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High Anxiety
An Arlington mother finds that, as the competition for college intensifies, ninth grade never seemed so important

By R.C. Barajas
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Sebastian positions the bottle of chocolate syrup over his glass of milk and is beginning to give it a hard squeeze when I say casually, "There's a high school information meeting tonight at 7. Want to come?"

The almost empty bottle lets out a rude gassy noise. Sebastian says nothing until he's squeezed the last drops into his glass. He rights the bottle on the table and looks at me wearily, long curly hair almost obscuring his hazel eyes.

"Do I have to?"

I'd felt from the beginning that this was futile -- my casual tone had been a ruse -- but I give it one last try. "It might be a good idea. I bet a lot of your friends are going to be there."

He gives a derisive snort. "Yeah, right. If I go, no one will be there. If I don't, everyone will go. What's the point?" His spoon rattles loudly against the glass as he stirs, watching the brown liquid swirl.

Our son is poised on the knife's edge between middle and high school, and we have arrived -- as if by time machine, it seems -- at the moment when we must decide where he will spend his last four years of mandatory education.

We live in Arlington, and Sebastian has spent the first nine years of public school in partial Spanish immersion programs at Francis Scott Key Elementary School and Gunston Middle School. That's a choice my Colombian-born husband, Adolfo, and I made for our three sons, so they would grow up bilingual and get an early appreciation for their father's Latin background. Arlington's rich cultural and economic diversity is also why we've chosen to raise our kids here, in a county where the public schools' Web site boasts of its 19,000 students from more than 120 countries, speaking more than 100 different languages. The desire to continue this life education is about the only thing Adolfo and I are certain of as we embark on the journey to find the right high school for our oldest. It's hard to tell what Sebastian wants. He is reluctant to engage in the "which school" debate, but I sense his anxiety about the upcoming transition.

"I don't know," he says hollowly from the back seat one afternoon on the way to a tennis class. "I just think about the fact that all the credits are gonna count. What if I totally tank?"

"You're a good student," I reassure him, perhaps too brightly. "A smart kid! You'll be fine. Don't worry about it!"

Secretly, I wonder: Is he organized enough? Is he sufficiently motivated, ambitious, resilient, confident? Can he turn down the amp in his brain long enough to write those papers?

High school prepares you for college, college prepares you for life.

Ergo: High School = The Rest of Your Life. So here we all are, parents and child, facing an assignment that feels weighty enough to crush us all under its terrible implication:

High school is scary. Discuss. Then choose the right one.

Show your work.

LEAVING SEBASTIAN TO BROOD OVER HIS CHOCOLATE MILK, I attend high school information night on my own. It's just a preliminary survey after all, so I don't insist that Adolfo leave work early to join me. This year, it's being held on October 24 at Wakefield High School in South Arlington. Inside the entrance, I accept a thick folder of information from a crisply uniformed ROTC member and follow the other parents down the hallway to the auditorium. Looking at the people around me, it's easy to spot the first-time high school parents. Their faces are masks of stunned desperation: How did this happen so fast?

And their eyes -- our eyes -- say: Our children are no longer children. Starting now, there are no take-backs or do-overs. Everything counts.

The audience includes parents I've known since Sebastian entered kindergarten at Key Elementary. How many of us will be together next September, we wonder aloud, adding to the buzz around us. We're silenced by the crackling of the microphone on the stage.

We are welcomed, and given an overview from several educators, including Arlington Superintendent Robert Smith, and about half an hour later parents splinter off to presentations in various rooms around the school. Represented here are the four Arlington high schools: Washington-Lee, which has the International Baccalaureate option; high-achieving Yorktown; H-B Woodlawn, with its hugely popular alternative approach; and Wakefield, which is open to all Gunston Middle students who want to continue in Spanish immersion. Each of these schools appeals to us in some way, so I want to get information on all of them. Topping the list at the moment, though, is the continuation of Spanish immersion, so I follow our close-knit group of parents to where Wakefield is presenting.

