Friday, May 7, 2010

106 days to Bar Mitvah: joining the secret club

Having tentatively dipped their feet into the uncertain waters of high school admissions, the collective Brandeis Hillel Day School class of 2011 (and their parents) convened last night for the next step in what promises to be an exhausting and arduous process. In doing so, they crossed over an imperceptible but crucial bridge.

For almost eight years, the families had toiled away at the school. They dutifully paid their tuition fees on time and volunteered to chaperone field trips. Alliances within the cohort were made and discarded, then made again, the intensity of the shared experience making it impossible to completely break ties.

The children, for their part, hunkered down to the business of learning, beginning the first day of kindergarten, back in August, 2002, when they sat in a circle on the floor and were introduced to Annie Apple, stand-in for the letter “A” in the award-winning Letterland phonics reading program.

It wasn’t until last night that the group realized that, for almost eight years, they’d been operating under a certain group of assumptions about where their world started and ended. Until Neal Biskar, Director of High School Admissions and former Middle School Head, projected the first slide of his Power Point program, none of them had thought that there were two distinct parts to the Brandeis Hillel Day School experience.

Now they know. As soon as the slide reading “High School Admissions” hit the screen, the whole of seventh grade entered the big leagues. It was as if a secret society had existed all along, and even though they hadn’t known of its existence they were now being invited to join.

Strangely, there was no secret handshake or password required to join this group. The price of admission was eight years of tuition plus the stamina to make it this far.

Most of them had already attended the high school informational night at the Jewish Community High School, which had been informative in as least impactful of a way as possible. That they’d traveled to this alien place and surrounded themselves with an unfamiliar, slightly intimidating landscape had made that event seem almost surreal. Turning the focus back to Brandeis, where they’d all unsnapped snaps and unclicked belts and lifted their children out of car seats eight years ago, gave the information added weight not possible during the JCHS meeting.

Neal Biskar, at worst a rumor and at best a peripheral character to the parents and children for eight years, was now their guide to the Next Important Step in their lives. Along with Abbe Wainwright, a similarly anonymous faculty member during the six years before middle school, he will now help them find the proper environment for their children. Together, Biskar and Wainwright will guide each family through the admissions process. They will deliver helpful hints like, “Don’t chew gum during your interview,” and “Remember, the student who takes you on your ‘shadowing’ tour of the school is also on the admissions committee.”

These were all things the families had never thought of. Why should they have? As of Thursday morning, the world’s boundaries were clearly defined as the property line of 655 Brotherhood Way, home of the Gauss Campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School.

“Keep an open mind,” Biskar told the group, “and try to have fun.” The room settled into a nervous murmur. One parent, keenly feeling the collective anxiety, remarked, “I think you can feel that there’s a lot of tension in this room.”

The Jewish High School event was casual. This was more serious. They were getting down to business. The number of questions ran about ten-to-one versus the JCHS event. These were pointed, specific questions, like, “If I take the SSAT more than once, do the high schools see both of my scores?”

“Will it make a difference to a school if you tell them they’re your top choice?”

“What about siblings and legacies?”

“How many schools should we apply to?”

The answer to the last question was that it depended on where you apply. Some schools are harder to get into than others. In general, said Neal Biskar, “People apply to somewhere around three and five.”

As the evening continued, the seventh grade class grew savvier by tiny gradations. The SSAT, required by all independent high schools, was not required by Lowell High School, which assigns potential students into one of three “bands,” only one of which Brandeis students were likely to qualify for, since the other two weighted factors like financial need and ethnic diversity.

The “courtesy” application deadline of December 1 was only a “courtesy” to about half of the independent schools. For the rest, it was an unwritten requirement. Were it not for Neal Biskar, the families would have had no idea which considered it a “courtesy” and which a “requirement.”

The seventh-grade families were uneasy plebes. All of this information, all of these potential obstacles and pratfalls, all to complete a process that, for most of the parents when they were teenagers involved showing up at the school closest to your parents’ house with a Pee-Chee folder and two pencils, a turkey sandwich and a bag of Fritos.

But the time to fret has long since passed. Most of them got past that hurdle on the run-up to kindergarten. These are no babes in the educational woods. Anything they didn’t learn about applications, interviews and thank-you notes in college and grad school they learned during the heady grade school rush season of 2001-2002.

The difference is that this time the X-factor – the children themselves – will be driving the bus. This time, parents are along to navigate, motivate and write checks. Mom and Dad might as well be on a spaceship streaking toward Alpha-Centurion when interview day rolls around. It’ll be up to the teens themselves to make eye contact, smile and say, “It’s so great to meet you. I’m really excited to learn all about (insert name of school here).”

By joining the secret sect of high school applicants, the group brought the reality of interview day much closer. Anyone professing ignorance now better jump on board or get out of the way. Otherwise, they’re going to get run over.


Butter Goats said...

What happens if they don't get into ANY of the schools they apply to? Default public school?

Lefty said...

i think that's when you move to san mateo.