On To High School After The REALM

On To High School After The REALM

It’s June. In the next two weeks, my DS13 graduates 8th grade from The REALM with Inspire Charter. Oh. My. Friggin’ goodness!

I’ll refrain from the actual expletives here. But, boy, the shock and flurry of big emotions that this huge moment elicits bring all kinds of expressions to the tip of my tongue.

DS13 has been at The REALM since halfway through 3rd grade. You can read about that journey from Mandarin Immersion LAUSD public school to The REALM with independent charters on this blog.

But wait! What’s “DS13,” you ask? It’s “Darling Son, age 13.” And it’s important because I only recently learned that term from a FB parent group. Actually, the important part is the parent group, not that I just learned it. And by the way, “DD” is “Darling Daughter.”

The reason that it’s important is that other parents and their experience with and discussions about education and Westside high schools and Los Angeles high schools—whether independent, private, charter, or public—has been key on our journey to finding the right high school. Well, at least from my POV. DS13 doesn’t have a clue about this. 

But he does know what other kids are thinking and talking about. And that’s a second important piece in finding the right high school for him: other kids and friends’ experiences. It matters. To him. And me. Because it’s all about him, really, and his friends, classmates, and other teens we meet have given us boots-on-the-ground insight. In other words, talking to kids at these high schools tells you what the real experience is rather than basing your judgment on idealism or what you know from your own experience years ago. Things are new and different and there are so many amazing options out there. You just have to find out about them.

And that’s where you want to start: getting as much information as possible from all angles. At least that’s what’s helped me, even though it really is all about him. I’m not fooling myself; I swear.

But right now, I’m going to give you my experience, the parent, in guiding our family through this process. DS13’s gotten an amazing education at The REALM and through the charter. He had a variety of experiences and a lot of time to dedicate to his interests, passions, and curiosities in his off time. And when we started this high school part of the journey, the thought of finding something equally fabulous was a bit daunting. 

Maybe you can relate to the daunting part?

But before you focus too much on that D word, I’ll tell you that it all worked out and he’s going to a high school next year that is the perfect fit.  So, let me elaborate on how it all went down.

And let me toss over to you two bits of advice that I got which I tried to remember during the process:

  1. It really is all about the kids, er, teens. It’s in everyone’s best interest to listen to what your kids want in an education. They’re the ones getting the experience and education. You want them to be happy and engaged first and foremost as that’s when the learning, growing, finding yourself, finding your path, finding how to be in the world occurs. (They’re finding themselves as teenagers are meant to do, not you; although you may find yourself along the way as well!) You’re doing this to support your kid. Get your own fears out of there. It’s about your kid.
  2. Start with an open mind, and be open to all possibilities. Don’t limit yourself because you think one school is the be-all and end-all or that another isn’t a possibility or that a specific style or right-fit isn’t out there. You’d be surprised what can happen when you’re looking. You find the right fit for your kid. Doors open. You get resourceful. I mean, you’re at The REALM, for goodness sake, right? You’re already the kind of person that’s thinking outside the box. And wasn’t that what The REALM used to be called anyway, Outside the Box? 

But enough of my analysis. I’ll just tell you what happened.

Doing nothing

The first thing I did was nothing. And I truly mean nothing but being curious. I didn’t really start thinking about where my kid would go to high school until the start of his 7th-grade year. But before that, I somehow absorbed information about the local schools by talking to kids in the neighborhood, kids ahead of DS13 at The REALM and their parents, and other parents, friends, and educators. Plus, I am just very curious about education so I’m constantly reading about it on blogs and anywhere I can get information. 

Here’s one I still read by an education consultant: David Altshuler. I have absolutely no idea how I got on his mailing list but I read his posts every time they appear in my inbox. They make me laugh and relax about the whole education process and parenting. He often writes about college admissions and how we worry too much as parents. He also provides great tips which trickle down to the present. They get me to chill out about doing things that I know instinctively and logically are intrinsically best for my kid—even though often these things are not the current norm. They’re more like a new normal so not at all common. Pre “tipping point,” if you’ve ever read the book by Malcolm Gladwell on the subject of how new ideas and products enter society and become accepted and mainstream. Susan Stiffelman’s blog is good as well, IMHO.

But back to the high school search and doing nothing. My advice to you is to just keep your eyes and ears open to what’s going on around you before 8th grade and that’s it. No need to spend time or do major research yet. Save your energy. You’ll be quite busy at the start of 8th grade.

