When my husband and I were considering a move to New Orleans, one of our major decision factors was education. Having grown up in Texas, the concept of public schools not being the default was a foreign one. I’m not here to disparage the public school system. In fact, there are plenty of parents happy with it (though we can all acknowledge the system needs improvement). But six years ago, when we were developing the educational plan for our first child, attending the local public school was not our default choice.
We did our due diligence. We investigated charter, magnet and other alternative schools. We aren’t Catholic, so those options were not on my list. And while we were willing to pay tuition to a certain degree, most private schools were out of our price range (though I did briefly consider selling a kidney… I think I only need one). Our daughter was in an excellent Montessori day care, but we had no idea what would happen beyond that. It surprised me to find myself stressed and overwhelmed about school… with a three-year-old.
When I first learned about the Jefferson Parish Advanced Studies program, it seemed like a white whale. Here’s an option for a quality, public education – through high school if we choose! But… your child has to pass a test first. Oh, and about 800 other people want one of those coveted 80 slots in Pre-K. It felt like a long shot.
Flash forward five years and we have two thriving children in an Advanced Studies Academy. I feel like we won the lottery. I am active at my kids’ school and often host the school tours. So, having been through the process a few times, here is an inside look at the program. As a note, most families interested in the ASA program have children in the Pre-K to 2nd grade range, so that will be my focus. However, I will touch on the other grades when applicable.
I want to state that I am not affiliated with the ASA program or Jefferson Parish Public Schools. This is entirely based on information provided on their website, at their information sessions and, most importantly, my experience as a parent.
The Advanced Studies program is a group of public schools designed with accelerated curriculum, for example in 1st grade they are studying 2nd grade material. There are schools on both the East and West banks that support the program and, while the district you live in is a factor, students are only accepted through a selective admissions process. The process has three phases, which I have discussed below, including the most common questions I’ve been asked.
Phase One: Application Submission and Screening
When Do I Apply?
It’s best to check their website for the exact date admissions opens, but generally it starts at the end of September and runs for about one month. You can download the application from their website and is available at every Jefferson Parish Public School. Per their website:
The application window for admissions testing for the Advanced Study Academies for the 2020-2021 school year will open on Monday, September 23, 2019 and close at 12:00 noon Tuesday, October 22, 2019.
It’s worth noting that there is ZERO benefit to getting your application in the first morning. ASA is NOT first come, first served. In fact, the first week and last week are notoriously busy, meaning you will wait hours for something you can just walk in and do the other weeks the window is open. Applications must be hand-delivered to designated locations, but again there is no rush to do this the first day. I waited about two-weeks after the window opened to deliver my daughter’s application and was in and out in 15 minutes. With my son, stress got the best of me, and I waited three hours on the first day.
When you get there, they will verify you live in-district, determine what grade your child is applying for, verify their age, and provide you with a test date and time.
When Should My Child Test?
For Pre-K your child must be 4 before September 30th of the following year. For Kindergarten, your child must be 5 before September 30th of the following year. So, for example, if your child turns four summer of 2020, then you should apply for Pre-K in October 2019 when submissions open. However, if your child turns four October 2020, then you have another year before you can apply.
Can I Choose the Grade I Apply For?
The grade entry is completely based on age. So, even if your child is on the young side for Kindergarten, you cannot request that they test him/her for Pre-K. Having said that, don’t panic. A four- and five-year-old will take the same test, however the results are Norm-Referenced down to their birth date. This means that the results of a 4-year-old are compared to the results of other 4-year-olds, nationally, as opposed to all the 5-year-olds that took the test. To their birth date means that a 48-month-old and a 52-month-old are ranked differently. In other words, my slightly less mature boy and your very mature girl take the same test, but their results are not ranked against each other. Remember when you used to measure your baby’s age in months? Now you are panicking about Pre-K. Good times.
A Note on School Districts
I don’t see a copy of the attendance zone map on the ASA website, however you can view the attendance zones here for each of the schools. What’s important to note is that, even if your child scores higher than another child in-district, you are placed at the end of the wait list for an out of district school if you list it as your first choice. For example, say you live in the Airline Park district but want your child to attend Metairie Academy because their older sister or brother is already there. You should still note Airline as your 1st choice and Metairie Academy as your 2nd. If your child scores a 93 and is placed on the wait list, they would be placed below a child who scored 87 in-district. The safest bet is to attend the in-district school and attempt to transfer once you are in the system. Which leads to…
Is There a Sibling Preference?
