Intrinsic or Extrinsic Stress in High School



High school is full of stress. Today I sat for nearly two hours to learn about what the Junior year would bring us as far as College Admissions. First of all I am unprepared to sit and listen to anyone for two hours, that was stressful and secondly it made me want to cry. One speaker after another talked about how to keep it from being high stress and then went on about the import of having A’s and B’s and high test scores and I’m sitting there wondering if any high school student ever gets a C or if they’ve gone the way of the dodo bird?

Maybe I’m living in Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average?

I’m told to not worry about ACT prep courses until Junior year but then there’s a prep course offered during the summer session before the Junior year. The kids are supposed to take the ACT in the spring of their Junior year and then again in the fall of their Senior year and no one will be taking the SAT at all because for the class of 2017 it will be a new test and there’s no way to prepare for it. And then again there’s some murmuring about the fact that the head of the College Board was instrumental in creating the Common Core Standards and that the new SAT is being developed to somehow defend the Common Core.

Could one man be that powerful?

Part way through this morning meeting I remembered how to breathe in and out. I remembered that we’d been through this once with Jane already in selecting a high school and there aren’t that many high schools to choose from in our area. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges and universities and all we need to do is be there to help her hit deadlines, study her best and choose wisely.

Jane often feels stressed about school as does every high school kid. The question is where the stress is coming from. Is she putting pressure on herself to do more than she has time for? Is the school putting pressure on her to be perfect (whatever that may be)? Am I putting pressure on her to run faster, calculate better, code cleaner and write more? I hope not.

We’ve got two and a half academic years around here with Jane. The trick as I see it is to provide soft landings when Jane needs a little help, to stay out of her way when she’s hell bent on achieving a goal and to keep the college planning in perspective. She’s coming out of a great school and she’s going to go to a great college not because I know that my kid is headed to a prestige school but because I know that my kid is headed to a school that’s a great fit for who she is and who she wants to become.

The extrinsic pressure? I’m like a valve stem on that one – just doing my best over here to let some of the pressure go.

We Don’t Celebrate Bs


When Jane was in 6th grade she struggled with organization. Homework and other assignments were constantly getting lost or not turned in. One semester she had a C in something, English perhaps, and was able to turn it around into a nice high B. Although pleased with a B I told her that we wouldn’t be celebrating it.

If a B was demonstrative of Jane working to the best of her ability I’d throw her a party for it but this B was Jane salvaging the beginning of a not-good start to the trimester. When the kids get B’s on tests it’s time to study a little more, if they have a C it’s time for a tutor (which at times is me) because learning new concepts is like erecting a skyscraper. You need a sturdy foundation.

Last night Jane came home from school after having sex education. High school sex education is (by necessity) quite different than middle or lower school sex ed. She was squeamish talking about things like Norplant and IUDs. Alexander was fascinated and, predictably, I had to interrupt with a condom lecture. I told them that babies aren’t the only things we want to avoid and then Jane regaled us with an in class anecdote.

Apparently the instructors were talking to the kids about using condoms and explained that when used correctly they had a 2% failure rate, which is pretty impressive. Unfortunately condoms are often not used or stored correctly and the actual failure rate is 18%. The kids didn’t seem moved by this information until one of the boys noted that an 18% failure rate is 82% or a B-, at which point they all started freaking out.

It’s scaffolding. Not accepting a B may have seemed harsh in 6th grade but as we apply it to today’s lesson, it’s bordering on brilliant. 

The Surprising Benefit of a K-8 Education


Today was Jane’s second to last high school interview. Between interviews and the flu the eighth grade class has hardly made a showing in the past weeks in fact one of Jane’s classes of 13 kids was down to four yesterday. This is part of the process with a school that ends in the 8th grade.

When we picked this particular setting for the kids we felt like a K-8 school offered a lot of emotional and academic safety for some potentially difficult years in middle school but I mistakenly believed that the big detriment in selecting a K-8 education was that the kids would have to apply to high school at an age where they are still busy discovering themselves. I worried that I’d made a bad decision for my kids and that we should have sent them to a K-12 school instead. Parenting is like that, we make the best decisions possible and then second guess ourselves for years on end.

