Reflections on Navigating the High School Admission Process

It typically begins in seventh grade. Sometime in March or April. Unfamiliar feelings. Wandering eyes. Vague insecurities. Burgeoning cases of FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” A dim awareness that other people are watching you, wondering what you’re thinking.
This isn’t the first sign of puberty. These are not the hormone-induced emotions of fragile 13-year-old egos. They are the sudden preoccupations of a group of confident, self-actualized 40-and 50-somethings whose children are about to begin the high school admission process. For the next 12 months, these adults will forget everything they’ve ever believed about good parenting. They will tell half-truths and outright lies about their children. They will controvert their values, ethics, and financial self-interest.
As a middle school teacher at an independent school in Marin County, California, I go through this process every year. But this year’s different: I’m the father of an eighth grader who just received an acceptance letter from San Domenico School, where we forced our daughter to apply despite her long-standing desire to attend the well-respected public high school near our home. I believe in the value of independent schools and have always imagined my daughter would attend one, but I’m learning that parents’ priorities do not always mirror their children’s.

My Own High School Experience

My wife and I met at The Urban School of San Francisco in the late 1980s. At the time, it was an artsy, irreverent, independent high school that seemed to cater to brilliant misfits, intellectual rebels, and kids raised on houseboats. The four years I spent there were exceedingly formative. Thirty years later, Urban is harder to get into, more academically rigorous, and far better capitalized. The facilities—once a converted firehouse, rundown apartment building, and church gymnasium in the Haight-Ashbury districtare now state of the art. The teachers are better qualified. The students are more ambitious. My eighth-grade self would never have been offered a spot at today’s Urban. But I’m not 100% sure I would have wanted to go there.
Today’s Urban is for strivers and achievers, for those who know where they’re going and who are willing to do whatever it takes (or whatever their parents demand) to get there. That’s what I felt on my recent visit, and I wasn’t sure I particularly liked it. And then I all but begged my daughter to apply.
My daughter spent two days at Urban and announced she had no interest in going there. I chalked it up to her desire not to follow in her parents’ footsteps, but she had real reasons. “The kids just seem kind of stressed out,” she told me. “I don’t want to go to high school and feel like I’m competing all the time.”
“I get that,” I said, ignoring her point. “But I don’t think you realize what an amazing place Urban is. Did you look at the course offerings? Did you see that new gym? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be in the city every day?”
“Um, yeah, I guess.” This was her way of saying I’m going to stop talking to you now because you’ve stopped listening to me.

Under Watchful Eyes

Three years ago, we moved our daughter from a public elementary school to the independent middle school where I teach. We had many reasons, some of them wise and developmentally sound, some of them selfish and fear-based. The results have been mixed. At my progressive independent school, she has become a stronger student and thinker. She has learned to self-advocate. She has also yearned for larger social groups, been ostracized by kids she thought were her friends, and, above all, had her entire middle school experience play out in front of her father’s watchful eyes. It hasn’t been easy on either of us.
I was convinced high school would be different for her. We continued to look at independent schools, touring three, and thoughtfully making lists of pros and cons. One by one, she thoughtfully enumerated her objections. One by one, I attempted (and failed) to counter them.
She finally agreed to apply to San Domenico, where she was accepted and offered a generous financial-aid package. She liked the kids. They seemed happy and kind and intelligent. They did not seem stressed out or freaked out. (It’s worth noting that none of her objections ever had anything to do with teachers. She hardly considered them.) Still, she didn’t really want to go there, or any other independent school. Still, my determination did not waver.
Just in case, my wife and I toured Tamalpais High School, the acclaimed public school in our district. It offered everything and more than most of the area independent schools. But we heard a few consistent refrains from students, faculty, and administrators: Students have to seek out opportunities. You can do anything you want here, but you have to want to do it. No one is going to come find you. You have to put yourself out there.
I began to realize that participation and engagement would require extra planning, extra effort, and extra confidence. At a school with nearly 1,500 kids, where opportunities aren’t spoon-fed to students, checking out can simply mean blending in. I worried that after three years of being the teacher’s daughter, all she'll want to do is blend in.

When Life Becomes Hers

I have 34 students who are about to graduate from my eighth grade English class. Roughly three-quarters of them will go to an independent high school. Some of them were practically fought over by admission directors at the best schools in the area. Others made it in by the skin of their teeth.
Once the kids are there, some parents push them to the breaking point. We’ve read The New York Times articles about rising stress levels among students. Enlightened parents are getting the memo that it’s not wise to pressure kids, but they often remain unwilling to accept any outcome that doesn’t have the appearance of high-level achievement.
In some ways, this behavior is driven by fear. Parents worry that their kids don’t know how to overcome adversity, so the response is to try to remove it. Sometimes this makes sense: We know that high self-esteem is essential to success. But there is a difference between helping your child succeed and making it impossible for them to fail. Parents who remove obstacles from their children’s paths diminish their capacity to overcome them.
My daughter will go to Tamalpais High School this fall. I believe her school choice was the right one. For her. Not for me. Not every 14-year-old is equipped to make decisions about her future. I think she is. But I might be wrong. And she might be wrong, too. She must find out for herself. At some point, her life becomes hers. I’ve always told myself that I want what’s best for her. She’s teaching me what that is.
Jesse Pearson
Jesse Pearson

Jesse Pearson teaches middle school humanities at Marin Horizon School (CA). He writes about parenting, teaching, and other trappings of adulthood on his blog.


Eddie Mensah
5/22/2019 10:41:42 AM
A brilliant, thoughtful take on this. I'm going to share this article with all of our parents.

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