No, there is not. Both of my children were screened and tested separately. There are multiple families with siblings in different schools at the Academies. If you are wondering if there is stress and pressure on the second kid (or third… or fourth…) to get in? Yes. Yes there is. Nothing is guaranteed, so you will go through the same process with each of your kids. Welcome to Louisiana schooling.
What Does It Cost?
All Jefferson Parish Pre-K programs have a sliding scale tuition plan. For the current school year the range was between $400-$600 (September – May) with a pro-rate for August. That can vary as it’s based on Federal Poverty Guidelines. If your annual family income is 200% to below of those guidelines, you will qualify for free tuition. That is all managed once your child is accepted into any of the Parish Pre-K programs, including the ASA program. After Pre-K there is no tuition through high school and, assuming your student maintains a 2.0 GPA after 2nd grade, your spot is secure.
Phase Two: Testing
Your test date will be on a Saturday, sometime in November or December. Once you receive your test date, take it very seriously. Do not plan to reschedule because you only get one opportunity to do so. And, as the test is during flu season, you might want to keep that reschedule opportunity in your back pocket in case your little one wakes up with a fever, for example. Once you are there, unless they start the exam, you can still reschedule. So if you have a Nervous Nelly, hang on to that reschedule opportunity!
What is on the Test?
This is the question that everyone wants to know, and you will not like my answer. In short, no one really knows. I heard a rumor a few years ago that during an info session they shared the name of the test they provided. I attended the most recent one, and that was not the case. Their stance (to which I agree) is that it invalidates the integrity of the test if you can view the test ahead of time. It would also allow room for privilege, as some families might be able to afford to purchase the test (or pay to have their children prepared ahead of time) while others could not, giving them an unfair advantage.
Parents will tell you what their kids said was on it, but that is all hear-say. Grades 3rd – 12th takes a group written exam that last approximately three hours. For Pre-K – 2nd grade, the test is predominantly oral with a written part at the end; the test is one-on-one, and lasts 15-30 minutes.
Essentially, the tests are IQ-based, not information based. So while knowing how to write their name, colors, numbers and letters are all important, think more in terms of visual-spatial reasoning, verbal comprehension and memory. If you’ve helped your child develop problem-solving skills and experience the world (stuff you are probably doing anyway), then your child should be able to answer the questions.
While I’m on the subject of test length, I would recommend that you don’t make assumptions about their results based on how long your child’s test is. My daughter was in and out in 7 minutes. My son took closer to 20. It all depends on how comfortable your child is, how long they take to answer questions, and how far they go in the test.
How do we Prepare?
Here’s what’s more important than what’s on the test: does your child feel prepared to take it? The tests are only administered in English and the person administering the test is a stranger. We’ve spent our children’s entire lives teaching them “Stranger Danger” but now, just for one day sweetie, let this person you don’t know take you by the hand and lead you to another person you don’t know.
When you arrive on test day, the system is designed to make both you and your child feel welcomed. Everyone was very nice, outgoing, and very reassuring. I will not lie: with my daughter, I think we got lucky. The woman who came to take her back to the test had a huge head of curly hair, just like my daughter’s, and they had the same name. It was enough to make her feel comfortable taking her hand and heading to the test room. My son doesn’t care. A scary clown could walk up and he’d be like “cool Red Nose, take me to the candy.”
There are always two adults in the test room, by the way, both trained and vetted Jefferson Parish employees. The first adult brings children to and from the room and ensures the test is properly administered. The second adult administers the test. You never see that second adult. They are an enigma. A shroud of secrecy protects the Test Givers.
But getting back to how you can prepare. Here are my top three tips:
I’ve mentioned before that a huge key in managing anxiety for my daughter is practice. We’ve practiced things like carpool and first day at school. We practiced for this, too. If you have a trusted friend who your child doesn’t know very well, let them help. Go through a pretend check-in phase, then a sit and wait phase, then let one person come out and call their name. They will say hello and introduce themselves and ask if you are ready. Your child takes their hand (or walks by their side) to another room. In that room, the test taker talks to them for a few minutes so they can relax. Then he/she asks mysterious questions, maybe gets them to write their name, and their guide walks them out.
Talk It Up
With my son, it was easier because he already wanted to go to Sissy’s school. So we needed less encouragement. But we drove my daughter past the school and showed her the playground. And we drove her past the test site and showed her that, too. We made it all an adventure. We talked about opportunity. We promised she could slide on the slide. We never used the words test, pass or fail. It was just a game we played.
