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Choosing a High School: Why We Let Our Son Have the Final Say

Whenever I envisioned discussing school options with my son, I imagined a day far in the future with college brochures and financial aid forms spread out all over our dining room table. I did not expect to be having such a conversation with him at thirteen years of age.

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My son wanted to choose his high school.

Earlier this year, out of the blue, my son expressed a desire to go to one of the biggest public high schools in our small city. We assumed he would continue at the small charter school that he attended for the past several years, but he had other plans.

He wanted to go there because several of his longtime friends were also going, and I fought back the temptation to roll my eyes and throw my hands in the air. I reminded him that his class size of 18 would now be several hundred in the freshman class. I also rattled off some other details that I thought he had overlooked. He wouldn’t be able to receive individual attention if he was struggling. His school day would be six hours a day with homework at night, instead of two days of onsite classes and a majority of his schoolwork at home. It would be a huge adjustment.

Despite my objections, he remained undeterred.

So I made a deal. He would need to come up with a list of valid reasons (that did not involve “because my friends are doing it”), and he would need to attend the school’s upcoming ninth grade orientation. Then we would sit down and have a chat.

The next week I drove him to the high school, and we watched as busload after busload of local eighth graders pulled up to the entrance of the gymnasium. I threw a sideways glance at my boy and could tell by the expression on his face that he was beginning to grasp the reality of his potential decision. I fully expected him to balk once he realized how different this school would be compared to the intimate, close-knit environment he had come to know and love. But, typical of my first-born, he is full of surprises. He came home two hours later even more resolved to become one of the newest members of this high school’s class of 2022.

Later that night, as promised, we had a discussion.

He presented a strong argument about why he felt that he should be allowed to choose his high school. First, he told us that he truly wanted a chance to experience a large public school. He explained, citing examples from the school’s website, that there would have be more options for academics, electives, and extracurricular activities. Attending this school would better prepare him for college because he would already know what it’s like to be one of many, many students on a big campus.

He also felt that going to a bigger school like this would help him learn to be more independent by having to manage his time and take ownership of his schoolwork. He also promised that he would take advantage of the drop-in tutoring the school offered if he should ever run into trouble.

I sat back and listened, impressed at his maturity, preparation, and research.

He was advocating for himself and doing a darn good job of it. In all honesty, I could have put my foot down and said, “No, you can’t choose this school,” or “Just wait another year,” but I would have been doing that for me, not for him.

We did lay down some ground rules. His grades need to remain a priority, not his social life. If we saw drastic behavior changes, we reserved the right to pull him out. He also needs to attend for at least a year. We told him it was normal to feel overwhelmed at first, but he needed to give the school a fair chance to be able to decide if he wanted to stay, or not.

No matter what unfolds for his high school career, if my kid puts forth the same effort as he did to convince us, I know he will be perfectly fine.

Jennifer Arnold

Jennifer Arnold is a freelance writer from Northern California. She has been featured in North State Parent MagazineComplex Child Magazine, and several other publications.