And you’ll probably glean a lot by doing nothing. I did. Here’s a bit of what I learned about high schools on the Westside and high school education options in general simply by doing nothing but keeping my ears and eyes open:

  • Our local public high school, SAMO, has upward of 3,000 kids. It divides kids into houses, which sounds cool, like Hogwarts. Each house has a supervising principal. There are teens around the neighborhood that love it and those that hate it. The teens that love it have a thing, usually music or sports. SAMO has an incredible music department and fabulous sports teams. The teens doing music or sports love their friends, seem focused, and like their classes. I take it to mean that they connect.

    The teens that don’t have a “thing” don’t like the school. They seem to be floating through. Two of the kids we know found a way to get out early. One left in 10th grade by taking the proficiency exam and one left in 11th grade by doing concurrent enrollment at SMC and finishing all requirements ahead of time. The one that left in 10th grade flourished at SMC and went on to graduate from a UC. The one that left in 11th grade will be going to university abroad and studying architectural engineering. Both are success stories. 

I’ve heard students say their teachers at SAMO don’t know them because there are too many kids. I’ve heard a student call the school a ‘factory’ churning out students to go to SMC and then a UC school. Other comments include: 

    • The school has no idea how to help kids that have issues. 
    • It’s all about getting kids in the classes. 
    • “My English teacher won’t teach. We just get worksheets.” 

One parent even said that every time she drops her twins off at SAMO, the one thing they all agree on is that it’s more like a detention center or prison than a school. One kid we know that got into some trouble in middle school and was sent to the alternative Olympic High School in Santa Monica says he loves Olympic. It’s small, he knows his teachers, and he’s learning. He declined the chance to go to SAMO because of the overwhelming number of students. He’s graduating early and is a complete success story.

My DS13 isn’t into sports or music. This made me immediately think this wouldn’t be a fit, even though I, personally, would’ve loved it for the sports program and maybe even getting lost in the crowd. But this is not about me!

  • Having so many kids at SAMO means it’s tough for the adults to show kids the ropes. Kids are left to guide each other. This can be good or bad. We live right by the school and I’ve seen one fight and one case of bullying on the street. I’ve called the cops once. There are gangs and there was a stabbing on our corner. There was also a death when a group of 9th graders took acid and one jumped from a three-story window. One parent of a SAMO kid said that things like this happen every week. This scares me. But also, the parents of the kids that love the school say it’s not that bad. Again, it seems to depend on the kid and if they have a group to connect with.
  • You can take AP tests without taking the classes.
  • There are new public school options opening up all the time, like the new project-based high school in Santa Monica starting with 100 9th graders in fall of 2019—The Michelle and Barack Obama Center for Inquiry and Exploration—and the New West Charter hybrid program. 
  • You can apply to charters outside of your district.
  • There are new small private school options opening up all the time, like Tree Academy.
  • There are a lot of options, including parochial and other religion-based schools, all-girls and all-boys schools, and one-on-one student-to-teacher schools like Fusion Academy that still offer clubs and activities so the students have a social life.
  • Independent charters offer high school with plenty of flexibility. The teens that are super self-motivated love this option as it gives them a ton of freedom. 
  • Middle school grades aren’t necessary if you go to public school for high school, but you have to take assessments. Private schools do assessments too. Most private schools will ask for middle school transcripts but some don’t and they have other ways to assess the students during the admissions process, including specific tests like the ISEE exam, which is a test like the SAT that your teen takes at a specific testing location.
  • City college classes are an option for homeschooled high schoolers through the family private school. The classes can count towards college credit and/or high school. You can do the same set-up with city college classes through an independent charter as well. Another option is to take the proficiency exam in the middle of high school and start taking JC classes. I think you have to be a certain age though.

Teens and parents love to talk about their experiences in high school and are a great resource! Educators and teachers are a great resource too. Start talking to them just for the fun of it. You know you’re curious. 

While you’re busy doing nothing at this time, you might also discover interesting options for seeing some schools in action. For example, my son took Saturday classes at Areté Preparatory Academy a few years back. I found out about it through Jessie Slayback, one of the founding directors at The REALM. These classes were designed by Arete to give younger kids a taste of what they do. My DS13 enjoyed the classes, and I got to see one amazing option out there. I was immediately impressed and surprised that something this good existed. Also, some of the new small private schools do open houses that you can attend even if your kid is younger. And there are great movies on education to take a look at. 

I went to see Most Likely to Succeed. It was at a screening at a theater in Westwood organized by several indie schools in the area. It was quite interesting as it shows new approaches to education. They had a panel afterward with local educators so I found out more about some of the schools and thinking on education.   

Into Action

At the start of DS13’s 7th-grade year, I stepped up my intel gathering a bit. We found out that DS13’s close friend at The REALM was going to skip 8th grade and move onto high school a year early. He was ready. We were bummed but followed that family’s journey closely as they looked for the best high school for DS13’s friend. 