Wakefield's principal, Doris Jackson, is very charismatic. She's been with Arlington Public Schools for 15 years -- this is her fifth as Wakefield principal, and the staff members standing behind her this evening in Room 110 smile at us with pleasant zealotry. Jackson says the school believes fervently that the makeup of Advanced Placement classes should mirror the racial, ethnic and economic makeup of the general student body. To this end, in the spring of 2004, Wakefield launched an effort to support any and all students who want to take AP classes: a preparatory program called AP Bridge, which is designed to help entering students overcome their hormone-induced brain scramble by strengthening their time management and study skills. Visualizing Sebastian's junk heap of a desktop, I scratch a large "!" in my notes.

We then head to the presentation by the International Baccalaureate Programme at Washington-Lee, another natural choice for immersion kids because of its international curriculum and emphasis on incorporating a second language. By now my head is buzzing with information overload. I try to focus, but know I'll have to go to the November meeting instead for my information. I feel edgy and wrung out, and judging by the thinning crowd, many other parents feel the same. The evening ends, but I've gotten all turned around in this huge school and go out the wrong door. I end up in an unfamiliar parking lot, hunting for my car, which, I soon discover, is parked on the opposite side of the building. As I scurry sheepishly back through the door and down the almost-deserted halls, I imagine Sebastian getting lost here, too; his broad shoulders hunched up, his anger welling to the surface to cloak his embarrassment. On the drive home, my own shoulders hunched up over the steering wheel, I don't even hear the tunes on the radio.

AMY SHILO, A GUIDANCE COUNSELOR AT WAKEFIELD, says my parental anxiety is not entirely misplaced.

Ninth grade is a tough transition for students. "I don't think they quite realized how difficult it would be," says Shilo. "The time-management skills they'd need, and the study time and just how much work they would have . . . They're stepping up to the plate in a much different environment than middle school . . . I think at some point they become like scared rabbits in the headlights."

Then, as if to soften the point, she adds: "Once they move past that and they realize they can handle the work -- it's just managing it -- they're okay."

But my mind is still stuck on "scared rabbits." What do scared rabbits do? If memory serves, they often run the wrong way -- perhaps into the path of oncoming traffic. It doesn't help that the schools are always sending home flyers trying to clue us in to teenagers' vulnerabilities. The latest crumpled offering, titled "Teen Brain Development," reminds us that adolescents have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain responsible for impulse control and judgment. There is also a section called "Things Not to Say," which I speed-read while crossing the kitchen. Placing the pamphlet on top of a teetering stack of school-related missives, I make a mental note to stop telling Sebastian to "get over it."

Of course, we're not alone in our quandary. With the abundance of magnet, language and IB programs in area public schools, many parents reach such a crossroads at some point. But choosing which path Sebastian should take still feels intensely personal and fraught with peril. Will our choice turn a smart, creative but mistrustful student into a confident and motivated one, or will it encourage the budding cynic?

"Nothing I do in school really sparks my interest. I feel like I'm wasting my time," he will tell me at one point during this process. "They're making me learn but not in a way I want to continue after school. I mean, anything will make you learn if they force you to do it for six hours a day."

Even though I know he is referring to only a couple of specific subjects -- and that he has enjoyed others -- the words are hard to hear.

I also find myself wondering whether ninth grade is as important to my child's future as it feels. Am I just buying into the skewed perspective of the middle-class hyper-parents surrounding me?

I ask Shirley Bloomquist, an independent college counselor in Great Falls. It does matter, she tells me. The reality is that colleges admit students based largely upon the first three years of high school.

"It's important students realize that ninth grade counts for one-third of your GPA." The good news, she says, is that colleges also look for an improving record, so a less-than-stellar performance is not the end of the world.

And how much do colleges care which high school Sebastian goes to, assuming it's not a poor performer (of which there isn't one in the mix here)? While colleges do recognize that some high schools are better than others, what really matters is how good a fit the school is for the student, says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at University of Pennsylvania.

"Students will progress in an area where the fit is better," Stetson told me. "The actual choice isn't as critical if they learn how to shine."

Despite the reassurances, it seems unfair to me that Sebastian must start to build his permanent record at a time when biology is clearly working against him.

