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While looking at schools, my family is paying attention to the following (not necessarily in order of priority). Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas.

Community and Culture

– Behavior; how is bullying addressed? How is behavior addressed?

– Do teachers/ staff lead afterschool activities? (shows commitment to relationships w students and to community)

– How are students taught to love learning?

– Demographics of; cultural diversity among students/families?

– How are right and wrong discussed?addressed?taught?

– How does school collaborate w other schools? With high schools?

– What is the school’s philosophy and practice around testing? (standardized and general)

– Who do we know from the school from our community? Opportunities to carpool, get each other out of logistical binds, etc?


– Offer Languages?

– Advanced math?

– How are subjects (math, history, science, art, etc)  integrated? How do teachers collaborate and synchronize lessons?

– What/how are art, music, or performance arts offered? How often?

– What/how is PE offered! How often?

– What/how is science offered! How often?

– Does the school have a well-resourced library w/ full-time librarian?

– How do academics connect with destination high schools?

– Where do students go to HS?

– How does recess or free time fit into the schedules?


– Any athletic offerings? Team sports?

– Any project activities? Newspaper, yearbook?

– Any community partnerships? Museums, technology, businesses, nonprofits?


– What is expectation of parents re fundraising?

– What else is required/expected of parents?

– How does school reach out to parents?

– Are grades/homework/assignments posted online?


– How will kids get to school?

– How does lunch work?

– Aftercare details? Cost? Hours? Activities/electives?

– How much homework should families expect? Samples?


The Husband in the Room

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This one is short and a response to a very good question from a very good friend –> What does your husband think?

Though this blog is a documentation of my perspective, there is another perspective in the room. My husband’s. And thank goodness, because I certainly trust his judgement more than I trust mine. I never feel good about an important decision unless he and I see eye to eye. The good news is that on most (important) things, we DO see eye to eye.

That said (and again on most things), our perspectives are quite different, and in no way does this blog reflect his opinion or his thoughts. While I document my experience of looking at schools, I stay away from documenting our conversations, where he stands, or our decision-making. We’re sharing this experience together, but we are not sharing it here.

Same goes for the kid :).

Eliot-Hine impressions (yesterday and today)‏ – by Heather Schoell

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Yesterday I attended (along with about 25 others) Eliot-Hine’s open house. We listened to adults speak for a bit, toured the 6th grade floor, and sat in on a math class. Then a panel of 6th graders, one from each feeder school, along with the principal and the math teacher, took questions. Most of our questions were about daily life — what recess is like, how much homework they have, if they feel challenged, if they feel safe — that sort of thing.

I told Olivia about it, and she wanted to check it out for herself. We went at 8:30 this morning — I wanted to see how it functioned when students came in. Aside from my having to get wanded by security, I had no complaints. The kids came in quietly and went to their homerooms. We saw several kids that we knew from Maury. No one was yelling or acting up, but for one kid who was taunting a security guard at the end of the hall, making like he was going to leave from a side door.

We sat in on the English class. Like the last time I popped in unannounced, the students were seated and quiet, participating and engaged in the lesson. Olivia said it was like her class at Maury with Mrs. Cooper. We stayed for 45 minutes (she had to get back in time for her reading intervention group) and she got her first tardy slip of her elementary career. 
Eric asked me if it would be disastrous for Olivia to attend, and it would absolutely not be a disaster. That it will be the right fit for Olivia’s academic levels, I need more convincing, but it is worth looking at. 
If my girl Rhee was still here, she’d rip out those prison doors and magnetometer, that is for sure. We just got the bike racks installed, the pad is poured for the lighted sign, and the teachers are getting their IB training, so it’s moving in the right direction.

Erdkinder – The Elephant in the Room

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The first time I gave serious thought to middle school was when my son was 5 years old,and I joined a teacher/parent effort to grow his school through middle school. I learned about Erdkinder (Montessori for ages 12-18) and was mesmerized by the idea of children working through the hormonal rollercoaster of adolescence by ‘working the land‘. Erdkinder seems to help children become independent, self reliant, and able to tackle practical, real world challenges. Also, I am kind of useless when it comes to practical life skills and want to make sure my children are capable of changing their own car batteries, replacing stems on a faucet, or building a mini pop-up library for their neighborhood (yep, this is on my bucket list… for my children to implement, of course).