I don’t know what it’s like to be an eighth grade parent at every school but I want to describe the process that my daughter is currently going through so that hopefully you can see the value in it.

In the weeks before seventh grade begins each child gets a letter from the admissions director (she is also their placement advisor) letting them know that it’s time to get serious. It lets them know that 7th grade is really important for high school admissions and that this is the year to buckle down and excel. The kids respond well to those letters. It’s the first notion that they’re working toward something other than a grade on a piece of paper. 7th grade was great for my daughter.

During the last trimester of 7th grade they take a high school prep class. In this class they learn about the schools in the community. The kids explore different learning styles, take note of different teaching styles, become aware of the cultures of thirty or so local schools and by the end of the class they’ve narrowed down the high schools that they’re interested in learning about to a list of about a dozen.

The summer before the kids enter 8th grade we had a meeting with the admissions director as well as with the head of the middle school (this is a no-kids meeting) my husband and I were amazed when a file appeared that held Jane’s transcripts for the last two years, standardized test results and her list of schools. We were absolutely dumbfounded that the school had also made a list of schools that we should consider looking at including a few “safe” schools and for some kids there were “reach” schools. Jane didn’t have any “reach” schools not because she’s that kid but because the two most competitive schools hold zero appeal for her. There was also a paper that had all the application deadlines as well as the standardized test dates.

I had moments of feeling incredibly overwhelmed during that meeting but then I flashed on what the experience would have been without that meeting. Our hands were being held as we watched our daughter find her next school.

The week before school began there was a parents only get together where we were again handed packets (but this time we were also having a lovely dinner) that would give us open house dates, timelines, reminders and a sign up for an ISEE test prep course that was offered at the school. Questions were asked and answered and we sent our kids off to 8th grade hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

The worst probably won’t happen. I’m watching my daughter interview and it’s a wonderful exercise for her. She’s walking into strange offices, greeting adults with a handshake and eye contact, she’s talking about her achievements and asking them if they can help her reach her dreams. She’s got her heart and mind set on attending NYU and she’s only interviewing at schools that can get her there. It’s really quite impressive and all of the goal setting happened without me.

The high schools I might have chosen for my 4 year old have little to do with the schools my 14 year old has examined and decided she would like to attend. Today as we were wrapping up interview number three I realized we’d be doing this again in four more years and even though the stakes will arguably be higher our family’s stress will undoubtedly be lower.

This process of finding a high school has proven to all of us that Jane’s academic career belongs to her and that she’s more than capable of managing it.

The Benefits of a K-8 School


The high school applications are almost done for Jane and although it’s an extraordinary amount of paperwork it hasn’t been horribly overwhelming. The summer before 7th grade the kids all get a letter addressed to them (and not us parents) that reminds them that 7th grade really matters for high school admissions. It’s time to ramp it up and get the best grades possible. It’s a nice letter, an encouraging letter and it’s proven to be quite effective for the bulk of the kids.

8th grade is spent focusing on getting into high school. Our weekends have been consumed with school visits and the evenings are spent writing essays and trying to figure out what Jane has done that makes her special. The letter that I really want to write is this:

Dear Admissions Committee,

Jane is a good girl. She gets mostly A’s but every so often she’ll get overwhelmed or forget to turn something in and the grades slip a bit, but never below a B. She never gets below a B in part because she’s very bright but also because she’d lose all of her sports. If you ever want to make my daughter miserable just take team sports away from her. Scratch that, please don’t ever make my daughter miserable I love her.

You’ll love her too. You see, she’s a cheerful sort. When you need a big smile Jane’s your girl. She’s an enthusiastic learner and you’ll get the opportunity to educate me as well. Jane will repeat most of your lectures for me in the car on the way home, she’ll be doing it at warp speed though so if I cough I might miss a sentence or two.

She’s looking to play high school sports and is on the fence about track. A word to the wise? Give her a decent coach and chase her around the campus a little. That girl of mine is fast.

Unfortunately Mr. G and I married for love so there will be no buildings named after us and I won’t be the mom who lives on campus to organize your gala. I’m a pretty good room mom and I’ve been known to give a few shekels extra but mostly from us you’ll get tuition and annual fund money. That’s about it.

