Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Elementary school admission saga

So, finally, my son's elementary school admission saga is over. I thought I'd write up a little summary of what happened for the benefit of other clueless parents.

Berlin has many bilingual schools, covering a tremendous range of language pairs (German-X, X some language). These are state-funded, and therefore essentially free. This is great. But: it is not easy to get into these schools. We are talking primary school, 6 year old kids. New Yorkers will laugh at my saying this, but we are not New York, hell, we are not even the United States (thank goodness). The procedure the government has set up for getting people into these schools is quite absurd.

My main grouse is that children have to take an entrance test that is quite complicated. I can see why one needs such a test; it is important to make sure that the kid is indeed bilingual. However, what these tests do is that they are ensuring that only fluent and balanced bilinguals can pass the test (and the child gets percentage points; passing marks are something like 85%). So, someone like my son, who is fluent in English but doesn't always want to talk to strangers, failed one such test because he didn't answer the questions immediately. I asked my son what happened, and he said, he was thinking; I would not be surprised if he noticed an ambiguity in the question and was considering what interpretation to take (he's very pedantic and always wants a precise specification of the question; probably all kids are like this?). This school designated him as a German speaker because he didn't speak English fluently, and because "his father is German". His father *is* German, but he's German in the same sense that medical personnel practice good hygiene.

The test lasts 20 minutes, and they ask you to solve puzzles, count, to name body parts of a teddy bear, and such like things, and you lose points if you code-mix (mix up English and German and produce a kind of hybrid sentence). How about that? Which true bilingual does not code-mix?

The problem with Germany is that it's a monolingual society---they have no idea what a bilingual is. Some dumb-ass bureaucrat sitting in an airless office looked up at the ceiling, pulled his thumb out of his ass, and decided that a bilingual person should be able to speak in only one language. Makes sense; after all, if a person speaks one language, they should be able to speak in that language alone, so if they speak two languages... This reminds me of a bureaucrat I went to four years ago to ask for permission to send my son to a Kindergarten so that he would get more German exposure. She said, no, I could not do that, because everyone knows that children cannot acquire languages before the age of 2. Punkt. I told her I am a professor of linguistics and I would like that in writing so that I could refute that statement, and she gave me permission (I have used this trick before, to ask for a refusal in writing---this scares them).

Our son did about six such tests (three with private schools), he apparently failed several: all the private schools that held interviews refused to take him (maybe my wife and I were too dowdy for them---we also got interviewed, so maybe it was we who failed). He failed in one of the state schools, and passed in the other two, and he is set to start in one of the schools in August.

Another annoying aspect is that you have to deliver your preferences regarding school in an ordered list; this goes to the Berlin government. You get a good chance of getting into your first priority school, but the chances of getting into the second or lower priority school are practically zero. Application rates are never released, so there is no way to judge what the best school is in terms of being the one with the least competition, you just have to guess. This is so unnecessary; all they have to do is show us the previous years' application to admission ratios. So, if you make a bad choice, i.e., a very competitive school, you could be in trouble.

One thing I did manage to find was the school inspection reports for all the schools concerned. It was a useless report in all cases, it didn't give me any useful information about the schools. For example, many of the schools lose points for not practising something called "differentiated learning". So, pretty much all schools get low scores on that front, and pretty much all of them get relatively high scores otherwise. Either the instrument the surveyors used is useless or they don't know how to do the ratings.

So, if you want to know which school is good for you, either you talk to other parents who know the scene (in our case, we know nobody), or you just use your own judgement (that's what we did, but I also talked to an education specialist in Potsdam Uni, and she was the only one who gave me good advice).

We also applied to John F Kennedy. Initially, my wife was very interested in that school, and indeed it's a good school (although weak in science and math I have heard, but a mathematician whose kids go there told me that). But we had a humiliating experience going for a lottery where he didn't get in, and that was a real downer.

Another annoying aspect of this school business was the absence of any confirmatory information. We got a letter from the school after a long wait, early this year, that he was in, and rejection letters from the other state schools. The acceptance letter asked us to fill in an "I accept" form and then send it to them. I went to deliver it personally because of the extreme unreliability of Deutsche Post. Once I delivered it, they said, OK, you're all set, you can go. So, at this point, I am expecting a receipt---what is the proof I have accepted? If they lose that small piece of paper, they could easily assume we haven't accepted. I do admit I am more paranoid than strictly needed; but I have had so many situations where I could not prove this or that that I now always need to have proof. These rare events are not as rare, it seems. Anyway, they said I would not get any receipt and that the initial confirmation letter was proof. But that was only proof that they offered me a position, not that I had accepted it; this subtlety was lost on them. Then I had to wait months before a true confirmation came in, which to my mind is the moment when I can stop worrying about this school admission stuff.

I see that I overreact a bit to all this. I should just chill and let it all hang out. I have done that too; it often doesn't end well!