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Friday, April 12, 2013

High Stakes Testing & Selective Enrollment Success: The Perks and The Pitfalls

In December 2011 I shared my experience as a parent navigating the preschool circuit and high stakes testing for coveted seats in CPS selective enrollment schools. http://mommymorphosis.blogspot.com/2011/12/cps-selective-enrollment-nyc-co-ops-and.html
This blog entry will update you on my experience and hopefully provide some tips for parents figuring out the system now and in the near future.

We all agree that every child deserves an education that will prepare them for a lifetime of learning and success. Clearly parents' ethnicity, level of education, marital status or income don't decide a child's ability. The fact remains, however unfortunate, that these variables often determine access to the better schools, safer neighborhoods and enriching opportunities. Selective Enrollment aims to even the playing ground by allowing students with lots of potential the chance to travel outside of their neighborhoods and into classroom where they'll receive accelerated instruction. As a substitute teacher I visit CPS schools across the spectrum of performance and resources. I'm in schools where children use iPads and smartboards daily, and in others where they share 20 year old textbooks. I've been wowed by students who exhibit critical thinking skills far above their age and saddened by high school sophomores who have yet to learn parts of speech. In one part of the city I've broken up fights in first grade, while across town I've helped a 7 year old cast his own original theatre production. As an educator and a Mom it's very difficult, heartbreaking even, to witness the achievement gap within the public school system. There are times I conclude that testing is just plain unfair. If a child hasn't been able to attend preschool, even half day Head Start, how can they compete? It's stressful, and though it helps many families, exponentially more kids are left to attend sub par schools where teaching the lesson plan is secondary to teaching basic life skills. Even the most patient, seasoned teachers have to spend hours a day disciplining out of control kids, while those pupils that are respectful and ready to learn get looked over. The cold hard fact is where your child attends school matters. The concept cannot be overstated. Yes, children are resilient; the most tenacious will carve out a path to success no matter the circumstances, but they shouldn't have to fight so hard. Who's at the desk next to your child matters. Mid level achievers need to be encouraged and challenged by teachers, as well as peers. At a time in their lives when they are so easily influenced students tend to flounder or soar as a cohort. Educational equity may be something we're working toward, but we aren't there yet. The solution is complicated and the answers must involve political, economical, social and educational reform.

Each year thousands of city kids ages 4-18 test for admission into classical and gifted schools, middle school academic centers and IB programs. It can be a very uncertain time for many families. Some parents have invested big bucks in early education, hoping that their student will be able to obtain a world class education, at a top tier school - for no cost. For others, selective enrollment offers their child an opportunity to attend schools focused on academic excellence in a safe environment, free from the distractions that plague some low performing schools in struggling communities. Admission isn't determined by test scores alone. I know plenty of children who tested very well, but for demographic reasons unbeknownst to the public weren't accepted to their preferred schools. The newly employed "tier system" is organized so that every Chicago address falls within a specific census tract. CPS looks at five socio-economic characteristics for each census tract: (1) median family income, (2) percentage of single-family homes, (3) percentage of homes where English is not the first language, (4) percentage of homes occupied by the homeowner, and (5) level of adult education attainment. Lastly, they consider a sixth characteristic, the achievement scores from attendance area schools in each census tract. Based on the results of each of these six areas, each census tract is given a specific score; these scores are ranked and divided into four groups – or ‘tiers’ -- each consisting of approximately the same number of school-age children. The 4 tiers will each be given an equal number of spots in the remaining 60% of seats after top-scoring kids (gifted/classical) or neighborhood kids (magnets) get chosen. Of the tens of thousands of students tested on an annual basis, a few hundred are accepted while the others go on to their boundary assigned neighborhood public schools.


My family has been fortunate to have the selective enrollment process work out better than I could have hoped. Through the luck of the draw my son got into a Kindergarten program at an excellent lottery based magnet school, Sheridan Elementary. We passed on that offer when we  learned Nigel was accepted to Skinner West Classical after testing with a reading score in the 98 percentile and 99 percentile in math. Again, I know children with higher scores who weren't offered spots. We hit the jackpot. He's thriving in school socially and academically; making friends from a variety of cultural backgrounds. His homework load is challenging, but leaves enough time for extracurriculars. This year, just for kicks, I had him sit for the gifted exam again. His standard score improved by 12 points and he has been offered a seat at Keller Regional Gifted Center for first grade. Of course I'm thrilled, but find myself in a dilemma. In just a few months we've become part of the Skinner Superstars family. His test score increase is a testament to his abilities, but also the quality of instruction he's receiving daily. As an active parent and frequent substitute teacher, I've built relationships with faculty, staff and kids all over the building. Though I once considered Keller our dream school, now Skinner feels like home. Ranked number 3 and number 6 respectively among Chicagoland' s best elementary schools, both have phenomenal reputations, active principles, and diverse student bodies. They consistently blow away AYP (annual yearly progress) benchmarks. My ever practical son says not to worry, we'll check out Keller's open house together and make a decision from there. Sometimes I feel guilty. What a luxury for my family to have a choice between two of the best. What a travesty that too many have no choice at all.

