Gas station without pumps

2011 August 21

School decisions

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:54
Tags: , , , , ,

I have recently been stressing about my son’s education (as I do far too often).

The most recent stress came from the unexpected opening of a slot in 10th grade at Pacific Collegiate School (PCS), a local charter school with an AP-intensive curriculum that is very difficult to get into.  We’ve been in the lottery for 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th grade openings, and the best we ever got was 20th on the waiting list for 0 slots (which was for 10th grade).  So we had dismissed PCS from our educational thinking.  But Friday morning we got a call from the school that they had a slot for him—did we want it?  School has already started there, so they want a very quick decision so that he would either start school Tuesday morning (a week after the rest of the students) or they would continue going down the waiting list.

I’ve never been good at quick decisions (and I think my son shares some of this difficulty), so we spent a big chunk of Friday talking with various people about the tradeoff between PCS and the public school he would otherwise be attending (SCHS).  We are still considering homeschooling and a couple of private schools as backup options, should the public schooling not work for him this year.

Here are some comparisons between PCS and SCHS:

Both schools have good drama teachers, but the class size is smaller at PCS, they have multiple levels of drama class, and they have a reputation for first-rate work, while SCHS has one huge class that includes both dedicated actors and slackers. Both have productions outside drama class, with about the same number of students involved.  He’s had the teacher at SCHS for drama already and likes her, but would probably learn more from a new (to him) teacher at PCS. Slight plus for PCS.
Both schools alternate years of AP chem and AP Physics, but they are not in sync.  PCS offers AP Chem this year, and SCHS offers AP Physics.  He is more prepared for physics than chem, since he already has a fairly Newtonian (rather than Aristotelian) view of physical phenomena and has read several popular books on physics. Slight plus for SCHS.
The SCHS Spanish program is a bit slow, and Spanish 3 there (which he took last year) was just a repeat of Spanish 2 from his previous school (same text even).  We don’t (yet) know what level Spanish he would take at PCS (Spanish 3 or AP Spanish). Probably slight plus for PCS, but not clear until several weeks into the year.
Both schools offer AP Calculus BC, but he is pretty intent on taking Calculus as an online class from the Art of Problem Solving (we’ve even paid for it already).  Neither school gives credit for that, unless AoPS gets accredited.  Both also offer AP Statistics, neither has anything past calculus, and both give credit for classes at the community college or university.  A tie.
Computer Science:
SCHS offers none, PCS has one AP CS course. This is a clear plus for PCS.
10th grade history at PCS is AP World History, which is more intense than the more generic high-school world civilization course at SCHS. The extra reading and higher-level discussion would be a plus, extra writing (which is difficult for him) would be a minus. Probably a wash, but it depends on how much of the higher AP workload is reading (easy) vs. writing (hard).
This is the sticking point, since he seems unable to write the literary analysis essay that is essentially the only thing that English teachers have them write, in both schools.  (I’ve complained about that before in Death to High School English.) We need to find out how flexible the individual teachers are to allowing different forms of writing and different modes for showing reading comprehension.  Either school would be a disaster with an inflexible English teacher or one who had the wrong idea about how to solve his writing problem. This is the most important question for us, but it is almost impossible to know ahead of time which school will be better—even after talking directly with the teachers about the issue.  If this fails (at either school), we’ll probably have to switch to homeschooling or try Monterey Coast Preparatory School, which has this sort of flexibility clearly in their mission statement.
 SCHS has block schedule with 3 (or 4) 90-minute classes every day 5 days a week.  All courses last a semester, so the fall and spring schedules are completely different courses. This works well for him.  PCS has 6 courses that last all year, with block days (for labs) every other week—a more complicated schedule and one that makes balancing different homework load difficult.  If he gets lucky with his schedule, he can start later in the day at SCHS. Slight plus for SCHS.
He has acquaintances at both schools and is well tolerated by his classmates at either one. He has no close friends and no enemies at either.  PCS is smaller, so he’ll end up knowing (and being known by) a greater fraction of the student body.  PCS (as an AP-intensive school) has a much larger percentage of academically talented and hard working students than SCHS, but in absolute numbers the difference is not enormous.  Overall, probably a slight plus for PCS.
At PCS, he could end up with anywhere from 1 to 4 AP classes, and they have a reputation for piling on the homework.  He has a science fair project he wants to do, he wants to take (and is already registered for) the AoPS Calculus class, and he wants to continue with robotics club (currently affiliated with SCHS, but we’d already considered opening it up to the other high schools even before we got the PCS offer, so that makes no real difference).  It isn’t clear that he’d have time for everything if he ends up with the stereotypical PCS workload, though only the AP World History and English 10 look like they would take significant effort. Plus for SCHS.
Academic level:
he has trouble handling boring classes, so the higher academic level of the PCS classes may cause less trouble than a lower workload at SCHS. PCS has a pretty high concentration of gifted kids but not many highly gifted—as a lottery-entry school they have no way of selecting students other than self-selection of applicants.  It does have a very AP-intensive curriculum.  Students graduate with an average of about 5 AP passes: with a graduating class of 55 students, last year they had 420 AP classes taken, 337 AP exams taken, and 300 AP exams passed with 3 or better—obviously students are taking AP classes and exams starting with 10th grade, not taking 8 AP classes their last year, as PCS students only take 6 classes a year.)  At PCS, SAT scores are good, but not spectacular (averaging 630 in reading, 610 in math, 626 in writing—about 86th percentile).In contrast, SCHS averaged 550/562/543 on the SAT (about 67th percentile) and had 116 AP exams taken and 93 passed for a graduating class of 270, or about 1/3 of an AP class per student.  Also, SCHS only has about 56% of its graduates “4-year college eligible”, while PCS has 100%, so there are some pretty big differences in the academic climate of the 2 schools.Plus for PCS.