In 2009, at DCPS’ invitation, I worked on a team of teachers/parents/principal to submit a proposal to DCPS (April, 2009) which described the vision behind Montessori expansion (which was met w/ disappointing silence). In 2011, a more detailed proposal (again, at DCPS’ request) around Erdkinder was developed and submitted to DCPS (thanks to a lot of hard work by Superparent Susan) elaborating on the middle school piece.  Sadly, early summer of 2011 DCPS announced that they did not have enough information on how Montessori middle school would work out. At the time, it made sense. DCPS was supporting the move of the Montessori school to a new building, new teachers (and a new a new team, not to mention, 40 new families)  – this was going to be a huge effort. And it was.

If this were a “How Montessori Learned to Fly” blog, I would get into what it took to move the program on the part of parents, teachers, the principals and incredibly committed staff from DCPS’ central office (Claudia and Anthony are particularly notable). Even with this intensely collaborative effort, things were all but smooth.  When the doors opened in August 2011, we (parents) discovered that while classrooms had been beautifully renovated, they were not adequately equipped with materials. The classrooms of the four new teachers looked barren those first months and we (parents/educators) found ourselves writing letters to DCPS begging for additional funding, and digging into our own pockets to furnish our children’s classrooms, the library and more. I honestly don’t know where things went wrong on this front, but at the end of the day, it was clear that the program had not been adequately resourced. I did wonder whether it was a conscious decision on the part of the school or DCPS to rely on parents to make up the difference. While DCPS did come through with some additional funding, I certainly never envisioned being expected to buy or raise funds for materials (the equivalent of what would be considered textbooks in a traditional school) or to furnish our then barren library.

Suffice to say that it made for a tumultous opening year. Add on the reality of kinks to be worked out when bringing a new team together in a new space, many members of our community did not stick it out. Three of the four new teachers did not return for a second year and many families also bailed. Pretty grim, no? Not really. Not for my family. My children’s teachers stayed put and my kids had a terrific experience (and continue to thrive). At the end of the day, the school really is amazing and warts and all, I know my children are getting a world class education in a supportive environment. We’re all really happy, but knowing it would come to an end, I resolved to look at existing middle school options and leave Montessori behind after elementary.

Funny thing about resolve… as it turns out, the Erdkinder conversation is not dead. In fact, my children’s principal has kicked off this school year energized about pursuing expanding Montessori to middle school and a survey has been floated to families to get a sense of commitment from parents. The results have not been made public, but the anecdotal consensus is that families of younger children are gung ho and families of older children are hesitant (much the way things were when we surveyed parents about this in 2009). In the context of my quest for a middle school, Erdkinder has become the elephant in the room (or the pink tower in the room).

What do I think? I’m supportive of the program and believe Erdkinder will be an incredible opportunity for the school and for DCPS to break new ground in urban education. This program is also receiving a lot of attention from the North American Montessori Teachers Association, which could mean for even greater visibility for the school and good stuff for DCPS. On the ‘good for kids’ front, thinking back to Eliot-Hine Principal Young’s advice on what to look for in middle schools, I was struck by what she said about looking at “Students’ relationships with adults… (who are) Caring, don’t overreact, constantly looking for ways to communicate”. I look at the teachers in my children’s school and see this quality very clearly. If this translates to the middle school environment, then it certainly meets one of my key requirements.

That said, I personally don’t have the stomach for breaking ground myself or for subjecting my family to another adventure, especially since DC’s education system is adventure enough. If the implementation of the Ward 6 Middle School Initiative is any indication, I also don’t have much confidence that the program would receive adequate support from DCPS on the implementation front. Add to this the reality of proposed closures, including five or so middle schools, I can’t imagine DCPS willing to invest the political capital to make Erdkinder happen without a lot of heavy lifting by parents.  Whatever the end result, I hope decisions are made quickly. Our school has been in limbo vis a vis middle school for too many years, and it would be nice to see the elementary teachers and the administration get on board with supporting children in transitioning to their destination school, regardless of what that school is. It would also be nice to see families staying through 5th grade benefitting from Montessori another year, and because they have a good middle school option to look forward to. (But note, this ‘scarcity of 5th graders’ issue is not unique to my children’s school).

