Going for the perfect high

Choosing a high school was a lot easier when you didn't get to choose.

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

My daughter entered the eighth grade in the fall. In San Francisco this means that the school year has been, and will be, devoted to finding out where she's going to school in the ninth grade. Remember "Be here now?" Not for eighth graders.

When I was a teen, in a smallish town in the Midwest, high school began in 10th grade and there was only one high school. You went there, got a job at a gas station or hung out in front of the pool hall smoking Marlboro reds. Those were our options.

But in San Francisco we have choices. What do you want, Mr. and Mrs. Concerned Parent? Public or private? Expensive or cheap? Jesuits or Rudolf Steiner? College prep or art-intensive? Global or personal? Freewheeling or disciplined? Diverse or exclusive? Religious or secular? Democrat or Republican? Computer skills or pottery? It's a cornucopia of choices, a pedagogical feast. Unfortunately, there's only food enough for 10, and there are a thousand hungry minds in line.

This fall, my daughter, my former wife and I attended the San Francisco High School Fair, an event that is supposed to help us make the right choice. I don't know what we expected to find. I guess I hoped for some festivity -- pig races, prize-winning vegetables, a fun house, a merry-go-round. Instead, I found myself in a sea of parents and gawky young people with braces; the only roller coasters in evidence were emotional ones.

Every private high school within a 50-mile radius was represented at the event, along with a smattering of "alternative" public high schools, each with folding tables lined up in a generic middle-school gymnasium. Some tables were piled high with brochures; some just had stacks of single photocopied sheets. (A fellow parent remarked, correctly, that the glossiness of a school's brochure bore a direct correlation to the height of its tuition.)

The high schools that chose not to present themselves at this event were, of course, the high schools that none of us wanted -- the dreaded public schools so loathed by pundits of every stripe. They were the default schools, you might say, the ones our children would have to attend if we stood by and did nothing -- the overcrowded, troubled schools administrated by idiots and attended by drug addicts and snipers. Their very absence at the high school fair amounted to a presence of sorts, like unseen barbarian hordes hunkered over the frozen border during the final days of the Roman Empire.

We clutched our brochures, talismans against this vast, invisible malignant force. I'm no psychic, but it wasn't difficult to know what thoughts were rushing through our teeming brains: The teachers in these default schools are lifers who don't care about their students unless they set off the metal detectors. Their edifices are held together by duct tape and their infrastructures are dependent on the whims of those who choose to play the California lottery.

Teachers in these places must pay for their own supplies. If a student feels bad about failing a class, that student will be passed anyway, just to boost his or her self-esteem.

And there are no prayers in these schools, no values. Students will be forced to read only obscure, poorly written books by persons of color. Mark Twain's oeuvre and Shakespeare's efforts will be thrown in the dumpster. Our children will learn nothing and will be sent off into the world armed with half-formed ideas gleaned from television programs. They will have an inflated sense of self-worth with no foundation in reality.

That is our nightmare, with slight variations depending on politics, about the public school system. And here, at the high school fair, under the high banks of fluorescent lights, our alternatives to the educratic dystopia had gathered.

Clutching our protective brochures, we formed a huge sluggish stream that flowed out the doors of the auditorium to the various classrooms, where the representatives of better high schools would pitch the pedagogies that would be our salvation.

Being more than a little debt-ridden, my preference (gasp!) was for a public school, but we attended presentations by several private schools just so we could feel, for a fleeting moment anyway, as though we were among the beneficiaries of the new Internet economy.

Our first stop was the presentation by the exclusive CitiZen High School (not its real name). The admissions director greeted us and told us a little bit about CitiZen's educational philosophy, which was to provide students with an inspirational environment and foster self-motivation and enthusiasm.

Four seniors had accompanied her, as case studies, I suppose. The cutest one, who bore a striking resemblance to the young Ricky Nelson, wanted to be a doctor. The others were cute too, in a vaguely self-satisfied, humorless way. They reminded me of a Gap ad, or the cast of "Dawson's Creek." You could see soap operas erupting around their stylish dreamy heads. They seemed self-motivated, all right, but not very enthusiastic.

Then we attended the pitch for Kwick Preparatory. (All of these names are false, by the way.) I'd heard good things about this private school, which was introduced with much pep and perkiness by its admissions director.

Again, two students were trotted out. Now these kids were enthusiastic and self-motivated. An undernourished hyperkinetic girl gave us an oration that sounded roughly like this: "I'm editing the yearbook, teaching myself how to play the oboe, mastering the Kwick Web site, taking calculus, early English literature, advanced physics and wood shop. In my spare time, I'm tutoring freshmen and teaching them time and stress management."

