When I moved to Denver, the third thing I noticed after the sunshine and the walkable brunch spot was the middle school obsession.
The Vermont town that I left had a single K-8 school. I didn’t understand the freedom of this singular choice until I left it.
Like many cities, Denver has a system of school choice that includes magnet schools for science and the arts, charter schools for Mandarin immersion, and outdoor learning. There are also many neighborhood schools, but they’re not restricted to neighborhood kids. You can “choice in” amongst the 185 public schools in Denver.
The aim is wonderful: breaking up neighborhood clusters that almost always track on a socio-economic basis, and encouraging kids to explore their strengths.
The side effects, however, are maddening.
Entering 4th and 2nd grade as brand new students my sons were worried about lunch money and whether their non-airconditioned classrooms would be tolerable. The talk on the playground, however, was about 6th grade. Oliver was trying to find his locker while his classmates were trying to find their vocation.
Worse for me was how it ruined my social life.
Every single cocktail party is filled with middle school talk. This is not chit chat. This is serious business. Which will be your choices 1-5? How is the arts school at math? The Science School at writing? The Spanish school at English?
We live 300 feet from Hill, an undifferentiated middle school. It ranks 6/10 on some national scale that measures only test scores. Unlike the stratified elementary schools, this middle school is so unpopular with the neighborhood kids that it actually features diversity. When I try to cut the endless middle school talk short by telling the cluster of parents that we’re sending Oliver to Hill, I’m met by an odd combination of expressions. Some border on aghast. Oliver is a strong student, and the idea that we won’t maximize his education seems outlandish.
Others are relieved. They not-so-secretly want the madness to end. For parents to embrace the local school, skip the commute, and the concept that an 11-year-old is ready to specialize.
And what about the kids?
From what I can glean very few of them get to choose for themselves.
When I ask Oliver which school he’s interested in, he lists the Denver School of the Arts first. This is my sweet, tone deaf, so uncoordinated he falls off stools simply because of the motion of the earth boy. One who would happily put himself through the DSA portfolio application process with tracing paper Pokemon and song and dance about Minecraft blocks.
I want him to choose for himself. As long as it’s the school across the street. I point at it from my window. “Have you thought of Hill?” I ask. “Sure, he answers. I think I should go to Hill. It is right there.” He nods at my outstretched finger. I want to talk to him about diversity and the honors program, about their equal emphasis on literacy and the arts, about the Science Technology and Math program that will offer Robotics in seventh grade. I almost launch into a conversation about the limited scope of the scoring for its six out of ten rating. But he is content, back to his book. So I leave it.
The night of that conclusive 2-minute conversation I head out to another cocktail party. This one is themed La Dolce Vita and has Italian cocktails and a black and white screening of the vintage movie. I arrive in shorts and a bright orange shirt, looking plucked from the Florida coast. The other women are in slinky black dresses and high heels. They cluster around the antipasto.
When I get close enough to grab some cheese I hear the talk. “This one is going to that school, we thought about this other school, but some other kid didn’t like it.” “This fourth school is 45 minutes away without traffic, but it’s supposed to have the best blah blah blah.” On it went. I caught the eye of a mother tall in her heels. She has a 2nd grader and a high school student. I rolled my eyes as I made me a way to her.
“What is it about middle school?” I ask.
“I know,” she replies. “I’m so glad not to have to think about that right now.”
“It’s a rotten time anyway. I feel like they just need to muddle through,” I add, remembering my middle school welcome assembly where the principal told us we were about to spend three years in purgatory.
I leave to fill my wine, and she makes her way back to the group.
“Where” I hear her ask “ are you sending Jude to middle school?”