The Middle Years

Round 1

The big middle school gym was crowded with parents and kids on the first Monday in October. The folding chairs filled up before we arrived so Beth, Noah and I were sitting on the bleachers. From there we had a good view of the room. Over and over again one of us would see someone we knew, from Noah’s old elementary school or from his new one, or even from his preschool. It seemed as if half the fifth-graders we know were applying, or thinking of applying to the middle school magnet for math, science and computer science. After brief remarks from the program coordinator and presentations by three teachers, the kids filed out into classrooms to hear current students of the school talk about it and to do a chemistry experiment. (“They said we should apply because it’s awesome,” Noah reported. He also said they used hydrogen peroxide in the experiment, that test tube got hot and steam came out of it.) Meanwhile we stayed behind while the program coordinator took questions from anxious parents about the application process and gave us the grim statistics about how many kids apply for spots in the sixth-grade class (650) and how many are admitted (135). You don’t need to be the math whiz Noah is to know that those are not good odds.

But he’s applying anyway because the school sounds like a good fit for him and it has made such a difference to him, being in the Highly Gifted Center. Not only do the students at this middle school take advanced classes, but there are all kinds of academic clubs and competitions they can enter. They even publish their own scientific journal. This may have been the detail that most endeared me to the program.

Noah is also applying to the Humanities magnet. I often think of him as being more gifted in math and science, maybe because those strengths seem more impressive to me, as a word-oriented person, but he’s very strong in language as well. He’s in a sixth and seventh-grade math group this year but an eighth-grade spelling and vocabulary group. So I think he’d be at home at the Humanities magnet as well. I was hoping the odds might be better over there, but I’ve since learned the numbers are pretty similar (500 apply; 100 are admitted). Noah’s home middle school, the one he can attend by default, is part of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (, which gives students opportunities for accelerated work. So no matter what happens we have good options. All month we’ve been learning about the programs so we can prioritize our choices (if we have any) this winter when admissions decisions are announced.

The admission process will require several application essays from Noah, due in early November. (This is a new and intimidating development–when he applied to the HGC, parents were the ones to write the essay. There’s an also optional parent essay for middle school. I am, of course, writing one.) Then we have to ask his fourth and fifth-grade teachers for recommendations and he has to take a morning’s worth of tests in early December. We already know his 504 plan will not be in effect by the time of the admissions testing, which means he will not be eligible for extra time. Even though I was put off by the hypercompetitive parents at the information session who were asking about the appeals process before testing had even occurred, I have the fact that there is one in the back of my mind, assuming his plan is in place in February when we find out whether he has been accepted, rejected or waitlisted at the two magnets.


On Columbus Day the kids went to school and Beth had the day off. A lot of families in the area have that same situation, so the schools schedule Open Houses for that day. We visited Noah’s class in the morning and June’s in the afternoon. It was fun to see June making patterns with colored wooden tiles, playing a bilingual version of Twenty Questions and painting an underwater scene at the easel because now it’s easier to imagine her there. The vibe in her class is low key and relaxed, in a nice way.

Noah’s class was neither low key nor relaxed but also in a good way. Beth and I were there for a pre-algebra lesson and I don’t know when I’ve seen a group of kids so fired up about math. The discussion was mostly student-led, with Ms. W jumping in to clarify a point when needed. Two students took turns up at the Promethean board (, asking for students’ answers to equations. They would write all the answers up on the board and then the class would decide which one was right. (Sometimes they would flip the screen back to a previous day’s discussion to refresh their memories.) Students then explained how they got their answers and, if they were wrong answers, where they had gone wrong. In different pedagogical hands, this could be a humiliating practice but it was anything but. The kids all seemed engaged and thoughtful as they went through their logic and Ms. W praised them as much for realizing a mistake as for correct answers. And the kids were just amazing. The ones leading discussion were very poised and they were all supportive of each other. One particularly unique strategy for solving a problem drew gasps of admiration from the class at large.

Next they played a co-operative math game, and then moved in a long discussion of V-patterns. Ms. W was leading this discussion but she let it meander, following the students’ questions and theories much longer than I think any of my elementary school teachers would have. At the beginning of the discussion, Noah gave a Power Point presentation he’d made at home, in order to illustrate a point about V-patterns from a previous discussion. Noah was the only one to present that day because he’d been at instrumental music while the other kids presented. Apparently he was also the only one to make a Power Point, but he loves to do that, so I wasn’t surprised.