From the conversations overheard after the session, I found that most parents were excited about this school, which promised to fill their children's days with so much work they wouldn't have time to become crack addicts. But a couple of us noted that these children seemed to be on the verge of massive nervous breakdowns.

Because time was limited to four presentations only, we only had time for two of the so-called charter public schools: Artmore, the "arts" school, and a new school, Portal. Artmore's presentation was unusual in that there was no perky admissions officer to greet us. Instead we were treated to an appearance by the principal himself, who bore a strong resemblance to Jerry Stiller. There were no students. (I guess they had too much homework.) He told us how excited he was to be the principal of this school, though he didn't seem very excited. He seemed worried. His face was as gray as a sidewalk.

At Artmore, each student must have an area of expertise. Students may focus on vocal, piano or instrumental music; they can choose technical theater, dance or acting. They can become visual artists or filmmakers.
But they cannot cross over and they cannot change their minds. Actors can't sculpt and flutists can't sing. I suppose that's all right (though how many kids know what they want from life when they're 14?); but then the principal stressed that most of these students don't even go on to a career in the arts after graduating. So what was the point?

Portal offered us a principal, a perky admissions officer and two students. We liked them all immediately. The principal was a tweedy man with a fading Boston accent. He was witty, in a self-effacing way, and I embarrassed my daughter by laughing at his jokes. The students seemed normal; that is, they didn't seem self-conscious, overstimulated or overworked. They rolled their eyes at the principal's jokes, but said nothing. This seemed like appropriate behavior.

The school's philosophy: "We believe that each student is uniquely talented and that a quality school should make it possible for each child to express his or her genius." Individual students, sayeth the Portal philosophy, learn best in different ways. Another of their precepts is that students and teachers treat one another with decency and respect. Hard to argue with that. Glad to have it in writing.

As we stood around in the parking lot after the event, waiting for the traffic to clear enough to drive ourselves home, our choice became clear: Portal or Artmore.

To help parents decide, each school hosts an open house. Prospective students can also go to a high school and follow a student around to see if the school is a "good fit." In November we attended Artmore's open house. We were greeted by Artmore's principal, who had to shout above the orchestra tuning up behind him as it rehearsed for a concert that night.

A sophomore media maker escorted us through the halls of Artmore. We saw vocalists warming up, actors yowling in a circle and sculptors sculpting. In one classroom, students were building a theater prop out of papier-mbchi and chicken wire. On the blackboard someone had written, "Sucky Sucky Ducky Anus."

Our guide told us that there was some drug use on campus, but nothing to worry about. There were 300 students there, she said, and perhaps six or seven users. She herself did not do drugs. In the media room, where there were two video-editing decks and not much else, she told us that all the equipment had been stolen the year before by a couple of recently graduated seniors.

Perhaps it was just the day we were there, but Artmore seemed to be in a state of semi-controlled chaos, where genius was expected to thrive, and then upon graduation, just go away. Sucky sucky ducky anus indeed.

Portal was next for the up-close treatment. My daughter audited a history and theater class and decided it was truly the school for her. Because it is so young (just 2 years old), she figures she can "make a difference."

So Portal it is. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to be very high on the list for most other high school hopefuls. Even so, the prospect of getting in is somewhat daunting. The problem in San Francisco, thanks to growing dissatisfaction with the school system, an explosion in the number of kids and the sudden prevalence of parents who have the money to spend on private schools, is that there are as many as 30 students applying for every open slot.

The application process is therefore somewhat rigorous. There are forms to fill out, interviews to take, test scores to crunch, portfolios to gather. In addition to good grades, high test scores and talent to burn, your child must have the social skills of Miss Manners. And if, after the interviews, the applications, the review of scores, the personality profiles and the careful consideration of diversity mandates, my daughter manages to get in, it isn't necessarily a done deal. If there are too many acceptable applicants for too few places, their names go into a hopper and they are selected for admission by lottery.

So there you have it. After months of anxiety and hard work, the question of where my daughter will go to high school may boil down to the question, "Go on, punk, do you feel lucky?" And even if we win, the school we've chosen, I noticed at its open house, will still be held together by duct tape.

Some educational principles, I guess, are eternal.

By Merle Kessler

Merle Kessler is a scriptwriter, lyricist and humorist. Some may be more familiar with him through his bitter alter ego, Ian Shoales. He lives in San Francisco.

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