In the quest to find the perfect middle school for her 10-year-old daughter, Aimée Margolis has zig-zagged across Manhattan for 11 school visits, grilled pre-teenagers at a school fair on music classes and the preferred attire at dances, and compiled a dog-eared folder full of notes.
After a 90-minute tour of the Clinton School for Writers and Artists in Chelsea, Ms. Margolis casually slipped away for what appeared to be a quick pit stop. She carefully occupied a stall, waited for a cluster of students to walk in, and listened.
“It gives you a glimpse behind the scenes,” Ms. Margolis explained of her sub rosa research. “At the tour everybody’s ready for you, everybody has a happy face. They say what they want to say, and you hear what they want you to hear.”
As the Bloomberg administration has created hundreds of new schools, centralized the admissions process and publicized the options, there is a wave of panic among many parents of fifth graders facing the next step. And throughout the country, middle school is increasingly seen as a kind of educational black hole where raging hormones, changes in how youngsters learn and a dearth of great teachers can collide to send test scores plummeting.