The Exam School Choice III, AWC

Soon after the rash of fires at Boston Latin, the Parent Imperfect began a series of work trips that had him outside of Boston for what seemed like weeks. He had every intention of continuing to post during that time, but it seems difficult for him to find the voice of the PI as he travels. It must be the guilt of knowing that Liz is the one doing all of the parenting doing those times.

He returned to a firm deadline related to the Advanced Work Class of the Boston Public Schools. By tomorrow, in fact, the PI, Liz and Ms. Connie must come to agreement on their Grade 6 choices for the AWC lottery. AWC is a program designed to keep the families of “high-achieving” children in the BPS system by bringing together such children in classrooms using a different curriculum than “mainstream” classes. AWC begins in fourth grade and continues through fifth and sixth. Readers of the PI recently reminded him that, while AWC classes are not exam schools, the AWC system has everything to do with tracking children into the exam schools. He or she who goes to Advanced Work has a dramatically better chance to enter, and then succeed in, the exam schools than their classmates who do not do AWC. This is not as it should be.

As regular PI-readers know, Connie took an unusual path into AWC. She declined her invitation for Grade 4, but accepted the invitation to join AWC in Grade 5, and has spent this year (Grade 5) in the AWC class at the Hennigan School. This was not an easy decision for Connie or her family. The idea of AWC conflicts with just about everything that Liz and the PI believe about education. Connie’s older brother, Vince, stayed at the Rafael Hernández School from K-1 through the end of sixth grade.

There were many good things about this decision, for Vince and his family. They remained part of a strong community at RHS. Vince was able to continue with Spanish-English immersion and both Vince and Connie were in the same school for three additional years (no small thing). But, since Vince has arrived at the nation’s oldest public school the PI has wondered many times if it wouldn’t have been better to have given Vince at least one year of the AWC experience. Since many RHS students have done quite well at BLS, the question is not whether or not Vince would have been “better prepared” for BLS. Attending at least sixth grade in the AWC system might have given the whole family a better idea of what the BLS experience might be like for Vince.

He did fine, academically, at RHS with very limited self-organization or serious attention to his school work. This allowed his possibly clueless father to believe that being in the BLS environment might well lead Vince to “rise to the occasion” and meet the rigorous and often bizarre requirements of life at the nation’s oldest public school. Vince has definitely risen to some occasions at BLS, but most of those occasions have not been academic in nature. Perhaps the best argument for AWC, at least in Vince’s case, is that it can give parents and students a more concrete idea of what is coming, should they opt to go the exam school route.

But the decision that must be made for tomorrow is not about what Vince did three years ago, it is about what Connie will do next year. She has missed the Hernández terribly all year, not only her friends, but also the bilingual immersion curriculum, which has given her the gift of bilingualism. The tragic occurrences of November have only intensified her nostalgia. Being the “new kid” at the Hennigan who continues to be different in many ways has been very difficult for her socially, as all of her classmates knew each other from last year. At the same time, being in a class of fifteen (unusually small for AWC) with a great teacher has been a positive experience for her…one that the PI would wish for all BPS fifth graders.

Connie complained all during fourth grade that she couldn’t stand doing “the same homework” assignment every single night. This year, she has never complained seriously about the amount of homework (which is much greater), but she has sometimes struggled with doing work that pushes her beyond what she has done in class. This has been the cause of more than a couple of meltdowns, but, in her better moments, she really likes the feeling of having met that challenge.

The Hennigan does quite a good job at integrating the AWC program with the rest of the school. The fact that the demographics of the class are not that different from the rest of the school probably helps with this complex challenge. Connie has been part of the “Junior Coach” program sponsored by Playworks at the Hennigan and many other Boston schools. The program puts a number of students in the role of helping the young woman (“Coach”) who is at the Hennigan to help staff organize student recreational time in more creative ways that emphasize conflict resolution and cooperation over violence and competition. Most of the Junior Coaches are not part of the AWC classes and the program puts offers Connie an interesting entry point into the larger school community. She would love to participate in some of the other extra-curricular activities at the school, but her already over-scheduled life doesn’t allow that.

And so, while Connie has sometimes waxed euphoric about returning to the Hernández for sixth grade, she will continue in AWC even though it means changing schools again (the Hennigan is a K-5 school). The PI’s travel schedule has not allowed the PI to visit the options (Curley, Ohrenberger, Timilty, King, etc.) this year, but he and Connie will spend a little time at the Washington Irving Middle School this very morning.

The Irving was a clear front-runner for Connie’s Grade 6 year until some of the kids at the Hennigan began to tell her that the Irving is a “gang school.” Since Connie sees these as saavy girls who live in the neighborhood and know kids at the Irving, she gives these comments credence, as she probably should. With this in mind, she and the PI will get a look for themselves. Then, at about 9AM tomorrow, Connie will walk into the Hennigan holding a paper that says where she hopes to spend sixth grade. The PI only hopes that the system doesn’t proceed to lose that paper as it did last year. Hope springs eternal…


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