The Middle School Freak Out

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4min 34sec

Its crunch time for parents of fifth graders. They’re already knee-deep in choosing a middle school for next year. In Denver, there’s so much choice, it’s creating anxiety in parents--so much so that the condition has its own name. Here's the transcript for the first of two stories on this topic by CPR’s education reporter Jenny Brundin.

Reporter Jenny Brundin: I first heard the term “Middle School Freak Out” from a parent, Nick Bottinelli.

Nick Bottinelli: There are a lot of neighborhood families that when they hit middle school, they hit what is known as the middle school freak out. They panic that if they don’t send their child to the best middle school, that their child will end up in prison.

Reporter: Why so much angst over a child entering sixth grade? Parents have different theories.

Aimee Fink: I think parents freak out about their kids going to middle school because for most of us, middle school was really awful.

Reporter: Aimee Fink hated middle school. First, she says, kids are uncomfortable about all the changes happening in their bodies.

Fink: Oh my God. Well first of all, my parents are both teachers and my dad used to call it the “its syndrome” – tits, pits and zits and that’s all middle school was about.

Reporter: Second, Fink says, the change of environment can be a shock for kids.

Fink: You know they left their elementary school which was very comfortable. They had very nurturing, maternal teachers, most likely, and they go to this place that is just a free for all, you know with hormones and anxiety and you have your own locker, yet you’re responsible for going to different classrooms and it’s scary.

Reporter: School officials had the idea this year to maybe help with the “freak out” by having all the choices in one room. It was the first Denver Expo to show off the district’s middle schools, and high schools, too. It was pretty chaotic. Thousands of parents and their fifth graders scouted dozens of schools, while at the same time, principals and teachers handed out schwag -- pencils and water bottles, even candy -- anything to sell their schools.

Teacher: Not many middle schools have a pool. We have a pool!

Second Teacher: Um, we just have so much technology. There’s a music studio, there’s talk animation.

Reporter: For years, middle class families were fleeing Denver’s middle schools for suburban or private schools. That’s all changing because Denver has a lot more choice now. But choice is stressful. And this is your kid’s life. Here's parent Meridythe Emmanuel.

Meridythe Emmanuel: When you have so many choices you start to feel almost like it’s your responsibility to have information and I think that’s the freak out is having the time to go and look through all the information on every school to make sure they’re getting the best they can get is hard. It’s a lot of responsibility.

Reporter: So she’s fobbing it off on her son. A lot of parents I speak to, in fact, say they’re leaving the ultimate decision to their kids. Fifth grader Paulina Coster has drawn up her own list of questions. Timidly, she approaches a table.

Paulina: Like, cuz, um, I’m wondering how much homework, how much homework do you give every night?

Reporter: It’s hard to hear the answer. The place is packed. Bouncers are making parents wait outside until others leave to meet fire regulations.
They’re at least 15 people deep. In fact, this is more densely populated than seeing the Rolling Stones back in the 80s.
Students have also been recruited to answer questions, and tout their school’s virtues. We stop by the Girl’s Athletic Leadership School, a charter school for girls. Here’s 12-year-old Betty Bowden.

Betty: I think that it really helps. I can really focus better.

Reporter: Betty’s cool with the all-girls focus at this age.

Betty: I notice that I’m not like, 'Oh wow, he’s really cute.' I can actually focus on math, I can say this problem goes here and that goes there and it’s not la-la land. It’s more so, O,. I’m here, I’m ready to work.

Reporter: While parents at the Expo did have that deer in the headlights look -– overwhelmed and stressed –- Craig Williams kind of stood out. He left Baltimore to come to Colorado without a job yet, to find a good school for his 13-year-old son Marquise. He says things were bad in Baltimore schools.

Williams: Like I’ve seen exposed wiring, really dirty conditions, a lot of violence.

Reporter: He wants to find Marquise a small school where it’s more personal. Marquise, tall, skinny, and shy, agrees.

Marquise: So I can, like, focus more on my work, without, like a lot of distractions.

Reporter: So while the parents around them are freaking out, Craig and Marquise Williams seem calm, content with too many choices, rather than none at all.

[Photo: Denver Public Schools]

Denver Public Schools