The schedule he’d have at PCS would be

AP Computer Science
AP Chem (or regular chem)
Drama 3 (or Drama 2)
AP World History
English 10
Spanish 3 (or AP Spanish)

On Monday he has assessments for Spanish and Drama (and maybe for chem as well—no reply yet from the teacher on that).  We’ve also got an appointment to talk with the 10th grade English teacher before school, to see how much flexibility there is in the writing assignments, as that is likely to be the make-or-break factor this year.  The workload on the English teacher at PCS is not much lighter than at SCHS (I’m guessing 80 students total vs 100 students), so it is not clear that the teacher has more time for differentiating instruction—it’ll come down more to a question of pedagogic philosophy and teacher flexibility, which are very much individual rather than school-wide characteristics.

It is interesting that the UC course approval list has not been updated since 1970, long before on-line courses existed as a possibility. Computer-savvy folk will recognize the date as the UNIX epoch (a zero in the date field in the database).

One amusing thing that came up in the course of our discussions. The assistant principal suggested we look at Aventa Learning for accredited on-line courses, as several students had used them to fill gaps in their requirements. We looked at the University of California “approved course list” for Aventa and saw no approved courses, and that the “last updated” information was ridiculous.


  1. Good luck on the decision!

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2011 August 21 @ 15:02 | Reply

  2. Scale 1-10 SCHS PCS
    Anything you feel is important
    Total SCHS= Total PCS=
    Ok what we are looking at is a badly formatted excel sheet.
    Down the left side we put anything you want to take into consideration
    Then you assign a weight (1-10), 10 would be it is very important.
    Next you go through and assign 1-10 for each of the schools.
    So drama get a 9 wt, PCS program is maybe an 8 score, the SCHS program is a 6 score etc…

    when you are done multiply the weight X score for each school and sum each school

    I’ve used it for choosing ROV designs from multiple student designs. Students set the Wt and the class discusses the score. In the end you have scores to help advise on a complicated problem.

    Things we have used to make a ROV decision include: $, maintainability, maneuverability, speed/ease of construction, and coolness.

    Jeremy Hertzberg, BS CMPE

    Comment by hraefn1066 — 2011 August 21 @ 17:03 | Reply

  3. As a parent who obsesses about school decisions, I can, unfortunately, relate to the painful process & decision you are facing. However, when given a long time to decide, we simply choose to obsess more deeply!

    There are probably many other levels on which you might analyze this decision (e.g. what defines success at a school, what will make him happiest, where is he most likely to blossom on a philosophical/personal level, etc.), I don’t have any insight to suggest how these might impact your decision, but perhaps you do.

    When we were recently faced with a difficult school decision, one of the biggest factors I looked at was the “gestalt” factor — when you wander on to campus and talk to kids in the 12th grade and engage them in a conversation about school, life, etc., do they seem complete in the ways you would hope for for your child?

    Best of luck to you in your decision!

    Comment by Ron G. — 2011 August 21 @ 21:05 | Reply

    • Well, it’s been an intense weekend and Monday will be intense also, with 4 meetings with teachers (1 for both of us, the other 3 on his own).

      One of the teachers he needs to talk to we haven’t heard anything back from, since she says on her web page that she only reads her e-mail once a week, and she did not return our phone call—he’s just going to show up at her classroom at the beginning of her prep period and hope she’s listened to her voicemail or read her e-mail by then.

      By the end of the day we will have a decision whether PCS or SCHS will be how he starts the school year, though we’ve already started discussing contingency plans for fallback positions in case neither works well.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 August 21 @ 22:38 | Reply

  4. I’d be interested in what role your son is playing in the discussion. Is he contributing in a sensible way that helps the process? I have a tween, and at this stage, her knee jerk reactions are to oppose change, worry about leaving her friends and her teachers. On the other hand, she really does know what she wants from education and what her enthusiasms and constraints are, so I’m trying to figure out ways of getting past the immediate emotional reactions to a more thoughtful discussion.

    Good luck w/ your decision making. It is hard (and much harder than I thought it would be before I had children).

    Comment by zb — 2011 August 22 @ 08:30 | Reply

    • He has been participating in a very mature and thoughtful way. He is aware both of his strengths and his weaknesses, and has been trying to figure out whether the advantages of PCS outweigh the disadvantages. He may have a bit of an emotional reaction to suddenly being offered a difficult-to-obtain slot, but he seems to be working hard at coming to a rational decision about what would be best for him.

      I wish some of my college advisees were as mature and realistic about their educational choices.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 August 22 @ 09:05 | Reply

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