Ever been asked the question: Where’d you go to school? If you live in Baltimore, there’s a good chance this inquiry is not about the college you attended, but rather where you spent your formative years. Oftentimes, respondents will blurt out the name of the school to which they formed an indelible lifelong allegiance, oftentimes beginning as early as age 4 or 5. But sometimes, the school that one enters as a wee child turns out not to be a perfect match. Then what?
It’s a tough question that scores of Baltimore families face every year. But even when red flags wave in front of parents and their children signaling time for a change, it’s not always easy for families to do. Some fear disappointing generations of extended family members who’ve attended the same school. Others, originally convinced that they’d found the ideal school for their son or daughter, have a heck of a time mentally re-calibrating an image of a different academic setting that might be a better fit. So too do students. But it can be done.
We spoke to some local moms (their names have been changed) whose children recently switched schools, as well as an area educational consultant who works with families considering transitions. They shared with us reasons for change; the process—in some cases, fraught with emotion; and advice for those considering a fresh academic start.
Baltimore mom Amy White felt she and her husband had “absolutely” found the right independent school for their little girl. And it was, throughout lower school. But when their daughter entered sixth grade, everything changed. “She was thriving until then,” said White, who described politely the problems that flared in middle school. “This was a group of girls who couldn’t harmonize,” she said.
“Heartbreaking” is how White recalls the situation, which continued to fester throughout middle school. “By seventh grade, we were kicking around the idea [of changing schools]. Everybody was frustrated. My husband and I involved her from the start. This was never going to be us saying to our daughter: ‘You’re out of here’,” White said.
Most of the time, parents—not their children—initiate discussion about a possible change in schools, according to Becky Reynolds, a Baltimore-based educational consultant. “Even if children are struggling academically or socially, they’re often hesitant to change,” she said.
That was not the case with the second of Sue Smith’s three sons. He embraced the idea of attending a boarding school after spending his lower- and middle-school years at the same independent all-boys school in Baltimore. Of her three sons, Smith says, her middle son—now happily ensconced at a boarding school in a neighboring state—“has always had a nose for adventure” (her older son flatly rejected the notion of boarding school).
While Smith acknowledges that she and her husband both attended boarding school and shared fond memories of the experience with their sons, factors that made the change seem like part of a natural academic trajectory, it nonetheless was a big decision. When Smith shared it with other parents, she says she received many cold responses in return. “People looked at me in horror,” Smith said, as if she was damning her son to a life in exile.
The reactions were ironic on a few fronts.
For starters, Smith and her husband considered the change a chance for their son to explore school in a setting where they believed he would thrive. Secondly, they in no way forced him to make the switch; they merely presented the opportunity and watched him run with it. “He did all the applications himself. He drove it. He had the agenda,” Smith said. Finally, those first days after his departure were torture—for her. “I can stare at these people and say that it was like having a limb of mine taken from me,” she said.
That their children embraced the idea of change made the transition to new schools easier for both the Smith and White families. So too did the fact that neither family had a lengthy, personal history with the schools their children originally attended.
“We have no baggage in this town. We had no alumni connections. We felt, when the going got tough in middle school, we had no allegiance except to our child,” White said.
In Baltimore, that’s not always the case. Julie Jones, for instance, expected her son to graduate from twelfth grade at the same school where he began first grade—not because it was a great fit, but because her husband’s family had a multi-generational history at the school.
But when her son’s social and academic challenges became apparent in the lower school, Jones knew it was less important for him to be a ‘legacy’ at the institution her husband and several of his relatives attended than it was for her child to be happy and academically successful. Fortunately, her husband backed her.
“I am really proud of my husband, because he’s highly involved in the school that we chose to take our son out of. I think that says a lot about how much he cares about his son,” Jones said.
The choice might sound like a no-brainer, especially to a non-native, but when grown men and women from Baltimore—decades removed from their high school graduation date—continue to regale their former classmates with tales of the good times they shared together so many years ago, it’s often more like a family reunion than a class reunion.
That’s why educational consultant Reynolds cautions parents who are contemplating a switch in schools to follow their own instincts, and not the opinions of those around them. “Parents need to look objectively at their child and the school; not to rely on input from friends, acquaintances, or work associates,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds also urges parents to look at their child’s profile carefully—including social/emotional, behavioral, academic, extracurricular, and general interests. “Take a look at that profile and then look at the profile of the school they attend. See how much duress there is in terms of academic need or a lack of challenge. If the level is pretty intense, then go through the search process with the overall profile in mind,” she says. “If the level is mild, then develop a plan that considers when would be a better time [to look around].”
The year before a division break, such as the grade between lower school and middle school, is a logical time to consider a change. Most schools get an influx of new students at the start of each division. “I think it’s definitely worth the exercise to sit down with your kids at each division juncture and get their pulse. You owe it to your child, and yourself as parents, to get a reality check,” White says.
She and her husband are glad they did. “Some parents may have said ‘Suck it up; it will get better.’ We were not comfortable taking that risk,” she said.
Recently, White asked her daughter if she would consider going back to her old school. Her response, an emphatic “No way,” was all she needed to hear.
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