Climbing the Steps to High School

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School has begun, and, if you’re like me, you’re probably still helping your kid put the finishing touches on book reports and finish the dreaded summer math. You’re arguing about whether she needs a brand-new tin of $40 colored pencils, or whether his backpack from last year has some cool left.

And, if your kid is entering the eighth grade, you’re panicking with each mail retrieval of glossy brochures and postcards announcing the open houses of every high school in a 30-mile radius. Each school boasts about its academics, its sports, and its technologies. Some institutions show off their lush campuses; others, their well-adjusted students.

The latest mailing on my kitchen table is an oversized postcard from Maryvale. On the front, two girls—a white one in a sweatshirt that says “we are” and a black one in a sweatshirt that says “maryvale”—seem overjoyed to participate in this racially balanced school with a “new turf field, track and practice fields” and “school-wide iPad grogram.” My eyes go naturally to the bottom bullets: financial aid and County transportation.

Many of my friends have done this before. “It’s worse than college,” Andrea Dixon tells me. Her daughter, Margot, is in my daughter’s eighth grade class. We are sitting with 20 other moms and dads at our children’s desks for this mandatory meeting, where parents of eighth graders will learn the high school application process.

Andrea’s been through this nightmare before with her older son. She rolls her eyes: “The pressure, the financial applications, the waiting.” And what makes it even more rotten is that every eighth grader in the vicinity is applying to all the same schools at the same time, and all their acceptance letters are mailed out on the same day.

Mary Carol Lidinsky, our kids’ homeroom teacher, has prepared a handout to help us with the process, which includes school selection, paperwork, test prep, open houses, shadowing, school fairs, up to three different kinds of testing, deadlines, fees—my head is swirling.

If you break it down, it sounds less daunting. After all, you’ve been giving it quite a bit of thought at the dinner table for the last two years. I know that our discussions have helped to narrow our focus—away from Catholic schools and toward a couple of City schools.

You’ll make choices based on a number of factors. How close is it? How big is it? Who teaches there? What’s the curriculum? We are looking specifically for schools with a good music department. We hear McDonough has an excellent program, and they send a bus to our neighborhood. Those details push that school to our top choices. Other top choices for us are Baltimore School For the Arts, where Serena has been attending TWIGS for saxophone, and City College. With her excellent grades thus far, a City graduation could mean free college tuition at Johns Hopkins University through the Baltimore Scholars Program—a detail that pushes the BSA to the top of the school heap.

Ready or not, here are the steps necessary for the high school application.

Step 1: Attend High School Fairs

Don’t have a clue where you want to send your kid? Have many clues but want more options? At a fair, you can get visit a dozen schools at once. The Catholic Archdiocese has at least 19 fairs between now and the second week of October.

Non-Catholic private schools also show at fairs, and Baltimore City’s “Choice” fair is held this year on November 19.

Step 2: Attend Open Houses

Narrow your choices, and head to some open houses. You can search for your school’s open house date online (or call the school). How many open houses you attend is up to you.

Step 3: Shadow

Pick your final three schools together, and schedule a date for your son or daughter to shadow—that is: follow another student around his or her school. Be sure your date does not conflict with important dates at your own school (field trips, testing). Your child should be prepared to be interviewed, too! Finally, for a more realistic picture of the school, shadowing is best done without a friend; having that camaraderie could make the school seem more fun or more friendly than it really is.

Though it’s only a day, shadowing is the best way for your child to decide whether she can spend the next four years there. Don’t be surprised if his favorite school makes him uncomfortable or her last choice becomes her favorite. (And don’t expect a clear explanation for the change of heart!)

Step 4: Paperwork and Deadlines

If organization is not your strong suit, this is the time to get a calendar—and panic. You’ll need to fill out applications—and your child will probably need to write an essay—for each of the schools you’ve selected. You’ll also need letters of recommendation, copies of transcripts, and application fees (about $50 for each school). And your child will need to take the required High School entrance tests.

Letters of Recommendation:

Give your teacher enough time! Remember: the other 20-plus kids in the class could be asking for letters, too. Provide teachers with pre-addressed, stamped envelopes. And help them with the recommendation process by preparing some background. Mrs. Lidinsky recommends detailing the following: School Activities (sports, clubs, student council); Leadership
Qualities or Roles; Outside Activities (sports, clubs, groups); Special Talents and Hobbies; Service Projects and Volunteer Work. Finally, include a list of qualities others see in you that would benefit a high school.

Note that City, private, and religious schools all have different application processes. While your teacher can mail letters of recommendation for you to private schools, you’ll have to send them to City schools yourself—along with proof of residency.

Testing:

The High School Placement Test for Catholic Schools (HSPT) is given on December 3rd and December 10th. The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is given on multiple dates in multiple locations. City schools also have their own criteria and tests. Of course, each test has a different study guide, and those textbooks are recommended.

Financial Aid:

If you’ve been keeping yourself in the dark about tuition costs, now’s a good time for a reality check—and half your paycheck. McDonough, my kid’s top private school choice, is in the $25,000 range. That annual tuition doesn’t include books, musical instruction, field trips, and other miscellaneous expenses (for some other fancy private school, a nice wardrobe that won’t subject your kid to ridicule; for McDonogh, uniforms).

But don’t let the price tag frighten you. Though you will be applying for financial aid through an independent agency, many high schools have additional monies to spend on the right student. High school application forms often ask what you think you’re able to spend, taking into
consideration help you might receive from grandparents and other sources.

If they want what your child has to offer, schools will give you additional support.

Step 5: Wait—Patiently or Otherwise

You’ll likely spend a good bit of time on the phone making sure all those separately mailed documents—test scores, letters of recommendation, transcripts—have reached the schools. It’s not uncommon for these important items to be misplaced, so get to know your school administrators (in a good way). Acceptance letters are usually mailed at the end of March.

By the end of our meeting in Mrs. Lidinsky’s Homeroom, I am overwhelmed but ready to make my lists and fill out my applications and schedule all the open house visits and shadowing and testing and—who am I kidding? I’m ready for a beer and a nap.

Before we get up, Andrea and I each tuck love letters to our daughters in their desks for them to find on Friday. We’ve been doing that for nine years at this school, in every classroom, on every floor, as we have attended report card conferences and meet-the-teacher nights, our adult-size behinds spilling over their tiny chairs, our big knees banging on their low tables.

Now here we are talking about high schools. When did our children’s desks grow so big?

Online cheat sheet for parents of soon-to-be high schoolers:

For information about applying to Baltimore City public high schools, go here. For a list of open houses at Baltimore Independent Schools go here. For information about Baltimore area Catholic schools, here. For the AIMS Baltimore-Area Independent School Fair, click here. And for ISEE test dates, visit here.



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