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INSIGHTS • Middle school application process improvements

Lisa Busby, Strategy Advisor

INSIGHTS is an ongoing series of blog posts published by members of the PBS faculty, providing a lens into how the PBS faculty thinks about curriculum development, teaching and learning, professional development, and other topics central to executing the school’s mission every day. In this multi-part series of INSIGHTS articles, PBS faculty will share updates on important school-wide initiatives, including the annual Curriculum Deep Dive and Phillips Brooks Summer Institute projects.

As the other entries in this series of blog posts have shown, we are always rigorously evaluating the success of programs at PBS. The middle school research and application process is no exception. As we prepared, earlier this year, to launch the process for the Class of 2020, we analyzed performance, key indicators, and parental feedback to make adjustments to our expectations and to our strategies for engaging and supporting the families of 5th-graders in a thoughtful, positive process of research and application. Our 5th-grade families are already well aware of these changes, but I wanted to take this opportunity to share these findings and adjustments with the rest of the community, in the spirit of open dialogue. 

Goals and starting principles

  1. The number one goal of the middle school process is to identify a handful of “good fit” schools. PBS guides families to investigate schools where each child has the most realistic possibility both of being accepted and of going on to be happy, inspired, and successful throughout middle school.
  2. The PBS program is designed to prepare students for challenging middle school learning environments; strong admission results bear out the excellence of our program and the high desirability of PBS students among schools throughout the region.
  3. Every child is unique and accesses cognitive and social learning differently. School programs do not achieve the same results for each child, nor does each child develop in the same way. This is as true for PBS as for any other school environment. It is important that PBS families have reasonable expectations about admission to the most highly selective schools relative to their child's academic and social-emotional learning attributes and experiences.
  4. PBS teachers and administrative leadership are committed to helping each family navigate the middle school application process. PBS truly knows each child as a learner and a community member. Our goal is to maintain each student’s confidence and success by helping their family focus on a handful of schools with learning environments best suited to their unique attributes.
  5. Importantly, our goal is to prepare our students and families for the middle school application process and to provide support throughout that process. Although the final decisions rest with the middle schools, we want our students to have strong options by the end of the process.

Changes to the process, in brief

Former Practice through 2018-2019

New Practice 2019-2020

PBS communicated periodically with all 5th-grade families, using the blog roughly monthly to notify parents of key action items and upcoming deadlines. Info pages were posted on the Portal for perusal by parents at their leisure.

The MS Application Process Blog is now published weekly throughout the school year; its content is carefully curated to keep important topics on families’ minds when most appropriate. Content formerly relegated to click-through pages on the Portal is now pushed out directly to parents by email. Time-sensitive notifications are sent separately, as supplements to the regular cadence of the blog.

PBS offered individual guidance on ISEE prep, number of tests to take, SSAT vs ISEE, and range of acceptable scores.

PBS will publish the various test prep options and a range of scores of students admitted to independent schools in general. Parents will get a read on individual schools’ recommendations regarding other details.

PBS solicits a priority list from parents and shares information with middle schools.

PBS will help families consider their lists. Parents will promote all schools as “top choices” at home and will directly notify their top-choice school, if they have one, of their commitment and will keep PBS informed of their communications.

Recommend investigation of 5-7 schools and application to 3-5 schools.

Require investigation of 6-8 schools and application to 5 or more schools, unless a public-school option is among the top five, in which case the list can shrink to the number of the placement of the public school on the priority list.

Offer practice group interviews in 5th grade

Offer practice group interviews in 4th and 5th grades. In 2019-20, offer two group interviews per child (to include a second opportunity as this group did not experience the 4th-grade interview).

Recommend that families apply to one or more schools outside of Castilleja, Crystal Springs, Menlo, Nueva, Priory, and Sacred Heart.

Require that families apply to one or more schools outside of Castilleja, Crystal Springs, Menlo, Nueva, Priory, and Sacred Heart if the family does not consider their public-school option(s) on par with their independent school options.

Key findings motivating these improvements

Factor #1: Demand continues to increase for independent middle schools.

  • Regional demand for independent middle schools continues to increase each year for reasons beyond PBS's control. Competition for spaces is coming not just from a larger group of independent and parochial elementary school applicants, but also from significant increases in public, charter, and home-schooled applicants across the Peninsula.
  • Independent middle schools are restricted by their capacity limits and unable to absorb all qualified applicants.
  • PBS requires all families to investigate their public school option in the same way as they explore independent school options. We also require that families communicate with us about how their public school factors into their overall middle school application strategy.

Factor #2: Affiliated status remains an advantage for middle school applicants.

  • Affiliated applicants (sibilings and children of faculty members or alumni) who are considered to be highly qualified by the admissions teams are given preference in the application process.
  • Because of the overall tightening of the competitive landscape, schools are unable to admit many unaffiliated applicants who are considered to be highly qualified by their admission teams.
  • While PBS students continue to perform well in the middle school application process overall, there is a measurable difference between affiliated and unaffiliated applicants. Since 2016, between 88% and 100% of affiliated PBS 5th-graders were admitted to one of their top three choices; in the same period, between 70% and 80% of unaffiliated PBS 5th-graders were admitted to one of their top three choices.

Factor #3: PBS families who broaden their searches find many viable options.

  • The past nine (2011–2019) graduating classes have matriculated to more than twenty-five different middle schools. These more recent PBS graduates have been happy, successful community leaders at many excellent schools including independent, religiously affiliated, and public schools.
  • A number of PBS families recognize that their local public middle/high school is an attractive option. As a result, they include it as a strong choice alongside independent and/or religiously affiliated schools.
  • Families who limit their choices to a few schools, or only the most competitive schools, run the risk of having no independent school options in March.
  • PBS requires that all families explore schools outside the most competitive independent schools and that families include preparing applications to schools outside the most competitive independent schools as part of their overall middle school application strategy.
  • PBS middle school enrollment since 2011 is summarized in this table.

Lisa Busby served PBS as Associate Head of School from 2014–2017. In this role, she built upon PBS’s strong school culture through curriculum development, strategic initiative implementation, support of the middle school application process, and supporting preschool through 5th-grade faculty and families. Lisa's current role is focused on strategic planning and guiding 5th grade families through the application process. She serves on the Board of Directors of Challenge Success, a Stanford-based organization. Lisa lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.

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