So sadly, all things considered, I don’t think Erdkinder is in my son’s future. BUT… I will keep my eye on it for my daughter… So goodbye, elephant!

**this post has been edited to make up for poor judgement on my part, as it occurred to me that in the original version, my ‘honest’ was not ‘fair’ nor ‘respectful’.

Living Room Chat

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There are three schools in Ward 6 in the process of implementing International Baccalaureate (IB) – Eliot-Hine Middle School, Jefferson Middle School, and Eastern Senior High School.

There’s a lot to the story of why IB/IBMYP was pursued at these schools (Deal’s success, academic rigor, external (non-DCPS) accountability, languages, math), but in the end, the IB decisions at all of the schools were very loudly supported by the community (not sure about how the school educators themselves felt about these decisions).

In order to support the middle schools’ transition to IB, collaboration teams were formed comprised of principals and parents of the feeder elementary schools and destination middle schools. The collaboration teams have changed over time, but the goal remains to support the IB efforts in Ward 6 schools. Part of this effort involves giving families an opportunity to learn about IB, as well as how it is being implemented in the schools. This has played out via education nights in public venues and via living room chats in private homes.

I recently attended a living room chat (hosted by superparent Lillian) with Principal Young, of Eliot-Hine, for at parents of 4th graders. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as until that evening, I did not have a good sense of where Principal Young stood in terms of her support of IB, how she was managing the school, or how she felt about whatever it is that parents like me (prospective, without children currently enrolled in her school) brought to the community she is building.

I came out of the night completely impressed.

I arrived a little late, so I missed some of her prepared remarks, but in the end, I think it was in the Q/A where it became clear to me how the staff at Eliot-Hine are educating the children. Principal Young was light on buzz words, no vague answers. A lot of honesty and good descriptions of techniques.

She talked about differentiated learning (ok, one buzzword), but was clear that Eliot-Hine will not be ‘tracking’ (i.e., separating students into ‘smart kids’, ‘kids who need help’, etc). She talked about techniques she uses to integrate children across academic abilities, including integrating some of the children with intellectual disabilities into ‘mainstream’ classes (including art classes, recess, etc). BTW – Eliot-Hine has a large autism program.

I was excited to learn more about language offerings (Spanish and Mandarin) and the fact that students will take language classes every day (as it is part of IB). I thought this would be particularly important to students coming from Spanish immersion programs. The Spanish teacher sounds incredible, and it sounds like she receives a lot of support from Principal Young,

While I was disappointed that there has been no outreach (in either direction) between Eliot-Hine and my children’s school, Principal Young assured me that this is something on her agenda. I asked about how Eliot-Hine would help transition Montessori students (you know, kids who don’t do a lot of sitting down throughout the day), and while it was clear that their freedom would look different in her school, she made a very strong connection of the very important Montessori principle of ‘student choice’ and described how IB at Eliot-Hine supports this via stations (must follow up on this).

I am also intrigued by how the radio station came to be. Student driven, student organized, student run, with support from an expert. Music to my Montessori Mama ears. It’s the type of educational experience I value most – connected to the real world. Another detail that I found interesting was how the radio shows also served as opportunities for talking about culture and vernacular. The value of being respectful of the culture within which students are raised, while mindful of expectations across cultures, and how this experience serves as an opportunity for students to develop communication and listening skills. Important to note that I hadn’t made any of these connections on my own when I’d learned of the radio show. It’s a terrific selling point for the school and IB, but really needs to be more explicit to confused parents like me. 🙂

It was interesting to hear about how the school is managing behavior, including bullying. Suspensions are down by 82%, and the school has introduced varying interventions/support systems based on individual circumstances, focusing on incentives. Principal Young described the different types of bullying she sees (friend to friend, ‘making a name’) and how the dialogue around bullying is schoolwide (not just w/ offenders/victims).

She addressed tough questions around the likely changes to racial make up of the population, and the very real tensions that may arise (among students, but more interestingly, among parents). She focused on the need for educators to advocate for their schools and to also support communities and students in learning to advocate.