The following weekend, amidst much moaning about how he didn’t have time to do anything fun, Noah wrote two of his four application essays. The instructions say, “No help should be provided,” so I haven’t read them. The self-restraint this is taking is tremendous because I often read his written assignments and give him feedback. It’s what I’m trained to do after all. We did decide it was okay to listen to him brainstorm ideas, so both Beth and I did that. Writing is a social process for Noah—he often can’t put pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard) without talking through his ideas first.

Round 2

Our second Open House, at Noah’s home middle school, was the next week. Because it’s not a magnet and draws students from a smaller pool, the crowd was not as big, but we still saw a lot of kids and parents we knew there, including several of Noah’s best friends from his old elementary school. That’s because several Spanish and French immersion elementary schools feed into this school. Noah wouldn’t be eligible for that program, having left the immersion program at the end of third grade. However, he could take accelerated math and English classes and resume his study of Spanish (or start French if he prefers) and choose from a number of very interesting electives (including theater and film-making). The IB curriculum is integrated into all classes and at the teacher presentations it sounded as if the science curriculum is very creative, including a mock forensic investigation unit. In eighth grade students can opt to complete a “passion project” about any area of interest. There were examples of these—written reports, posters, models, films, Power Point presentations, etc–on display in the library.

We got home from the Open House past Noah’s bed time and hurried him off to bed, but I asked him before I left his room, based on the two Open Houses, which school he would prefer. The math and science magnet, he said. When I asked why, he said so writing the essays would not have been for nothing. I don’t think he actually got as good an overview of the school as he did at the first Open House because the kids’ tour consisted entirely of visiting elective classrooms and didn’t give them much of a sense of academic classes. Also, because not all kids went to each elective presentation he missed the one I think he’d love most (film-making). My own feeling, and Beth’s, was that it would be a fine school for him, but we, too, preferred the magnet.

Round 3

Finally, a week later and over three weeks after we started, we attended our last Open House at the Humanities magnet. That same morning we had a meeting at Noah’s school to discuss his 504 plan with the principal, his teacher Ms. W, the school psychologist and a school counselor who had done a classroom observation of Noah. The upshot of the meeting was that we need some additional documentation because the report we’d submitted consisted only of our observations and that of the educational psychologist who did the evaluation and not teachers’ observations. Ms. W will have to fill out some forms and the school psychologist will have to evaluate them before we can proceed. The next meeting won’t be for another month. The delay was a little disappointing because I think Noah could use the accommodations now, but I was encouraged that Ms. W did say she thought Noah could benefit from extra time on tests. She characterized his writing as “Spartan” and “minimalist,” which made me realize he hasn’t had too many essays to write at home this year so she’s mainly seen his in-class writing, which does tend to be short and often fails to elaborate his main points. One thing that made me smile was when Ms. W mentioned how before she really got to know Noah, she was puzzled by his long silences before he speaks, even when he’s had his hand in the air. It’s the kind of thing that demonstrates the slow speed at which his gears turn, even, maybe especially, when he has something really interesting to say. I’m hoping her assessments will help and that we just need to go through some bureaucratic hoops to get him some accommodations, but of course, there’s no guarantee.

Last night we went to our last middle school presentation. A lot of the information was about the application process, which is identical to the one at the math, science and computer magnet program so I found myself restless on the top row of the bleachers. I had a good view of the room from up there, though, and as usual spotted quite a few people we know. I also had a little square of carrot cake to eat because there was a bake sale beforehand. My occasional boredom was not so much a reflection on the program as on the order in which we heard the presentations and the fact that unlike at the other two schools, we didn’t hear from any teachers.

The humanities program does sound impressive, though. It focuses on reading, writing, World Studies and Media Production, which includes learning about television, film, radio and graphic design. Students take a lot of field trips to D.C. area museums. They write a ten-page research paper in the seventh grade, which they research in a University library, and take a five-day trip to New York in the eighth grade. Just like at the other magnet, the acceptance rate is 20%. Five hundred kids apply; one hundred are admitted.

While we listened to this information, Noah got to tour a television studio but he didn’t have too much to say about it when the session was over. He did mention that the eighth-graders seemed so enthusiastic he wondered if they’d been bribed. I think he’s tired of writing essays and visiting schools, too. He said he still like the math, science and computer magnet best, but he couldn’t say why. It was past his bedtime, so we didn’t press him.

As of now, the essays (both his and mine) just need a little editing and then we can mail off our part of the application and then we’ll be done until the testing in December. It’s overwhelming but also exciting to have all these opportunities to plan and hope and dream a bit about what his middle years will be like.