High Tech High International’s common room resembles a downtown loft. Vaulted ceilings and oversized windows let in shimmering pools of light. On the second floor, a glass-walled classroom peeks out from behind a suspended walkway.
2855 Farragut Road, San Diego
I try my best not to be seduced by the school’s modern design. It helps that I am shoved and elbowed by over-eager parents as we all attempt to fill out attendance sheets. We are documenting our appearance at this mandatory orientation meeting.
Hung on the wall to my right is an oversized rainbow flag featuring student photos and handwritten anti-bullying messages. My 14-year-old son, Andrew, reads them out loud to his younger brother, Jacob, as if he’s presenting a public service announcement to a live studio audience.
“Remember,” Andrew says, “always be yourself!” He pets Jacob on the head and continues in a sing-song voice. “Everyone is unique!” Jacob cracks up.
I shoot them a dirty look.
We are lucky to secure three seats near the stage — the room is so full that many prospective students and their parents stand in the back. When occupants begin to spill out the door, they’re encouraged to head upstairs to watch the presentation from the bridge overlooking the room.
I take a sip from my coffee tumbler, inwardly cursing High Tech’s administration for scheduling an orientation meeting at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. I shouldn’t be here in the first place. Andrew should be enrolled at Grossmont High School, which is near our home, not at a school all the way out in Point Loma.
Three years ago, while house-hunting, one of our stipulations was that the neighborhood had to have a good school district. That was why we bought in La Mesa. But last year the district rezoned, and our neighborhood high school is now Spring Valley’s Mount Miguel. It sounds pleasant, the name evoking postcard images, but in reality, the school sits across the road from the busy 125 freeway. Mount Miguel ranked two out of a possible ten on their 2011 California Academic Performance Index score, and 53 percent of their students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Upon graduation, only 22 percent have completed the required courses for admittance to a California state college or university. In contrast, High Tech High ranks seven out of ten on the California Academic Index, with a score of 796.
At Greatschools.com, which is like Yelp for schools, there are 45 reviews for High Tech’s three Point Loma–based schools. The majority of the comments are negative. A review of High Tech Media Arts calls the school “smoke and mirrors,” while another parent says, “I was shocked to find out my daughter had to take remedial math, science, and English classes her first year at CSU after graduating with above a 3.5 GPA from High Tech Media Arts. When I contacted her counselor at CSU, I was told that “one percent of incoming students from [the school] demonstrated ‘college readiness.’”
Back at High Tech International, a curly-haired man on stage presses play on a remote control. We sit through a video featuring well-groomed, enthusiastic children operating expensive-looking robots in hands-on experiments to problem-solve. The video highlights High Tech’s teaching method: project-based learning rather than textbooks. My 12-year-old, Jacob, is enthralled, Andrew…not so much.
The film is followed by a Q&A. Most parents want to know how they can get their kid into the school.
“We have thousands of applicants,” the man on stage says into his microphone, “We have a little over 100 seats to fill for the upcoming freshman class.”
The room erupts in a communal sigh.
My 14-year-old yawns and stretches in his seat. “How long is this thing?” he wants to know. I shrug.
“This place is awesome,” Jacob whispers. “Can I go here, too?”
“It’s cool — I guess,” Andrew says. “If you’re into math and science.”
A man with a crew cut sitting a row ahead of us raises his hand. “I understand that the lottery is based on ethnicity,” he says in a dissatisfied tone. “So, basically, my kid’s chances of getting in are nonexistent.”
His blond-haired daughter slinks down in her seat.
There is a moment of awkward silence.
“I’m not sure where you heard that, sir,” says the man with the mic. “Our lottery is based on zip code. So, the fewer students enrolled from your zip code, the better your chances.”
A woman in the back chimes in, “Why does the school application ask if prospective students are eligible to receive free lunches?”
“Students who participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program receive a statistical advantage in the admissions lottery.” The man has answered this question quickly, hoping to move on to other questions.
A number of parents want to know how their gifted child’s talents will be fostered.
“It’s my understanding that [advanced placement] courses aren’t offered at High Tech,” says a bespectacled father in a Hawaiian shirt. “What if my kid is too advanced for freshman algebra? What then?”
A woman standing at the back of the room says, “My child is often bored at school from a lack of academic stimulation. Will High Tech challenge her?”
