For 8th graders, picking a high school is their first big test

Students have a bevy of options -- that can turn into a multiple-choice problem with 25 possible answers

For many parents, school-choice anxiety starts when picking a kindergarten for their 4-year-old. The next wave? High school -- only this time, the student, now 14 or 15, often makes the decision.

This year's 8th-graders don't just choose between seven high schools, but among 32 Small Learning Communities, or SLCs. Now in their second year, SLCs keep students in groups with the same teachers for four years. They are designed to help teens better connect with adults and keep dropouts in school. Another carrot: classes more closely aligned with a student's interests.

However, SLCs' benefits come with an upfront cost: students must wade through 25 choices.

Students must pick three choices, including one attendance-area-only SLC. They fill out an application -- including an essay about themselves, standardized test scores, grade-point average, a graded writing sample, and teacher-written recommendation. The most popular and academically difficult SLCs require a minimum GPA, good attendance, and high test scores.

To understand what decision time is like for Southwest-area 8th-graders, three students and their families discussed the process.

By coincidence, all three students have attended their respective schools since kindergarten; next year they'll go to their first new school in nine years.

Basanti Miller

Basanti Miller, an 8th-grader at Barton Open School, lives in Lynnhurst -- within Washburn High School's attendance area -- with her sister Meera, a Barton 6th-grader, and her parents Virgina Padden and Gary Miller.

Eight years ago, Padden says she visited every area elementary school -- public and private. "The big difference between that choice and this one is that now Basanti is making the decision," Padden said.

Also different is Gary Miller's increased involvement, attending several open houses and other meetings. He focuses on each school's learning environment, not just its college-prep academics.

"The pressure is a bit too much," he said. "I've been a little put off by the college application feel to it. The emphasis seems to be getting your kid into the best program; it's a minor-league version of what happens in college. The level of parent apprehension is out of control."

Though Basanti Miller acknowledges it will be scary to leave Barton, her fear is outweighed by excitement about the future. "My Dad took me around the University of Minnesota campus, and it was cool to see all the different opportunities they have there," she said. "In middle school, you can get wrapped up in cliques and what's around you, it's easy to forget what's ahead."

Miller is a strong student and meets the entrance requirements for all SLCs. During 5th grade, Miller started writing short stories and poems, mostly outside of class. A 7th-grade teacher, Amber Place, noticed her ability and met with Miller after school for writing practice and encouragement.

"She's a gifted writer. I'm working with her [writer's] voice, to make it work," Place said.

Miller wants an academically challenging high school program, and her first choice became South's Liberal Arts program. "I attended a Palestinian/Israeli history class during my visit, and it was like they brought the world from outside, in," said Miller.

Miller's second choice is South's Open program, which often draws Barton students.

Miller's third choice must be an attendance-area SLC -- in this case, at Washburn. Miller was interested in the American Studies SLC. "I like the American Studies program, but I wish it was a better school as a whole," said Miller.

But after Miller spent a day visiting Washburn's Fine Arts SLC -- a miscommunication put her in that program -- her impression of Washburn students pushed her away from the entire school. "At first I said I wouldn't mind going [to Washburn]. But now I know I wouldn't like it," she said. "There were too many kids who weren't paying attention. The teachers had to spend too much time controlling the classroom. I want to be at a school where the kids want to learn and pay attention."

South's Liberal Arts and Open SLCs are competitive, with no guaranteed admission. Miller said advisors have told her not to "waste" her second choice by picking another competitive program that will likely fill up after the first round, and pick a less-competitive SLC second to avoid her third choice.

But Miller is only interested in Liberal Arts and Open; she's a good student, so she's betting that she'll get into one. Miller also has strong advocates. Her teacher, Place, is committed to getting Miller into one of South's programs. "If she's placed at Washburn, I know I'll be making some calls. And I know her parents will be, too," said Place.

Alex Syverson

Alex Syverson, an 8th-grader at Lake Harriet Upper School, 4912 Vincent Ave. S., wants to follow older sister Abby's path to Southwest's International Baccalaureate program. He admits he's a little apprehensive about high school, but is not worried about getting into IB. "IB is the most talked-about program; it's the highest level of academics, it's the most challenging," said Syverson.

Having just toured the high schools last year, the Syversons are also confident of Alex's decision. "In the last several years, he's really become interested in achieving academically and going to college. We've been impressed with the IB program, in the time Abby's been there, so it seems like a good fit for Alex," Brad Syverson said.

He said his son isn't overwhelmed by the options. "There are a lot of choices, but if you want to attend the community school, and you want tough academics, there's one choice," he said.

Alex Syverson still wants to attend Southwest if he is not admitted to IB. His second and third choices will be the Dual Language Immersion program and his attendance-area SLC, Arts and Humanities.

Alex isn't intimidated by IB's tough reputation, thanks to his big sister. "Some kids are afraid of the homework. But my sister's there and she doesn't have too much. Sometimes, I have more than her," said Syverson.

Maria White

Of the three, Maria White, an 8th-grader at Ramsey Fine Arts Elementary, 1 W. 49th St., has labored most over her decision. A Fulton resident who lives in the Washburn area, White has friends going in every direction. "Most are going to South Open [or] Liberal Arts, but my best friend is trying to convince me to go to Washburn with her, and another good friend is pushing me to go to Southwest IB," said White.

A good student, White meets all SLC requirements. She plays the violin, is in a pre-engineering program and loves art.

White's best friend since 5th grade, Bao Thao, is going to Washburn. She's attracted to the International Studies program and her her older sister is a student there. "I've been telling Maria that Washburn is like a big family. Everyone is really nice, especially the teachers. My sister has a math teacher that makes things really fun," said Thao.

Thao also mentioned that she'd like White to come to Washburn so she has a friend on the first day of school.

But another friend, Catianne Ngante, is equally as fervent about Southwest's IB program. "I really like the international part of it, that people all over the world are taking the same courses you are. Maria is worried about the work, but she's really smart. I've been telling her it wouldn't be too much work for her," said Ngante.

As they talk, White stands between them with an increasingly unsure look.

White's parents, Ruth Dunn and Steve White, also have opinions -- especially her mother. Dunn went through the elementary school search by talking to parents, and has done the same for high school. "I think that's where you get the best information," said Dunn, who works in communications for the Columbia Heights school district.

Though Dunn says the decision is up to her daughter, she exerts influence. "My mom really wants me to go to Southwest IB or South Liberal Arts because they have good academics," said White. "And Southwest is a lot closer. She used to not want me to go to Washburn at all, but she found out it isn't as bad as she thought it was."

Though White is a good student, she struggles with procrastination, so her parents hope she chooses a program with structure. Some students look for the hard facts on a program, but White focused on more subjective cues: "I liked the presentation from South because they seemed the happiest."

With varied interests, she didn't want a career-oriented SLC. She was also swayed to pick only one competitive program. And her love of art drew her to Washburn's Fine Arts SLC -- where her friend Bao Thao is going.

So, she chose South's Liberal Arts first, Washburn Fine Arts second, and Washburn's International Studies program third.

The decision didn't come easily. She decided two days before the deadline and finished her application essay just minutes before school started on deadline day.

Now that the decision is over, the three students -- and several thousand 8th graders -- must wait. Acceptance notices will be mailed March 1.