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In search of a high-quality middle school

Our youngest daughter just turned eleven. That’s not the part that has me freaked out.

She is growing up faster than I want her to; all of our children did. She does have a little more pre-teen attitude; all of her friends do too. She does fluctuate between me being the coolest dad in the world to me being the most out of touch dad there is because I stress screen time and early bedtime during the school week. 

All of that has been expected and I have felt prepared for it. Thank you to my other four children. The thing that has me freaked out is that SHE IS GOING TO MIDDLE SCHOOL! Yes, 6th grade, and for the first time in forever, I am lost with where we should support her going.

We didn’t participate in the first round of school choice. We weren’t ready to make a decision then. We hadn’t looked at all of the schools in the way that we needed to in order for us to be confident as parents. So much more to look for. So many questions and wondering. So much parental worry about this big choice. 

Middle school. It is a transition point in life like no other. It brings with it so many physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual changes, and you just can’t leave it to chance that every place will be the best place for your kid. The roll of the dice won’t cut it here. 

I am saying this as someone who has worked in Denver Public Schools, and currently I lead an organization (FaithBridge) that is committed to advocacy with and for students and their families in our state across many districts.

I am not a stranger to how this works (DPS Round 2 opened April 10 at 10 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. on August 30, 2024) and I think my awareness of how it works has made me more reluctant to just make a random decision. 

There is a lot to consider when we are seeking a high-quality school that will provide equitable support structures and systems that will ensure extensive opportunities and excellent outcomes that are aligned with hopes. It isn’t just you’re going down the street to the middle school. We are now able to decide if the middle school down the street is the best place for our child versus being stuck in a school where we are forced to make it work. 

I say it again, MIDDLE SCHOOL!

We’ve done our shadow days. I’ve reached out to other leaders. Talked with other parents. I have leveraged data tools like the Mile High Schools Guide. I have even had conversations with students about their experiences. I feel left with so many questions and time has not been on our side to get all of them answered. So what are we looking for?

Geography – I want a school that is in the neighborhood that I live in, or proximate to it with reliable transportation. We’ve visited great schools across DPS and even in APS, and were  left with the question, how will we get her there everyday? I know we weren’t the only parents grappling with that. No neighborhood should be a high-quality school desert. We shouldn’t have to be displaced on a daily basis to get what our children deserve and need. If folks won’t deliver it through current structures and systems, we must have the ability to “for us by us” this education landscape rather than playing the waiting game and our children continuing to be left out.

Results – Results do matter. It isn’t just CMAS data however. Satisfaction surveys (students and parents). Benchmark and interim assessments. Safety audits. Facility audits. Parent feedback. Alumni feedback. Teacher feedback. Parent feedback. Discipline data. Sharing of improvement plans or strategic plans. I want to know if you are delivering or continuing to make promises that you can’t keep. I want to know more than what you did on one state test during the spring. I want to know what outcomes are being celebrated on a daily basis. I want to know what improvement plans are being executed on a daily basis to get to great for our children at a faster pace.

Opportunities – I’ve seen middle schools with beautiful music rooms with grand pianos and guitars that were treated like decorations. I’ve seen middle schools with no arts or athletics. No robotics club. No speech team. Nothing beyond the traditional classroom. That doesn’t work for us. I have seen middle schools with robust offerings and partnerships that made the learning and living experience a different reality. I have seen middle schools with diverse external partnerships that ensured offerings beyond the traditional classroom. No student should settle for less. We shouldn’t be satisfied with giving them less.

Who is leading & teaching – I am one who believes that everything rises and falls based on leadership. The leadership team of a school matters. The experience of a leadership team matters. I am one who also believes that the teacher in the classroom is the most influential in-school professional. A masterful classroom teacher is a gift. I’ve seen them do great things my entire life. The people that we trust our daughter to matter. It matters what their dispositions are. What their experiences have been. The level of autonomy that they have earned. I am not looking for people who want to save or rescue my child but people who see her equal humanity, understand how to equitably meet her needs, to equip her with knowledge and skills development and to partner with us as her parents to set her up for success aligned with her hopes.  

Tangible proof of a relentless practice of EQUITY – Folks talk a lot about pursuing equity, I am looking for the unapologetic relentless practicing of equity! Seems that folks have been in pursuit of this elusive thing for so long. No more chasing it. It must be. I am looking for proof points that a place knows how to meet Black girls at their point of need and brilliance. I am looking for proof that adults themselves are doing the healing work so that they show up on a daily basis as the best adults for our children. I am looking for proof of strong MTSS, IEP and 504 management, and a realistic student to counselor ratio because when she needs support beyond the classroom, while at school, I need her to have access to it, not be in a line that is a month out.

Health and well-being – Again I say, it’s MIDDLE SCHOOL! Having worked with middle school students during my time in DPS, it is critical that our daughter is in a place where her total health and well-being are prioritized. It is critical that she is in a place that isn’t about controlling her and crushing her spirit to have power over her. She has to be in a place that understands its responsibility to create the conditions where she and her peers can thrive. Where they can be and become. Where they can try, learn, and try again. Might that get messy? For sure. But it is better than being okay with middle school being miserable and messing up the long term achievement and success of a student.

I know that the clock is ticking. I know that we are on a first come, first served basis now in this reality of the 2nd round of choice. I know all of it and I am still not going to rush to just say that she is going to just any school next year. We should all resist that conclusion.

She, and all of her peers, deserve to be attending a high-quality school that equitably meets their needs and fulfills all of the promises that we have made to them. 

As the students say, PERIOD.