I’m not above it, particularly for something like this. My daughter got to pick out a brand new dress to wear to the “fun talking party” and she got to choose where we got ice cream after (she chose the place where you talk to a robot then a human brings you food… Sonic, obviously). My son got a shiny new car and donuts after (his test was in the morning).
What Happens After the Test?
You wait. A while. Officially, I believe they tell you the results are mailed at the end of January. We received my daughter’s results in mid-February. Three years later, we received my son’s results at the end of March. If you already have a list of other schools you are applying for, you probably already realized that the date you receive your results may be after the application window for other schools closes. Go forth and apply to those other schools, friends, and take that spot if your child gets accepted. Do not lose your spot at one school waiting on ASA test results.
Phase Three: Ranking and Notification
Remember how I said the tests were Norm-referenced? This is where that comes into play. Your child must score 85% or above to be accepted into an ASA. There are only so many slots available (usually 80 on the East Bank for Pre-K, 24 for Kindergarten but those numbers can vary). For each school, they begin with children who scored in the 99% in-district and work their way down until all slots are filled. Everyone else in-district is added to the wait list. Then anyone out-of-district who requested that school as their first choice is added below them.
Every parent gets a letter citing their child’s results and, when applicable, an invitation to the school. Before you get excited and frame that sucker be sure and follow the instructions. You have to accept in person. If you are on the wait list, you can call the ASA offices and ask for an update pretty often. They are great about responding to parents!
A View From the Inside
I’m not going to lie, I had concerns. Would it be all work and no play? Would my children be able to keep up? Would it be enriching, not just an education? From Pre-K to 3rd grade, here has been my experience.
Expect to Work Hard
The students who perform the best in the schools are not necessarily those who scored highest on the entrance test, rather it is the ones who are willing to work hard. If you are invited to attend, expect that both you and your child will have to pay attention. I don’t mean this in a “I hover over my child’s homework” kind of way, because I don’t. My daughter has her own planner; my son is beginning his. I read everything that comes their way, but I also see value in letting kids fail, so I’m not overly concerned about their daily marks.
Having said that, the expectations are high and there are a lot of “little” things to keep track of, so I’m paying attention. We average about 45 minutes of homework a night, which is manageable. I expect in the next few years that will increase, but I’ve found that being proactive about what’s coming helps us manage our time and anxiety.
Expect to Pitch In
Despite having selective admissions, these are public schools. There is very little funding and, after Pre-K, you do not pay tuition. So there is a heavy reliance on family support, at least at the Elementary level. I believe that fades at the High School level but can’t speak to that directly. Remind yourself you did not have to sell a kidney to fund your child’s education and smile. If money is tight and you are able to give time or a specific skill, that helps too.
Here’s where the experience really shines for me. I was very concerned that I was plopping my kids in a straight study environment and was happy to be proved wrong. The teachers are nurturing and supportive. The students are exposed to art, music, and alternative teaching methods. They don’t sit still for long periods. They still get recess and snacks. They go on field trips and do experiments. More important than being educated, my children are happy.
Expect Normal School Problems
No school is perfect, and every environment will have its issues. As with any school, you will come across teachers you disagree with or policies that make you cringe. You may feel like parts of the school are rundown, or the parents get too much homework. For me, being involved helps me to have a voice in how those issues are resolved. And some things I just accept with gratitude because my kids are getting a great education and I got to keep both kidneys.
Closing Thoughts About IQ, Education and Privilege
For my family, the Advanced Studies Academies have been a rewarding and enriching experience. But I recognize that a lot of luck and privilege came into play for us. We were lucky in that neither of our kids were too shy or quiet to answer questions. We were privileged in that we could spare a Saturday (and had the means) to drive to the test site with our children. My kids are very smart, and I’m proud of both of them. My son has a ridiculously strong memory, and my daughter can recognize patterns and problem solve like a boss. I believe this played to their advantage when they took the exam.
I also believe that, for us, the schools were the right fit. But that is not the case for everyone. Some very intelligent children do not test well. Some children thrive in a less structured environment. And there are many other factors that determine the worth of a human, particularly a child. If you plan to explore this path, I wish you the absolute best, and I hope I get to meet you when you tour the school. But if your child does not get in or gets wait-listed, I want to urge you not to become discouraged or frustrated. One test is not the measure of your child.
Our school system needs work, but more opportunities are arising. And all of our children – regardless of their background or brainpower – deserve a quality education.