I also want to make it perfectly clear that Jane is using you. She only wants to read Shakespeare and do a lot of math. I know she really likes your film program but let’s face facts. Your high school is just her stepping stone to NYU.

I’m pretty sure that won’t work so instead I’ll talk about her good grades, her recent awards, her ability to work hard and her altruism. I’ll talk about our commitment to academia for it’s own sake and then step out of the way because something is happening with high school that I never thought would happen to us.

Going back in time a bit… when Jane was in about the third grade I’d watch the mothers with the eighth grade kids talking to them about their high school decisions. I remember asking one mom which school she wanted to her daughter to go to and she sort of shrugged and said, “It’s not really my choice.” I smiled at her and pretended to understand but until just a few months ago I really couldn’t comprehend how a teenager could be in charge of a decision as enormous as choosing their own high school.

Parents are in charge, right?

Well, parents are in charge. I didn’t allow Jane to apply to one school that she was interested in. I didn’t like what I saw there and I wouldn’t give them my money or four years of my daughter’s life. We looked at about eight schools. I said no to one of them, that was my input. Now Jane has to tour, apply, test and interview at about five of them and my best guess is that in March she’ll need to pick the one she likes best. It will be her decision.

To an outside observer this seems like a horrible process that tortures teens during critical years of their development stripping away yet another year of their childhood. From many of us whose children are leaving K-8 schools it’s a moment in time where everyone works hard for a common goal and an entire community celebrates our children’s achievements.

Yes, you read that right. I think this entire application process is good for everyone. I can’t speak for every school but my daughter’s school has a plan that began in 7th grade with a trimester long class that was devoted to researching high schools. The kids left that class with detailed spreadsheets that included everything from class size to reputation for 50 private and parochial schools in the area. Over the summer we met with school administrators who gave us lists of good matches for Jane that included a few safe schools (she’s pretty much guaranteed to get in) and a few reach schools (they admit less than 10 children in 9th grade). In October the 8th grade parents had a group meeting with the administrators once again to discuss deadlines and ISEE registration.

Going through this as a group is sort of like a really hard Zumba class. Just when you think you might die and you’re zigging while everyone else is zagging the music stops and no one died. The kids all get into good schools and everyone’s fitness levels soared.

The last applications go out this afternoon. The ISEE exams are in three days and the interviews really aren’t my problem. I just show up as the mom, tell them who Jane is, let them see who we are and wait.

My 14 year old will make the decisions now. It’s really fantastic.


Would You Send Your Daughter to an All Girl High School?


Mr. G and I had a meeting with the head of the Upper School (that’s middle school for you folks who don’t have kids in K-8 schools) and the Head of Admissions (who is very involved in high school placement). The meeting was to discuss which High Schools Jane should apply to. We talked about the area schools, which would be academically challenging without crushing her, religion, the number of students in a classroom, philosophies, how “Hollywood” they are, and if they were all girls or co-ed.

I know Jane’s first choice school is Catholic and all girls. It’s NAIS accredited so it’s academically sound, great even but I’d sort of had this fantasy of sending my kids to a completely secular school. I’m so very very tired of Chapels and prayers and I don’t even GO to school. I just sort of cringe… it’s like we finally escaped Temple and now my kid is asking for prayer.

Prayer and no boys.

Her second choice school is also all girl but it’s secular and her third choice school is secular and co-ed but has Kardashians as graduates…. they went Ivy League, right? Oy.

When Alexander walked on that campus for the first day of Kindergarten I remember overhearing parents talking about where their 8th graders were deciding to go to High School. I remember thinking to myself, “Do NOT take parenting advice from these parents. Who lets teenagers make these sorts of decisions?” I do. I let my teen make the decision. It seems so logical now to give Jane control of this, she’s only looking at great schools and if she can get herself into one of them then I’m prepared to support it.

I know there are 8234823297 studies about how girls excel in an all girl environment and recently a high school physics teacher told me that all science teachers in co-ed schools have a bias against girls (even if they don’t think they do) so maybe my daughter intuitively knows what’s best for her.

Here’s hoping anyhow.