It’s a very weird system in NYC for public middle schools, at least here in Region 8. When I grew up in San Diego, we went directly from elementary school to junior high school, automatically. If you were zoned for elementary school A1, you went to junior high A2 (and high school A3). It was just based on your neighborhood, unless you had some special reason to try to go to some special school. I knew that NYC had a different system for high schools, where students had to apply and be accepted to the specialized schools, but I didn’t know (until late last year) that there was similar system for middle schools.

As the father of a fifth grader, I’ve learned that when she goes to sixth grade next year, there is no guaranteed or automatic middle school for her. She has to apply, and be accepted, even at schools in our own neighborhood. And the middle school which is closest to our house, it turns out, is one that usually gets something like 4 or 5 kids applying for every one spot they have available. It’s our neighborhood school, but it’s absolutely not automatic that she’ll get to go there.

There are a few things, too, to add to this equation. Where we live in Brooklyn, the neighborhood is racially very diverse…but the schools are much less so. We saw this in the elementary school arena (where she does go to her automatic neighborhood school–but where most white parents reject that school). There are only a very few schools in the district which white parents see as “acceptable.” The kids from the “best” (whitest) elementary schools (not my daughter’s school) only consider these few schools. That’s why the school nearest to us (which is one of the “acceptable” ones) is so hard to get into.

But we learned something in my daughter’s elementary school experience. Her elementary school (which is completely unacceptable to most white parents, because the kids there are mostly not white), has been very good. Some problems, of course, and there was a change of principal after third grade, and that was not a change for the better, but overall we’re quite pleased.

So in a way the district rules about applying and being accepted have been a good thing. Here’s why. Because my daughter couldn’t be guaranteed that she could go to the school closest to us, we had to look around. And we took a tour yesterday morning of a truly excellent middle school, the Sunset Park Prep Academy, MS 821. Again, it’s a school that the white parents, even white parents who do accept my daughter’s elementary school, have never even heard of, and would never even consider.

But we could tell immediately from the tour that this was a small school with young, energetic teachers, an experienced, caring and dedicated principal, and motivated, involved, active kids. There was in every classroom (and we at least poked our heads into all of them) that happy buzz of attentive learning that all good teachers want, and any experienced teacher can recognize immediately.

We saw group work that was truly collaborative and productive (in a math class, students were measuring each other’s height and “wingspan” to compare and graph and find the correlation), writing assignments that were stimulating and personal (an early-semester personal narrative, and a cluster diagram to identify “our stresses” for an essay on managing them), a focus on integrative learning (in a language arts class, students were evaluating assigned reading from social studies and science classes, to determine subjectivity and authors’ agendas), experiments with new and old technology (both an overhead projector directed high on the wall above the chalkboard, and a brand-new Smart Board which they were still trying to figure out how to use), and multiple methods of engaging students (a debate in a science class, and a Jeopardy-style game in a special ed class).

It’s not clear what school my daughter will finally wind up at…but it’s definitely clear that there are some great choices out there. Automatic acceptance, like automatic rejection, is not a good thing at all, even though they’re both a lot more convenient and simple.