I can’t help but roll my eyes — we are apparently surrounded by geniuses.
After the Q&A, parents are encouraged to tour both the middle school and high school. Everything looks expensive. I remind myself not to be blinded by the bling.
On the car ride home I ask Andrew, “Do you like it there?”
He shrugs. “There’s no way I’ll get in. Did you see how many kids were there?”
He has a point.
On March 30, High Tech sends an email informing me that the lottery results are in. I click on the link. Andrew has been placed on the waitlist, along with 2380 other applicants.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” my husband says.
Now I start to panic.
When I was 14, my parents enrolled me at a private school named Nazareth Academy, Catholic College Preparatory High School. The news came as a surprise to me. I was supposed to attend the local public school with the rest of my friends.
I did everything I could to change their minds. I sulked in my bedroom, listening to Screeching Weasel’s “I was a High School Psychopath” on repeat for days. I made it a point to bomb my final semester of eighth grade in the hopes that I would be deemed academically challenged. During family meals, I launched into earnest speeches on the merits of public school and the elitism of private education. Nothing worked. It was hopeless. My parents remained firm in their decision.
I placed the blame on my older sister’s shoulders. Michelle was a chronic overachiever — she even walked at eight months. She’s the one who, at age 12, planted the Nazareth seed in our parents’ minds. Mom later described their decision to send Michelle to the school as a way to ensure that she was a “big fish in a small sea.”
“Attending a school like Nazareth is important for my future,” Michelle whined in eighth grade. “Their small student body will give me an academic advantage.” She was already picturing what her college applications would look like — a cumulative 4.5 grade point average paired with extracurricular activities and a lengthy list of volunteer work. Her ultimate goal was simple: to be a filthy-rich adult. In her version of a bright future, she saw an Ivy League school, a high-paying career, a BMW, and children who wore sweater vests.
Dad loved the idea. He was a Catholic married to an atheist, and he jumped at the opportunity to undo Mom’s “hippie proselytizing.” Dad even took side jobs to cover the cost of Michelle’s tuition.
Meanwhile, I thought Michelle was a complete idiot. Thankful I didn’t inherit the gene that gave her that insatiable drive toward perfection, I was looking forward to attending the same high school my older brother had graduated from, a place free from dress codes and nuns, where students in pottery classes subtly shaped clay into bongs.
Instead, I ended up at Nazareth alongside Michelle.
On my first day of high school, students were allowed to be out of uniform. In place of the itchy plaid skirt, crisp white button-down blouse, and navy-blue V-necked sweater, I wore jet-black thigh-high tights, a short circle skirt, and a crocheted blouse paired with combat boots. I was going for an Angela Chase meets Liz Phair look, edgy with a hint of grunge.
While I was searching for my algebra class, a sweaty junior with a skinny peach-fuzz mustache took one look at me and snickered to his friends. He pointed in my direction and said, “Go home and listen to some Smashing Pumpkins, loser. We don’t do freaks at this school.”
I hated Smashing Pumpkins, but not as much as I hated Nazareth Academy.
Where Everyone Grew Up to Be Well-Adjusted Adults
When our son Andrew started kindergarten, he barely spoke, the result of numerous ear infections he had as a baby that had left him with hearing loss. My husband and I thought about holding him back an extra year, but his speech therapist assured us he was ready to start school. He attended Flying Hills, in the Fletcher Hills community of El Cajon. We loved the school, and he did great there for his two years.
When he was in second grade, we moved to Tierrasanta, and Andrew attended a new school in the San Diego Unified School District. I volunteered in his classroom, and I was alarmed at the way the children were treated like cattle. The teacher spent most of the day barking at her students in frustration. It wasn’t the right environment for my child. He was getting lost in the shuffle. I wanted more for Andrew.
My husband and I decided to look into other schools.
I found a charter school across the street from Balboa Park that seemed promising. It was artsy and had good academics. The day I visited, a handful of picketers stood outside with posters of aborted fetuses.
“There’s an abortion clinic nearby,” the school’s director explained. “We find it best not to engage them.”
After visiting a dozen more schools with no luck, we considered a small private school in Clairemont called Reformation Lutheran.
