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By Angie Bealko
Austin, Texas parent
When I was a kid in rural Ohio I remember there being only two options for middle school: my local public school and the private Catholic school. Whether I wanted to go to the private school was irrelevant, because we couldn’t afford it. My family’s “choice” was easy, because there was no real choice. So I went to public school and, like most of us, came out great! (Or at least my husband thinks so.)
Fast-forward 30 years or so, when I had to face the decision for my own children.
Now, there are choices. The dizzying array of school options started when my husband and I looked at preschools for our daughter. Play-based, Montessori, Waldorf, cooperative programs or language immersion? The choices were both inspiring and overwhelming. Finally making that decision brought us so much relief! We were thrilled as we watched both our daughter and our son happily growing, learning and exploring new adventures over the years.
When our daughter was in Kindergarten, our family’s needs changed and we had to move. We began the search again. We quickly eliminated private schools in favor of saving money for college (and hopefully retirement, someday). After a few months of searching, we chose a house where my kids would be zoned to attend Doss Elementary, in Austin ISD.
Our daughter started school there as a first grader, and both she and our son have thrived. Once again, we were relieved and feeling confident in our choice. We were content for 4 years at our neighborhood school. And then the middle school fears started creeping in…
Middle school worries many parents, and we were no exception. Suddenly, kids are thrust into puberty, confronted with drugs or alcohol, bullies behind the gym and social media, or worse…? Yeah, there’s worse. But, primarily, we were concerned with finding another place where our daughter could blossom once again.
So we started searching and visiting public middle school options for our daughter.
All told, we considered: Kealing Magnet; Fulmore Magnet; IDEA; KIPP; Harmony; Austin Achieve; Wayside; Magnolia Montessori; Not Your Ordinary School (NYOS); and our zoned neighborhood school, Murchison. Some schools didn’t make our list – schools like Lamar’s Fine Arts program or Small’s Green Tech – because their focus didn’t fit our daughter’s interests. These are great options, but just weren’t what our daughter wanted.
Each of the schools we considered offered something that interested our daughter, would challenge her academically, and/or could broaden her perspective and introduce her to new experiences. All were different in their approach.
We learned to adjust the questions we asked along the way, as we gathered information from school tours, conversations with our friends and chats with current students and their parents.
The questions started more tactically, and quickly grew into philosophical ones. We wanted to understand not just what our daughter would be taught, but how she would learn it, and what life skills she would build along the way:
- How big is your student body? How diverse is it?
- What curriculum do you use? Why did you choose it?
- What courses are required for all students? Why do you think that’s important?
- How long is your school day and year?
- How much time is direct instruction versus project work or group learning?
- What kind of after-school enrichment do you offer?
- How do you develop, support and reward your teachers?
- How do your teachers work together as a team?
- How do you observe your teachers and give feedback?
- What happens if a teacher isn’t responsive to coaching?
- How many counselors are available per student? How often do students have small group or individual access to these counselors?
- What do you expect of your students both inside and outside of the classroom?
- Do you encourage all your students to go to college? If so, how?
- Do you have a community pledge or mission? How is this reinforced?
In the end, we decided to pursue all 10 schools that met our criteria, and make the decision after we received acceptances. The next step was applying.
We entered the public lottery at IDEA, KIPP, Harmony, Austin Achieve, Wayside, Magnolia Montessori and NYOS. The charter school application process was simple: all is really required was entering our daughter’s information, and waiting to see if her name was drawn randomly from the thousands of applications from kids also applying across Austin.
Our neighborhood school, Murchison, didn’t require any action on our part at all, but the school welcomed us for tours, information nights and more.
Applying to Kealing and Fulmore consisted of multiple tests, essays, letters of recommendations, visits and more. The magnet school applications required much more work, as they are allowed to be selective in choosing students to admit. It was a bit intimidating and daunting, but also exciting and invigorating — like an early glimpse of applying to college!
Finally, three months later, our daughter had four acceptances, five waitlists and an open seat at our neighborhood school. At this point, we had poured over the TEA website, visited campuses, asked questions, listened, thought and asked more questions. It was time for a decision. We discussed the options with our daughter, created a list of pros and cons, and came to a mutual decision on the “best fit” for her.
She’s excited to be attending our neighborhood school, Murchison Middle School. She can’t wait to be a Matador!
Was it the perfect choice? No. No school is perfect, no matter what people tell you. But it was the “best fit” for her. What’s even better, is that she now knows that she has many public options available.
So why did we choose it? Ultimately, it gave us two things we couldn’t easily get elsewhere that she absolutely loves: advanced Mandarin Chinese instruction and biking to school with two of her best friends.
Honestly, Murchison didn’t give us some of the other things we typically think of as important during these middle school years: more counselors, a smaller student body, or consistent experiences across classes in the same grade. But we knew that we are active participants in our children’s education and could support these gaps and work through them. We are prepared to have our kids experience some crowded classrooms, “boring teachers” and unforeseen peer pressure, knowing that it helps build resiliency and persistence. We know, that just like schools, there is no perfect counselor, teacher, or student body.
Of course, we still expect our school, its leaders and teachers to rise to the challenge of giving each kid their best, every day, just as we expect our daughter to do the same.
If Murchison and its team don’t fit her needs in a year, she can apply to the other public school options again. As her needs change, we don’t have to move or find a private school. Austin has dozens of amazing public school options both in traditional zoned school districts as well as in charter school districts — each offering diverse curricula across Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, STEM, Project-Based Learning, Montessori, and more. All we have to do is continue to assess what our kids need and help them find their “best fit”.
Where we were once a family overwhelmed by the options, we are now a “Family Empowered”!
For more information on Public School Report Cards, visit: https://rptsvr1.tea.texas.gov/perfreport/src/2016/campus.srch.html
To learn about all of the Austin area public options for your child (and private too!) visit: