April 21, 2024
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After Eighth Grade Comes Ninth Grade

Our Modern Orthodox community employs a high school admission process that is concerning.

Except for some exceptions, all Modern Orthodox eighth graders must prove that they are worthy of admission to high school. This scrutiny goes well beyond ensuring that students are high school qualified. That determination was ostensibly rendered by virtue of the student successfully completing elementary school.

Our high schools, however, engage in a college-like competitive admission process, cherry-picking students they deem most fit for their institution and rejecting the rest. And the toll they place on these students and their families is significant. That should allow for some scrutiny over this process, including questioning why it exists.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with a private school constructing and adhering to self-imposed admission standards. Indeed, thousands of such prep schools exist throughout the country and I’m not about to write a scathing article about their practices.

However, the prep school model is an unabashedly elitist one. Prep schools exist to service families who seek an education that is superior to the public schools otherwise available to them. To that end, it is perfectly logical for prep schools to apply rigorous admission standards.

This is in stark contrast with our Modern Orthodox education model. The Modern Orthodox schools rejecting your child would never have the courage to present public school as an alternative option because it runs completely counter to Modern Orthodox values. And therein lies the hypocrisy built into our education system.

Many will likely respond to this critique by pointing out that there are simply too few spots in our local high schools. That may be. But reflexively pointing to that issue as a logical explanation for the elitist model we created smacks of intellectual laziness.

If we believe that every Orthodox student should attend an Orthodox school, then a shortage of space would not instinctively result in a process that converts our education system to an elitist one. That is to say, the purported shortage of space did not necessitate this conversion; rather, it served as a pretext for schools to justify doing so.

Moreover, many will undoubtedly respond to my critique by noting that, ultimately, every student ends up getting admitted somewhere. (My understanding is that after families have been put through the wringer, some kind of secretive meeting takes place among the higher-ups to clean up the calamity they caused in leaving a contingent of eighth graders high and dry.)

Assuming for the sake of argument that the “damage control” cleanup serves as a defense (it isn’t), then how can it also be true that there is a shortage of space in our schools? Thus, a maze of circular logic has become a defense to our indefensible system.

I do not like to present problems without solutions, so I will try to offer a more optimal system.

First, it is important for our schools and community to be honest about what is really going on. If our schools want to be elitist institutions that exist exclusively for students of a unique caliber, they should say so. Do not gaslight us by calling Orthodox students in public school a tragedy, and then demand voluminous essays from students and parents (parents!) about why we are worthy of attending an Orthodox high school.

Second, and more to the point, our communities must have community schools. That is to say, all of the absurdity currently involved in the high school admission process would be justified if the schools employing elitist tactics could direct you to a non-elitist high school. Currently they can’t because none exist, except for public schools which we’re taught not to attend. Once again, the process simply does not logically follow.

If you are looking for a precedent for such a radical idea, that is, schools that simply admit prospective students without them demonstrating unique aptitude, look no further than our own elementary schools. And if you think it is not possible to apply rigorous standards at the elementary school level, try getting your kid into Horace Mann or Dalton.

In conclusion, the correct answer to “Why should we accept you to our school?” is this: “I was born Jewish, sent to a Jewish school, am currently in the eighth grade, passed all my classes to date, do not have a criminal record, and understand that the law requires me to attend ninth grade.” If we really believe that every Orthodox student should attend an Orthodox school, any additional information is gratuitous.

Michael Gottlieb
Fair Lawn

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