The school secretary had a thick Midwestern accent. She gave us a tour; the last stop was the second-grade classroom. The teacher, petite with a bob haircut, sat on a round rug, hands in her lap, crisscross applesauce, her students at her feet. She held the classroom pet, a mesmerizing African millipede, in her hands. The seven kids in her combined first- and second-grade room, watched as the arthropod’s legs slithered across the teacher’s palm.
She smiled up at us and introduced the students to Andrew. When the class broke for recess, a messy-haired kid sporting a mouthful of missing teeth invited Andrew to play on the playground. Within minutes he was clambering up the jungle gym and laughing with the other kids. It seemed unreal, as if we were on the set of a family movie, where everyone grew up to be a well-adjusted adult.
We enrolled him on the spot.
Six years later, Andrew is now graduating from that school. He is one of four in his graduating class. Two of his classmates will attend California Lutheran High School, a boarding school in Wildomar. The annual tuition, including board, comes to $10,350. Another kid is going to Foothills, a Christian school in El Cajon. He’ll attend class three days a week at a price tag of $5170 a year.
We can’t afford to send Andrew to a private high school. Besides, we still like the idea of public education. But we have concerns.
I worry that we’ve kept Andrew in a bubble too long and wonder if a large high school will be a shock to his system. I’m anxious about sending him to a place where he doesn’t know anyone.
My husband tells me I worry too much. “He’ll be fine,” he insists. “I went to public school, and I turned out okay.”
“Do you think he’ll get a date to homecoming?” I ask.
Aaron sighs. “Does it really matter?”
The afternoon of my sister’s first homecoming dance, a group of girls piled into her bedroom wearing sweatpants and T-shirts, their hair pulled back into tight ponytails. The girls carried garment bags, high heels, and hefty make-up cases. Forty-five minutes later, Michelle and her friends emerged in taffeta, lace, and sequined dresses, completely transformed. Their hair was done up in perfect chignons and french twists. Downstairs, a group of boys waited in our living room, corsages in hand.
I couldn’t wait for my first school dance. But I hadn’t anticipated my utter lack of social life at Nazareth.
During my freshman year, the guy who sat next to me in Spanish — he had a perpetual cold sore and a bowl haircut — cornered me in the hallway after class. He nervously stuffed a note in my hand. The note was folded into the shape of a triangle. He watched as I opened it. In red ink, as if that made the sentiment more romantic, he’d scrawled, “Will you be my homecoming date?”
He awaited my response, nervously fidgeting with books in his arms. The look on his face was a combination of anticipation and embarrassment. I felt so sorry for him, I nearly said yes. But he just wasn’t what I had in mind.
“I have a boyfriend,” I blurted. “He’s taking me.”
“Oh,” he said. He shrugged his petite, girlish shoulders.
I felt guilty. At the same time, I was alarmed that a boy like him viewed me as a potential date. Maybe I was a bigger loser than I thought I was.
For homecoming, I produced a fake boyfriend, a neighbor kid I’d known since kindergarten. I convinced myself that, since he went to another school, he was cool and mysterious, rather than familiar and boring.
My date spent most of the night following my friend Becky around. When she complained that it was cold, he chivalrously wrapped his suit jacket around her shoulders. I was annoyed. Later, they exchanged a kiss. Despite having zero interest in him, I was furious, but my anger was misdirected. Who I was really ticked off at was my sister. She made homecoming court that night. When, under consideration for homecoming queen, she glided across the stage in her floor-length gown, her friends cheered her on. I watched from the other side of the gym, feeling like a prop in her perfect high school experience.
Two years later, after Michelle graduated, my parents buckled and moved me to a public high school. Thanks to the advanced curriculum at Nazareth, by the time I was 16, I’d completed nearly all the courses I needed to graduate. I padded my schedule with art and literature classes. Although I never admitted it, I was thankful for those two years at Nazareth.
I hope Andrew gives us less trouble about the high school we send him to.
Their Mascot Is a Scottie Dog
In late February, I attempt to enroll Andrew at Grossmont High School. I call the district’s open-enrollment line. A woman with a squeaky voice answers the phone. After adding my son’s name to the list, she inquires what my second choice is. “In case he doesn’t get in,” she explains.
I am flustered. I hadn’t thought about a second choice.
“Patrick Henry?” I say.
There is a pause on her side of the line, a hint of irritation in her tone as she informs me, “Ma’am, that’s not in our district.”