Parents of preschoolers and those unsatisfied with their older student's current CPS school often ask for my advice. My honest response is simply we've been lucky, but also prepared.

1. As your child advances it becomes increasingly difficult to test into selective enrollment schools. Once Kindergarten classes are full, transfers out are rare. Only a couple of seats may be open, following a family's out-of-state relocation for example. That's why testing for Kindergarten and 1st grade admission is crucial as this is when seats are most plentiful. Of course that means getting kids prepared by starting preschool by at least age three. They will gain valuable social skills, become accustomed to spending their days with teachers, adjust to varied amount of structure and so on. Whether you choose a traditional curriculum or Montessori program is up to you and your child. Homeschooling is an option as well. They say "Education begins on a mother's (or father's) knee". You must be their first teacher well before they enter the schoolhouse. You don't have to be the flash card crazed Mom, but teaching language and listening skills, introducing fine and gross motor activities, math through music, age appropriate consequences for naughty behavior, etc are ways we can start raising tiny scholars as early as 6 months old.

If your child isn't admitted during primary years think about transferring in for sixth grade. Many pupils of SE schools move on to 7th and 8th grade prep programs, especially the Academic Centers within high schools like Whitney Young, Kenwood Academy, etc. This migration leaves multiple seats open during middle school years. The academic boost, if only for a couple of years, may increase your child's preparedness to test into top public high schools for ninth grade.

2. Do your research. The CPS Office of Access and Enrollment provides a great deal of information about the selective enrollment process and participating schools year round on their website http://cpsoae.org Investigate administators, curriculum and school culture by taking advantage of open house dates, meeting enrolled families and using your network. Don't forget to include magnet school options, as they are wonderful options for a child who may not perform well during testing. Another awesome mom blog is www.cpsobsessed.com , it's a great resource for up to the minute Chicago Public Schools trends, policies and procedures.

Keep an open mind about schools a little farther away from your home. Because of the tier system you might have a better shot at getting a child into a school several miles from your residence. They need an equal demographic mix and you can almost always get bus service, so why not take advantage? Create a check list of must haves with your child. Make sure their needs will be met and interests developed at the selective enrollment school of your choice. Is there a Chess Club, Robotics Program, Swim Team, etc? A site visit is crucial, what you have heard or read about a school may not align with the feeling you get within the halls. Are you looking for a warm and fuzzy principle, or someone focused more stringently on academics? Are you comfortable with an older building if the curriculum is strong? How important is diversity? Would you prefer your child be on a tree lined residential street or a busy downtown block? Trust your gut and listen to your child. You must feel comfortable and know your child will be safe and secure during the many school hours they'll spend away from Mom and Dad.

3. Try not to stress. If you're anxious and losing sleep over your child's testing, those feelings will spread to your kids. If you must obsess and wring your hands (like I did), do it out of earshot. No five year old should suffer a panic attack over their school placement exam. Unhealthy pressure will shake their confidence and have them question their abilities. We never used the word "test" while getting Nigel ready, instead we treated the whole experience like a game. I told him he had been invited along with all of the smartest kids in Chicago to show how much he had learned since he was a little baby. We talked about it being a privilege and constantly reiterated that he didn't have to be nervous because we already knew he'd do his very best. Afterwards, if he tried really hard to answer as many questions with the correct answers, we'd go for a treat! During the test students will be expected to answer lots of questions in a brief amount of time. They will need to speak openly with a complete stranger and a group of other kids they've likely never met. The last thing they need is you freaking out in the car. Stay calm and use the weeks preceeding the test to get them ready. Do not drill them like crazy an hour before they go in. If they test well and end up admitted to your first choice, great! If not, so what? It is not the end of the world. Their entire academic lives are not doomed. You still have a talented, beautiful child and with your help they will thrive no matter where or what. 

Good luck and know that you can help your child get into a great selective enrollment school! Please leave comments and questions :-)

3 comments:

E. Skip Davis said...

My Darling Deanna,
Thank You for such a thoughtful and detailed account on how to get the educational enrollment process to the benefit your child. The focus must be the child. Help them to see the limitless horizon even if you the parent,for some reason, can not. Help them to realize they can Soar above the horizon and Reach for the Stars.
Keep Reaching for the STARS.
LOVE YA DAD.

Bonciel Griffin said...

I totally agree with this post. We were also fortunate to placeinto McDade. This process was harder than getting into professional graduate school. It is sad that CPS has yet to developed a system to make all schools equal or comparable to one another.

Lady MGA said...

Girl you were so profound and on point all I can say is awesome article and extremely well-written. I will definitely, again, be sharing your blog with others! I also copied that comic strip to use!