IT'S NOW EARLY NOVEMBER, and I am feeling panicky. So many dates, such poor calendar skills. The major flurry of activity for potential transfer students is scheduled by Arlington County to occur between November 7 and January 20, so I go back over the pile of information I got at high school information night. I see that we already missed the deadline to apply to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. Well, it seems too elitist anyway, clearly discriminating against those of us who don't have our acts together.

It's also not the place for Sebastian, he being more a liberal arts kind of guy. Then again, math and science are areas of strength for him. Then again, it's one less choice to worry about. I feel myself already getting tired of the then-again scenarios. Oh, and it seems I also missed the first transfer orientation meeting -- for students transferring out of their neighborhood school into another -- which was two weeks ago. Self-congratulations for being off to such a good start. The only school I have a feel for is Wakefield. It is time to examine what the others have to offer.

Adolfo and I arrive on time at the library of Washington-Lee High School on an unseasonably warm November evening. We are there to learn about IB -- the International Baccalaureate Programme (it's even spelled internationally!). We enter the crowded room to find that the presenter, Marilyn Leeb, has started. We slink around the back walls and scrounge chairs.

Leeb's New York patois sounds exotic here in Virginia. Rather than AP exams, she tells us that IB students take special exit exams prepared by the IB Organization, the foundation that administrates the program. The pass rate for these exams is 70 percent internationally, she says, and, at W-L, it is 90 percent. Wow, we think. IB students, she says, often get priority admissions to colleges, and they enter with tremendous confidence.

What's more, students coming in from the Gunston Spanish immersion program, as Sebastian is, would enter a track for fluent speakers and end up with a bilingual IB diploma. Adolfo and I glance at each other. This is sounding a lot like volunteering our reticent son for extra work. The tiny words in the PowerPoint presentation begin to blend together, and I find myself mildly put off by the grand-sounding buzzwords: extended essay, theory of knowledge, creativity-action-service. I know the jargon will turn Sebastian off, too.

Three senior girls join us near the end of the presentation. They're honest -- it has been incredibly hard. But with pride, one smiles and says, "I have all this knowledge inside of me, and I'm 17!" When asked why they'd done it, and if they'd do it again, two acknowledge that their parents had signed them up, but that they would definitely do it again. The third hesitates, looking at the floor. "I felt really overwhelmed between junior and senior year," she says. She pauses, then looks up at the crowd as if remembering where she is. "But I'd probably do it again."

It's not lost on Adolfo and me that there are no boys presenting. Our unscientific research -- which consists largely of comparing notes with other parents -- has led us to conclude that girls at this age are usually better organized than boys. Does that mean girls are more likely to do well in IB? Could Sebastian survive this intensity? Isn't this tantamount to college before college? The requirements are intimidating but, all in all, IB does appear to offer an edge.

To confound us further, two friends who teach undergrads at Johns Hopkins University weigh in over a bottle of wine one evening: Sure, they say, they know kids who've come from IB. "They're crestfallen to discover that they're no more or less able than a student who came out of an AP program," one tells us. So much for that edge, we think.

In order to opt Sebastian out of our neighborhood school, Yorktown, I must attend a meeting solely for the purpose of getting the principal to sign the pupil transfer application form. Yorktown is within walking distance of our house. It's very prestigious and turns out good students -- 90 percent go on to college, and it was No. 51 on Newsweek's "Best 100 High Schools" of 2005.

Despite this, it's not quite what we're looking for. The student body is less racially and ethnically diverse than the schools Sebastian has attended so far, and it's much more affluent. We want our son to go to school where the kids reflect the ethnic and economic mix in the world at large, and these reservations, together with our interest in continuing Spanish immersion, have thus far outweighed Yorktown's pluses. Even so, listening to Principal Raymond Pasi extol the school's virtues does give me the opportunity to wonder -- for the hundredth time -- if we are doing the right thing.