We even went with them to an open house at Tree Academy. I’d heard great things about it from an avid unschooling parent that loved it for her kids. Her kids were REALMers before going to Tree. I was shocked she’d send them to a brick-and-mortar school so my ears pricked up. I liked Tree Academy a lot when we went to the info session, but DS13 didn’t. I put it in my back pocket in hopes of persuading him to consider it when we got serious about looking at high schools.

Then, the 8th-grade school year hit and things got real. I made a list (in my head) of all the schools I’d heard of and liked in the area that I thought would be good for DS13. I decided we’d go to all the open houses and apply to his top three choices. I was worried about financing it but a good friend told me to put my ego aside and apply. She reminded me that it was for my kid, and if he was a good fit for a school, there was probably a way to make it work if it was a priority for our family. 

The schools I knew about and personally liked after this time of doing nothing and listening to high schoolers were: Inspire Charter, Areté Prep, New West charter school, New West Plus hybrid charter, Crossroads, Tree Academy, Star Prep, Crossroads, Wildwood, Sage Oak, and New Roads. The new Santa Monica school was still in the works. And there are so many more options out there for you to find!

I also went to an event at Palms Recreation Center where a bunch of middle and high schools from around L.A. came to show off what they were doing and recruit families. DS13 refused to go. I went anyway. There I learned about Open Charter, which seemed interesting.  A woman from Harvard Westlake gave me a brochure on the school and suggested my son apply even though it seemed far and expensive. She hammered it home that there was financial aid and I shouldn’t let finances stand in the way. An admissions person from Crossroads said the same and let me know they waived part of the application fee if needed and helped with the cost of the ISEE test, also on an as-needed basis. 

I went home and presented all of this to DS13. The schools he wanted to look at were Arete, New Roads, Crossroads, Wildwood, New West, and Star Prep. We both agreed Harvard Westlake was too far but I passed their information onto a few other parents. DS13 was adamant that he didn’t want to go to the New West hybrid even though I thought it sounded amazing and a friend of his loved it there. He wanted to go to a school every day, a “regular school.” Hence, he also didn’t want to do Inspire Charter. He also didn’t like Tree and didn’t have a reason. And that’s okay too. 

I should mention here one school that I didn’t even present to him because I didn’t like it and had no good reason either. It’s new and in Westwood and seems to be quite amazing. We have friends that go there. They love it. But I had an emotional block about it. It reminded me of my experience as a parent when DS13 was at the public school in early elementary. It was personal. It made me feel bad. There’s no logic in it. But I say this to tell you that that’s okay too. You, the parents, will be part of the community of your kid’s high school and it’s probably a good idea that the culture of the place is a fit for you too. Your kid’s fit is the priority but take yourself into consideration a little. Actually, I let DS13 know he could tour that school but he didn’t seem compelled in any way so I dropped it like a hot potato. 

Touring the schools

As soon as we had our list of schools, I signed up for open houses and tours at each school. This was September of DS13’s 8th-grade year. The open house schedules are on the websites. I suggest you go as early as possible. Most private schools’ applications are due at the start of December. Some have rolling admissions. Some of the public schools don’t even do tours until January. The charters have lotteries in the spring, usually with mandatory open house/info session attendance. So, once you have your shortlist of schools that your kid would be interested in, get the intel and go to open houses. 

Most open houses give you and your kid the opportunity to hear from teachers, students, and faculty about what the school is like. Some let kids attend sample classes. Some have parents attend sample classes. Some let students do a shadow day. Some let only parents see actual classes in session. Some cater more to the students while others cater more to the parents. There’s something for everyone in this fabulous city of ours!

While at the open houses and even afterward, we asked a lot of questions, and I suggest you do the same. The friendly admissions people are truly happy to help. Most schools also have students giving parts of the tours. You and your kids can ask them questions too.

We paid close attention to how focused each school was on DS13’s areas of interest. He’s really into geopolitics and history and some offer far more learning opportunities in these areas. Ultimately, this was the deal-breaker. Be sure to ask about the subjects or extracurricular activities/sports that your kid is into. High school is the time to these passions IMHO. So, by the time these teens are done with high school, they won’t just have been pumped full of information, they’ll have explored and uncovered their own strengths, interests, and voice. 

After the open houses, it became very clear which school was the front runner. I asked DS13 at each turn what he thought of each school, and at the “It” school, he just beamed from ear to ear and nodded. This is not a usual occurrence for my kid. And I cried. Literally. And in that moment, I knew I’d find a way to make it work for him if he got accepted. 

If it were up to me, we would have applied to just that one school, but DS13 pragmatically reminded me that he hadn’t been accepted yet and we should have backups. We agreed that he’d apply to three schools. 

