Last night, all of us wide-eyed babes in the woods assembled at the Jewish Community High School, to begin Phase II of our children's education, San Francisco-style. "We are blessed," said the JCHS Principal, who seemed to me a bit obsessed with "six-word novels," "to have a wealth of options here in the Bay Area."
Yes, I thought but didn't say, there are a number of ways here to pay $35,000 a year for high school. I'm not sure if I'd call that "blessed," though. Seems to me "blessed" would be Kurt and Patty, who used the proceeds from the sale of their too-small San Francisco house to buy a 3,000+ square-foot center hall Colonial in Wellesley, Massachusetts, home of one of the nation's best public school districts.
Remember, you have to be irrationally in love with San Francisco to make living here work.
The question of public schools arose during our first break-out session with an "Education Consultant." Without pointing out that San Francisco has the country's third-lowest percentage of parents sending their kids to public schools (less than 70%, trailing only New Orleans and Philadelphia), she did manage to get across what we all already knew: outside of Lowell, you're rolling the dice. Lowell requires an application and test for admission. The rest are done by lottery. Falling in love with the Galileo Academy of Science & Technology does not increase your chances of getting in.
If you do go to Gallileo, remember that A) while Joe Dimaggio attended the school, he did not graduate, and B) the school's sports teams haven't been the same since Deante Bernstein graduated, taking his mother who attended every basketball game and shouted "Get your money!" every time a Gallileo player scored, with him.
Once you get past the massive, equestrian-sized hurdle of tuition, yes, there are lots of options in San Francisco. None of them, we were told last night, are in any hurry to accept our children. "Some of these schools get 900 applicants for 100 spots," said the Educational Consultant.
She also told us that boarding schools have become a popular choice for Bay Area parents, which led me to later deliver a passionate monologue about how I couldn't imagine the pain I'd feel walking by our empty Jawa room each day, only to have him come home on holidays three inches taller, then sit around wearing a blue blazer and khakis, smoking cigarettes and texting his friends until break ends and he can return to campus.
The Jewish High School occupies a unique place in the Brandeis world. Word on the street is that it's essentially Brandeis High School. Nothing I saw last night convinced me differently. That a quick tally of attendees showed 60% Brandeis kids suggested that a JCHS experience would lack some of the social challenges of entering a new high school, sans your middle school graduating class.
Actually, sending your kid to JCHS after Brandeis is about as close as you can get to the line of progression most of us public-educated citizens experienced. I didn't show up for tenth grade only knowing two or three people. The entire Santiago Junior High School ninth grade class went to El Modena High School.
Apparently, though, it is chic among BHDS middle schoolers to resist the siren call of JCHS. They throw around words and phrases like "the real world," "diversity" and "a big school," certain that what they don't want is more of the same. I've heard that many of them change their tune by eighth grade. We'll see. I'll bet we apply to JCHS, regardless, even though by saying that I'm breaking the cardinal rule of a successful high school search by committing to something before learning everything about it.
We're expected to go to high school fairs (held, conveniently, at Brandeis), have our kid take the SSAT, visit school open houses, covertly attend sporting events and plays. Our child will "shadow" at each school. He'll follow a freshman around for a day to get a feel for the school. Then, having gathered information for several months, we'll choose multiple schools for application at $150 a pop.
We learned last night that the San Francisco independent high schools all use the same application general info form, which is nice, but that they also have individual forms where our middle schooler writes an essay and answers questions about himself. There are recommendation forms for English and math teachers and school counselors.
We mail everything off by mid-January. Sometime in March, we hear back. I'll be shocked if the responses don't follow the collegiate model of thin envelope = rejection, thick envelope = acceptance. After all, that's how it was getting into kindergarten. Why should this be any different?
The last time we did this was eight years ago. We felt like naifs then, only to gradually build up knowledge over time. The group that shuffled into the (understatedly impressive) Jewish Community High School theater last night imagined itself confident and street-wise. We saw one of us, Jan Reicher, take the stage with her daughter, a freshman at JCHS and Brandeis grad. Was it eight years ago that we met at Jan Reicher's house to learn more about Brandeis? Was that same freshman in first grade? And are the questions we're asking now any less naive and uninformed than the ones we asked then?
Probably not. We are back where we started, clueless, anxious, sitting at the bottom of the pyramid and trying to find that first foothold that will start us on the trip back to the top. Bar Mitzvahs are a smokescreen. Today I am a man but I am also a meek wannabe high school freshman-to-be.
"How is high school different?" someone asked Jan Reicher's poised ninth-grader.
"Well, there's no kindergartners running around," she answered.
Back when I did school tours, I was fond of telling groups of potential future Brandeis parents to consider, while deciding on a K-8 school, that kids enter Brandeis in car seats and they leave shaving. What's it now? They enter riding MUNI for the first time and exit old enough to vote and be tried as an adult?
Should JCHS' location -- it's got projects on two sides and is two blocks from Japantown -- affect our perceptions of the school? I'm wary of Urban High School not only because it's a haven for rich hippies but also because it's a block off of Haight Street. When I tell people, "I want my kid to at least have to take public transportation to buy drugs," I'm only sort of joking.
Like you had to even leave campus to buy drugs at my high school. Sure.
On the way home, the Jawa went on a tear about how JCSH has no "sporting facilities." "There's no football field, no pool, no weight room..." When did he start caring for such things? Could it be fallout from the fact that his first high school tour was Saint Ignatius, a 2,000-student school and sports powerhouse?
He knows as much as we do. Nothing. He aced the kindergarten application process, nine years ago. Our Bar Mitzvah is August 21. Rumor has the high school fair happening in early September.
...And once again we crest the first rise, pause at the top, and look down at the road ahead.