clever point of all).
Not bad, eh? I managed to keep quiet long enough for him to come up with all of this. I even made space for him to speak encouraging him with my questions. Finding your voice is important for my son too, so I work at it. When we talk to each other, I try to practice mindful listening and shut down the little voice asking questions, critiquing, or drifting to another topic. In this case, however, I allowed myself to release the inner arguments. Let me share point by point.
- You will be able to make many new friends in the small high school and, as your social circle and autonomy broaden, you will have many opportunities outside of school as well, meeting friends of friends. The challenge of meeting new people comes with problems you may not have considered. In large group settings students often find themselves feeling isolated and lonely in the crowd. The fact that there are a lot of people means you will be surrounded by strangers -- some of whom you won’t like. Forgive the indulgence but this is just a thought bubble after all: I even want to throw in the research that shows kids are happiest who have a few close friends rather than a large social circle (Lisa Damour, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls).
- You mentioned the good support you could get at the big school. Yes, they are legally obliged to provide accommodations, but how well do you think teachers who have 150-180 students at a time, can get to know their students as individuals? They certainly do not have a lot of time to devote to one-on-one guidance.
- Academics are the same, you say. Well, you have a point if you just mean that the same ministry guidelines are being followed to establish the curriculum for each course. You may not know how rarely public school teachers manage to actually cover the entirety of the ministry material. It’s tough to move quickly enough when you have large classes. How much enriched, inquiry-based, discussion-based learning will be provided in the class of 35 compared to the class of 10? How deeply will you get into your learning if you are drifting off, unable to pay attention in that large-group setting? How many of your teachers will be gifted enough to provide enriched learning for some students while attending to the learning needs and difficult behaviours of others?
- Saving travel time? That is a good thing until you think about what you will you do with that saved time? Homework? Exercise? Learn another language? Make art or music? Clean your room? I know you, my son. You will be gaming and watching favourite reruns while eating sweets. Occasionally, you might throw a basketball with friends but how would that compare with daily one-on-one homework support and after school clubs?
- It is delightful to me, my little guy, that you express an interest in becoming better at speaking up in a large group. I feel so validated by you noticing my core values. And I’m impressed that you are sophisticated enough to know this would incline me to agree with you. Still, I’m not sure how much progress you might make going back to the large classes that made that so difficult for you before. I believe that the way for you to learn to speak up is to get practice in an environment where you are reasonably comfortable. Over time, you will become confident so that you can speak up in any environment. At Linden, within a very short period of starting, the girls gain confidence and families see a notable difference. The initial confidence is only the beginning. With time, that confidence and all the practice our girls get, shape them into articulate, self-aware critical thinkers ready to formulate and express meaningful opinions in any arena. You, I fear, will not achieve that by struggling to be heard over the cacophony.
So here I am, having heard my son try to sell me on the idea that the big high school will be better for him, knowing him well enough to see that he is mostly interested in his social life. He does not see the long-term value of an excellent and deep academic education among close peers. He does not understand the differences between the learning options before him. He is taking for granted the enormously positive impact the small school has had on him. Given that he has only been there for a few months, I am shocked by how quickly that happened. So the conclusion I am coming to is that, no matter how much we want to empower our 13-year-olds, it’s not a great time for them to be making these impactful decisions. I am grappling with what the message will be to him if I say, “you need the support of the small school to succeed.” How can I frame this in a way that helps him understand that it’s about reaching his potential. It wouldn’t be a disaster if he went to that big public school with a good reputation. It just wouldn’t get him anywhere nearly as close to his potential as the small, private school we have found. Maybe that is all I need to say.
Epilogue: When we said that it was time to get our registration documents into the private school, he stopped resisting. In fact, he seemed happy and relieved. Processing to follow.