Principal Young talked about how she is coaching the staff to focus on… wait for it… Data! She supports innovation in the programs offered (ex: literacy nights), including productive extra-curricular opportunities (the radio station is both a school course and after school program).

**It was reassuring to learn that Eliot-Hine, Jefferson and Eastern are collaborating closely including around grant-writing, and programing. Parents in the chat offered ideas around how to bring the music programs at Eastern and Eliot-Hine together, and to support Eastern’s athletics, so that most talented MS students are not recruited to other high schools. This really does reinforce the importance of collaboration among the feeder lines. I really don’t understand why as a system, DCPS isn’t encouraging more of this. I have a sense that in this testing-crazed environment, it’s every school (and principal) out for themselves.

Finally, what I think I most appreciated, was what she shared as things parents should look for in a middle school:

– Students’ relationships with adults… Caring, don’t overreact, constantly looking for ways to communicate

– Extra curricular and co-curricular programs… Options to explore beyond the classroom – athletics, arts, filed trips

– Rigor around academic programs and how the middle school connects to high school. So students then have choices around high schools.

While I’ll miss the first open house – Thursday, November 29, 9-10:30 AM – I’ll definitely look forward to making the next one.

Principal Young also is open to unscheduled visits and encourages families to visit the school. Be mindful of (paced interim assessments) testing in December. Call in advance if your party is more than two. Ms Walker and Ms Lawrence can give tours.

Starting with IBMYP

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On Tuesday, October 23 (2012), DCPS, in collaboration with Ward 6 parents, hosted an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IBMYP) information night.

Principals Rachel Skerritt (Eastern HS), Natalie Gordon (Jefferson Academy – MS), and Tinika Young (Eliot-Hine MS) spoke, shared their vision and each school’s status vis a vis the IB accreditation? process (apologies, I’m no good w/ technical details).

“IB Bob”, DCPS’ IB rockstar (I can’t remember his official title) and the IB Coordinators for Eliot-Hine and Eastern also spoke, and did a good job of describing the integrated approach to education that comes w/ IB. I think I understood that the curriculum is still under construction, though they were able to share a sample unit.

video was played and there was an opportunity to chat with the educators afterward. I left feeling inspired by the energy and commitment displayed by the speakers. The bits I understood (and I’m still a little confused) sounded a lot like Montessori, which is, of course, music to my “Montessori Mama” ears. There was a bit of tweeting (me on behalf of CHPSPO), and overall positive feedback.

I was particularly interested in hearing from Principal Young, as Eliot-Hine will officially be the middle school my children’s school will feed in to, effective the year my son starts 6th grade. My husband and I told Principal Young we would pay an unannounced visit and she was welcoming and receptive. I also got to chat w/ parents who have started showing up unannounced and was glad to hear positive feedback.

While I felt good about the overall experience, if I’m honest, I don’t know that I would be comfortable sending my son to Eliot-Hine. If I’m really honest, this is based 100% on opinion, perception and the lack of positive feedback from folks I trust. That night, I decided to test my biased ‘gut’ against something a little more objective – heuristics.

Before I visit any of the schools (including attending open houses), I’d like to put together a set of heuristics against which to compare the schools. The idea is to compare how each school ‘scores’ vis a vis things that are important to me (beyond test scores, folks!) and see whether at the end of this journey, my ‘top’ schools score better, (or worse) than my perceived ‘not viable’ schools.

IB Bob agreed to help me from an educator’s standpoint, but suggested the best place to start is with what is important to me. Since I know there are many parents going through this right now (hmmm anyone know an easy way to get data around how many 4th graders are out there in DCPS + Charters?), I would be grateful for input from others (and that includes the student’s).

My (and my child’s) priorities are the following. If you have others to add, please add to the list below or tweet #middlechildinDC


So it’s come to this…

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I’m a proud DC public school parent. I love to brag about the incredible community our family has found within our children’s school and within the family of DC public schools in my neighborhood. If I can be honest, I have developed quite an ego about it. My kids are getting a world class education in a gem of a school, where the entire staff pitches in and clearly understands they are there to support and educate the children in that school, where a security guard teaches modern jazz on her days off and a custodian coaches track every day after school (for our school AND for the local high school). A school that is as much part of my life (and I suspect will always be) as it is part of my children’s lives.