She rattles off a list. The only school I recognize is West Hills in Santee. I have no idea if it’s a good school, but I don’t want to hang up without giving her an answer. I worry that if I call back later, Andrew will be placed further down on the list.
I pick West Hills.
“Okay,” the woman says and hangs up.
Later, I learn that we are within Helix Charter High School’s boundaries. In 2010, the school nearly lost their charter after a series of teacher-student sex scandals. Aaron nicknames it Molester High.
We attend the orientation for Helix, held in a local middle-school cafeteria. Prospective parents and students view a PowerPoint presentation.
“Our students take a full year of math their freshman year,” the principal brags into a microphone. “Upon graduation, our students meet the requirements to get into a state college.”
I raise an eyebrow and shoot my husband an “I would hope so” look.
Next, a list of expectations for students appears on the screen. At the top of the list it says: “No bad attitudes, drinking, or drugs at school.”
“Does that mean I can get drunk before school?” Andrew says, smirking.
On the car ride home, I ask him what he thought of the school. He’s silent for a long time before saying disdainfully, “Their school mascot is a Scottie dog.”
That night, before bed, Aaron turns to me and says, “I wasn’t impressed. I don’t want Andrew to go there. I don’t think it’s a very good school.”
In reality, Helix is a good school. Their test scores are above average. Their Accountability Report Card for the 2011/2012 school year shows a statewide Academic Performance Index rank of seven out of ten, with score of 805. Their graduation rate is 90.10 percent. Helix test scores are even more impressive when you consider that 48 percent of the students are at a socioeconomic disadvantage.
On March 19, I call Grossmont High School’s transfer line to see if Andrew got in.
“Thank for your interest in Grossmont High School,” a recorded message tells me. “We will be sending out acceptance letters during the end of March.”
Two days later a letter arrives. The Grossmont seal is in the upper right corner. I skim the letter, landing on the sentence: “We are pleased to announce that your child has been accepted.”
“He got into Grossmont,” I shout up to my husband, who is reading a book in our bedroom.
I read on: “Call West Hills High School by April 8th to confirm your child’s enrollment.”
“Wait, false alarm,” I shout up. “He got into West Hills.”
“Where’s that?” Aaron shouts back.
I ignore him.
I wait a week to see if a letter from Grossmont comes. It never does. On April 4, I call the school to check on Andrew’s status. I am transferred three times before being told that they had an influx of applicants during open enrollment. It went to a lottery, and Andrew’s was not one of the names pulled.
I am disappointed but relieved to learn that West Hills has higher test scores and a better graduation rate than Grossmont.
100 Percent of Our Graduates Go to College
The kids who live around the block from us attend a charter school in Lakeside called River Valley. They are polite and intelligent kids. At River Valley, students attend school twice a week. They spend the other three days at home doing independent study.
I visit the River Valley website and learn that they’ve held the highest Academic Performance Index test scores in San Diego County for eight years in a row. River Valley is one of eight San Diego area high schools to receive the “distinguished school” title in 2012. I send Aaron a link to their website.
That night, when he gets home from work, he is optimistic. “It looks like a great school,” he says. “It might be the right fit.”
A few days later, I mention our high school search to my good friend Stasia. When I bring up River Valley’s partial home-schooling program, there is a long pause.
“Do you really want a moody teenager around the house three days a week?” she asks. “Besides, if you keep sheltering Andrew, he’s going to go crazy in college. He won’t be able to handle all the freedom.”
I tell her she’s overreacting but also wonder if she’s right. Are we sheltering him too much?
A week later, my husband and I drive to River Valley on a Friday morning to check it out. At first glance, I am unimpressed.
A basketball court with rusty hoops sits behind a dirt parking lot. Trailers serve as classrooms.
The school secretary gives us a tour of the small campus and presents us with the River Valley handbook. We meet the school counselor. Her office is covered in flags from the various colleges where previous students have gone.
“Last year, 100 percent of our graduates went to college,” she says.
We are told that the freshman class consists of no more than 65 students and that the parents are very involved. Many students come from a homeschooling background.
River Valley’s Academic Performance Index rating is a ten, the highest score a school can achieve. Their 2012 test scores were 936. Their graduation rate is 92.86 percent.