The neighborhood that surrounds H-B Woodlawn is a mixture of modest brick homes nestled amid mature trees, and new mansions rising starkly from shorn lots that sport their fledgling landscaping like peach fuzz on a teen's chin. Waiting for the designated first-floor classroom to empty out so a ninth-grade orientation meeting can take place, Frank Haltiwanger, the principal of the coolest program in town, stops a tall male student who's ambling down the hallway with enormous headphones over his ears. Frank (students at the school get to call the educators by their first names) shoots the breeze with the student for a few minutes, listening in on the phones, and it looks more like the meeting of two colleagues than that of adult and child. Yes, I think sadly, this is the place for Sebastian. He'd be as happy here as he could be in school. Of course, there are only eight slots open for ninth-graders this year, so his chances in the lottery are small. He was rooted in the No. 3 slot on H-B's middle school waiting list for three years -- and never moved an inch.

It is no great surprise that this school is so sought-after. It had only 585 students this past year, and class size is mouth-wateringly small. The school's philosophy, which harkens back to its '60s founding, is to provide students with more control over their own education. Its educators prize independence and self-discipline, and students are rewarded with increasing freedom. For 2005, H-B came in at No. 5 on Newsweek's coveted Best 100 list, beating out Yorktown by 46 places. (W-L was No. 44.) I know there's more to a school than this kind of ranking, but there's no denying it's a nice bit of cachet.

And maybe that No. 5 ranking is the reason the room is now packed -- parents are squeezed into every desk, lining the colorful walls, filling the squashy couches. Their eyes bore into relaxed Frank, who waits while everyone jostles for position. He looks at us, smiles easily, and says, "Well, we counted, and you're the largest group of potential transfer parents ever!"

Great, we all think glumly. I try not to want it too badly.

IT'S A DARK EARLY MORNING NOW, and the glaring kitchen bulbs show my desk calendar in an unflattering light. The January air is breathtakingly cold, and the streets are dark and surreal as I walk with Sebastian and the dogs to the bus stop on the hill. Deadlines are about to rain down on our heads.

The deadline for high school transfer applications has been extended to February 1, but this is not very helpful. We now have two more weeks in which to second-guess ourselves. When all your choices are good, you feel particularly vulnerable. I waffle on a daily basis between Wakefield and Washington-Lee (I try not to think about H-B at all, as distant as our chances are), and worry again that we might condemn Sebastian to the wrong one -- wrong for him, that is. Other than expressing a disinclination toward school in general, Sebastian avoids talking about it.

"So what is it you want in a high school?" I finally ask in exasperation. He sighs and looks away.

"I want a sense of purpose, a reason why I should go to school," he says. "I want to feel that when I come home from school, I've taken something with me."

It's a weighty answer, and I've long admired my son's willingness to march to his own beat. But it doesn't give me much to go on.

In the last days of January, we finally make our decision: Sebastian will go to Wakefield.

When all was weighed and measured, the IB program sounded like it was better suited to students who do not -- as Sebastian does -- deeply resent the amount of time school takes from their desired activities. It is also perhaps best for those students who are already able to juggle vast workloads with relative ease. As for H-B Woodlawn, the planets did not align this year: Sebastian placed a distant No. 83 on the waiting list.

Sebastian seems content with our choice -- most of his friends are going to Wakefield, too. And he's actually exhibiting some ownership over this decision, declaring his desire to continue in Spanish immersion.

Several days after we make our decision, I accompany a group of fifth-graders to Wakefield for a multi-level band rehearsal for South Arlington schools. It's a long, loud and chaotic morning, and afterward our band leader, John Findley, provides pizza for all the kids from his three elementary schools. We line a hallway, and as the kids eat I lean against the opposite wall, observing the high school students who pass by, forced to pick their way around the short, wiggling legs.

As I try to imagine Sebastian among them, a tall, tough-looking and impossibly cool guy turns the far corner and strides toward me. He's dressed all in black, muscled arms swinging at his sides, braids dancing against his shoulders. I smile reflexively, apologetically, as he passes by the frenetic kids and their pizza slices. He looks directly at me and breaks into a guileless, welcoming smile. He continues on his way past us and down the hallway, and I find myself still smiling. At that moment I suddenly have no problem picturing Sebastian walking these halls.

R.C. Barajas is a freelance writer.

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