As imperfect as things can get (you mean we have to buy books for the library? and raise funds for the fundamental school materials? and beg the city for a crossing guard? what?), it’s incredibly rewarding to pitch in, and hopefully have a positive impact on the small world my children share with their friends and educators. It’s been a bumpy ride, but I know it’s worth it. My children love their friends, teachers, school and I know it’s the right place for them (and for us). Unfortunately, all things (bad and good) must come to an end…

It all began 6 years ago, when we hit the ‘lottery’ and scored a coveted 3 year old spot in one of the local neighborhood schools. The waiting list boasted 100+ broken hearted families deep (it’s now +700). I walked into the school and knew immediately it was the right place for my son. Sunny hallways filled with happy, independent children, several of whom looked like my own multi-racial angel. We received word that he got in over the summer (on his birthday, no less) and met his amazing teacher later that summer (on my birthday, no less) – it was meant to be ;). He ran right into his classroom on the first day of school and (almost) never looked back. Over the years, we had ups and downs, but always knew this was the school for him (and later, for his little sister). Middle school was a question mark, but so far away, and SURELY things would resolve themselves before we needed to think about it.

Well, by the time my son turned 5, I started thinking about it. Happy with our family’s experience, and aware of the growing demand for quality public schools in the District (well, at least in my neighborhood), I joined an effort to expand the school in capacity, and to add grades through middle school. A team of parents and teachers worked for 3 months to draft a proposal (with DCPS’ encouragement), collect parent feedback via surveys, and get the word out to the school community. We had a great plan that was immediately shot down by DCPS without any explanation beyond – “in these uncertain economic times… ”

Deflated, I forgot about it until I connected with Suzanne Wells and an incredible group of parents and educators via the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization (CHPSPO), who after years of bringing cross-school initiatives to Capitol Hill pubic schools (like renovating 8 school libraries and supporting school gardens) had begun to think about the state of middle schools. Elementary schools were doing great, all with healthy waiting lists, but with only 1 ‘viable’ middle school in Ward 6, the group lamented that kids continued to leave the elementary schools after 2nd or 3rd grade.

I joined in the effort, representing our school, and after a year of ‘scraping’ enrollment data, circulating surveys, drafting proposals, setting up google groups, ning sites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts pushing DC public schools, running around spreading the word at PTA meetings (mine and others), ANCs, (anything to get the word out), and countless meetings (including a five hour session during ‘Snowmaggedon’ in the basement of Riverby books), we finally got audience with then-Chancellor, Michelle Rhee. She assigned resources to the Capitol Hill Middle School Initiative, DCPS embraced it and broadened it to a Ward 6 Middle School Initiative. We were well on our way to expanding our school!!!

A year later, on August 2011, Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan opened it’s doors, in a new building, with most of the staff, children and even the same principal. We were going to grow… but, *IRONY ALERT* we were not going to grow through middle school.

Not only would our school NOT go through middle school, but it would soon stop feeding into the only viable middle school that was our feeder school before the move. So while I had helped to make the program stronger, with added capacity so that more families could send their children to this school, for my own children, the middle school situation went from sub-optimal to, well, what’s worse than worse?

I’ve spent the past few years talking about middle schools, giving sympathetic looks to fellow parents with older children, and begging them not to leave DC, talking up the ‘promise’ of International Baccalaureate, of renewed museum magnet programs, and collaboration among schools. It was all easy to do when someone else was walking the road. I’m finding it’s not so easy walking the road myself.

So it’s come to this… I find myself today, with a 4th grader, once again facing the ‘lottery’ game. This time, though, the stakes are higher. Not only am I worrying about whether the school we choose will prepare my child academically, I am also worrying about, ahem, BJs in the bathroom (as so eloquently put by a shero of mine, Heather You-Know-Who-You-Are), bullying, and the ridiculous political circus that is public education in DC.

At the suggestion of school activist, Alice Speck, I’ve started this blog to document the process of ‘shopping’ for a middle school. It’s part therapy, but also hoping it becomes a way to raise awareness about how broken this system is. I’ve invited other parents also going through this to contribute. Hoping this leads to a variety of voices and perspectives. Striving to be honest, fair and respectful.

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