We sat down and talked about each and what he liked and didn’t like. It was clear which schools were not a fit for him. But he had three besides the It school that he liked. He was tasked with narrowing it down, luckily, because he seems to make decisions more easily and quickly than I do. He applied to three schools.

Applications

One of the three schools has rolling admissions and the other two had an initial application deadline at the start of December, with many of the admission items due in January. This is pretty typical for independent private schools. Again, the public school lotteries are usually in spring. No matter which schools you’re interested in, be sure to keep close track of all admission deadlines and start gathering what they require. Those lotteries, in particular, are not flexible with the deadlines it seems. 

By the way, I still went to two charter school info sessions of schools that didn’t make the top three cut. Just in case he didn’t get into his top three, I was going to put him in the lotteries. Also, I was curious.

Admissions people seem to be a friendly lot so if something isn’t clear, I’d say, give them a call or shoot them an email and ask for help and advice. Two of the schools DS13 applied to had an online dashboard where they and you can monitor the admissions process. That made it easy and was a friendly experience.

As mentioned, each school has its own set of admission requirements and opportunities for you to get to know the school better. Here’s what we experienced in the process of applying to the three schools:

  • Application form (all three)
  • Application fee waiver
  • Essays by the applicant (all three)
  • Essays by the parents (all three)
  • Shadow day
  • Student interview
  • Parent interview
  • Group student interview
  • Diversity presentation
  • ISEE test (required for two)
  • SSAT Character Skills Snapshot (required for one)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Transcripts
  • Financial aid information session

If you need to apply for financial aid like I did, it’s important to know that there are deadlines in January for most schools. They’re in January because you have to get your tax information in from the previous year. Be vigilant with these deadlines.

One of the schools had a financial aid information session. It was very interesting to me because I learned that you can be in the “middle” when it comes to earnings and still get some aid if your family needs it. My takeaway was that if your kid gets into a school and it’s a great fit, the school will help you with financial aid if it can and if you’re willing to do whatever you can. Your kid’s education needs to be a priority.

A friend of mine that has two kids at one of the area private schools says that they welcome people in the middle because otherwise, they get people on top and those that need full aid. There’s a gap of people that don’t even try because they can’t afford the whole shebang and don’t think they’d qualify for aid. That same friend is the one that told me to not be ashamed to ask for aid because it wasn’t about me, it was about my kid. It still was hard but she was right.

So, the outcome? He got into his top pick. We waited until financial aid came in and then withdrew applications from the other two schools so they didn’t have to spend their time/resources evaluating DS13 amidst all the other applicants. I was curious to know the outcome but it was only fair to the busy admissions staff of those schools. Also, DS13 and I wrote thank you notes to the fabulous people that wrote letters of recommendation for him. That was such a help and we were so grateful! 

And now, he’s super excited to start in the fall at his new high school. And I’m excited too! It’s the perfect fit for him. He’ll be back with friends from The REALM, and I can breathe again. For a few seconds at least.

A quick recap of our process:

All the years before 8th grade: Do nothing but listen and learn about high school and education options in the area by watching other kids, asking questions, and letting your curiosity lead you.

Summer before 8th grade: Make a list of possible picks and schedule tours using websites as a guide.

Fall of 8th grade and into winter: 

 

  • Go on tours of all the schools on your list and gather all intel by asking tons of questions and attending as many events and shadow options as possible
  • Pick your top three – using your kid as the barometer
  • Apply to your top three, keeping a close watch on all application steps and deadlines and lottery deadlines if applicable
  • Hold your breath and know that the best fit for your kid will emerge if you are open and do all the steps, then breathe with relief once it all comes together!

 

Also, enjoy the process. It’s a project you have with your kid and a great way to connect. Also, kids learn from what you model to them, so simply by going through this process in a logical and structured way and coming back to center when things get emotional can model useful skills to your kid. Everyone is learning here!

If you’re in the do-nothing time, enjoy immersing your kid in the amazing options you have right now at The REALM. Enjoy the great community among parents that are giving their kids a stellar forward-thinking education too. And while you’re there, talk to your kid’s teachers and the educators in your life about education options after The REALM. The REALM founders/directors, Vicky Forsman and Jessie Slayback, are great resources! They can answer questions you may have as your kid approaches 8th grade and provide guidance and suggestions specific to your child.

Lastly and importantly, find comfort in knowing that you’re forging this path together as a tribe—you, your family, your kid, your kid’s friends, the other parents at the school or learning center, the teachers, and the educators. And it’s perhaps in walking the intuitive, logical path as you guide your child’s education that most of the learning, innovation, and discovery takes place, leading to a happy life right now and a happy road into the future.

By Nicole Schubert