For the first time since our initial high school search, I feel a sense of ease settle over me, similar to the one I felt the day we found Andrew’s elementary school. I fill out the enrollment paperwork, just in case we decide to send Andrew here.
Afterward, when we walk to our car, my husband buzzes with excitement. “I wish my parents had sent me to a high school like that.”
That night, he reads through the River Valley school handbook. Every ten minutes, he rattles off a new fact. He’s completely sold.
“Let’s keep our options open,” I suggest.
“Fine, it’s River Valley or the site of the school shooting in Santee,” Aaron says.
“The shooting was at Santana, not West Hills,” I say.
I pull up West Hills’ school accountability report card and share it with Aaron.
“Their Academic Performance Index score is 812, their statewide rank is eight out of ten, and their graduation rate is 89 percent. West Hills is a solid school.”
Toward the bottom of the page I find an alarming statistic: only 45 percent of West Hills graduates complete all the courses required for University of California or California State University admission.
“At River Valley that number is 100 percent,” Aaron says.
I hate it when he’s right.
The day before the West Hills enrollment deadline, I have Andrew read the River Valley and West Hills student handbooks. He looks over the course options offered by each.
“At West Hills, they have detection canines that show up on campus randomly to check for weapons and drugs.” Andrew seems shocked. “Also, if you’re found outside of school bounds during the day, they’ll search you.”
“What’s ‘freaking’?” he asks. “It says that no freaking is allowed during West Hills’ dances.”
He says with disappointment, “River Valley only has baseball, track, soccer, and cross country.”
When he’s finished reading through the handbooks, Aaron, Andrew, and I gather in the living room for a meeting. I’m holding a clipboard. On a piece of paper, I write “West Hills” on one side and “River Valley” on the other.
“Come up with a couple of pros and cons for each school,” Aaron says to Andrew.
Andrew hesitates. “Okay,” he says. “West Hills has more kids.”
“Is that a pro or con?” Aaron wants to know.
“A pro,” Andrew says.
“Really? Because I’d call that a con,” Aaron says. He launches into a lengthy explanation of his thoughts. When he is through, he looks at me. “Add ‘more kids at West Hills’ to the con side.”
I laugh, and Andrew rolls his eyes.
“Now,” Aaron prods, “find a pro for West Hills.”
“They have a water-polo team,” Andrew says. “River Valley doesn’t.”
I add it to the pro column.
“That’s a pro,” Aaron agrees. “However, my coworker has two kids who played water polo in college, and they were recruited from club teams, not their high school team. If you end up at River Valley, we’ll put you in a water-polo-club team. That’s where all the good players are anyway.”
“Okay.” Andrew sighs. “How about, there are more classes to pick from at West Hills?”
“Well,” Aaron says, “if you go to River Valley, you can take community college courses your junior year. And tuition for that is free. You could graduate high school and just about have an associate’s degree by the time you’re 18. That’s another pro for River Valley.”
Andrew seems bored.
I put my pencil down. “This is pointless,” I say. “Let’s put it to a vote.”
“That seems risky,” Aaron says.
“Do you want to go to West Hills?” I ask Andrew.
“Kind of,” he mumbles.
“What about River Valley?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“I think River Valley is a better fit for you,” Aaron says. “A smaller setting. But if you feel strongly about West Hills, we’ll allow you to go there, as long as you keep your grades up and make wise choices.”
“And if you do choose River Valley,” I say, “and you end up miserable there, we can try to get you into Grossmont for your sophomore year.”
Now Andrew says, “I don’t know why you guys are making such a big deal about this. I’m fine with going to River Valley. I kind of want to go there.”
Aaron and I are surprised. “Really?”
“Yeah, it seems like a cool school,” Andrew says.
“So it’s decided?” I ask.
“I guess so,” Andrew says. “Can I go to my room now?”
Aaron and I suppress our laughter until Andrew is out of earshot.
“You really overreacted about this whole high school thing,” Aaron says. “Talk about projecting!”
“Me! What about you? You completely monopolized the pro and con list. And, if I recall correctly, your exact words were ‘I wish my parents had sent me to a school like River Valley.’”
Aaron is silent for a minute.
“It doesn’t matter where he goes to high school,” he says. “He’s a good kid. He’s going to be fine.”
I hope he’s right.