Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Putting my foot down ... gingerly

A few weeks ago I met a neighbor while I was out and about on weekend errands, and during our conversation I learned that she'd made the "agonizing" decision to take her son out of public school.

Although in her soul of souls it pained her to know her son was attending what she saw as a "factory" for churning out children who will sit still, line up in single file and ask permission before they go to the bathroom, the straw that broke the camel's back was when her already literate kindergartener came home from school and reported he pretended he didn't know the alphabet, because that's what the teacher expected.

Like many parents, she said she and her husband had wanted to stick it out with public education. They believed in its importance. And, like many parents with a certain amount of disposable income, they ultimately decided that they couldn't let their child's education suffer because they didn't want to fight a losing battle with the establishment.

I don't want to slam her decision. I don't want to look down my nose as the uninitiated mother of a preschooler - who will undoubtedly face the same choice one day soon - and click my tongue in disappointment.

And yet, I can't help but wish she'd stuck it out. We are not talking about an inner city school district struggling to keep drugs and guns from seeping in through the security hurdles; we are talking about a suburban school in a moderately well-heeled community. "Wait for me," I thought. "We'll fight them together. Maybe we'll even find others."

I think that by moving our kids to the "better" schools, often outside of the community, we are choosing isolation, some might say segregation, based on individual values, ideals and the ability to pay for them. And why shouldn't we choose the best we can afford? We live in a society in which we are not only free to make such choices, we are encouraged to do so. Why shouldn't we take advantage of every opportunity life and budget allow? Why not advocate for our kids in the most expedient way? Don't our children deserve the best WE can offer?

But I still can't help feeling as if we are losing a sense of responsibility to one another and our communities, and this weighs on me, too.

I think about a different situation. One in which we were talking about a school in which education came second to security? What if we were talking about a school in a relatively wealthy district, where only the poorest of the poor attended because the affluent had other options?

It wouldn't even be a question for most parents. Their child's safety is just more important than any ideology. But what about the children left behind? Does that mean they're less important?

I don't know the answers, but I know that we need to think long and hard about the question.

I just hope I am strong enough, when the time comes, to stick it out for Annabel's sake. To make sure that the public school she attends will be a better place for everyone because we did our best to make it that. Or at least that our participation, for her, no matter how many stupid rules she's expected to follow, will have the most lasting effect.


Whirlwind said...

I too faught that battle last year. It was a difficult decision to make, and in the end we chose a private Catholic school (not so much for the religion aspect either). I like knowing that the children she starts kindergarten are going to be in her class every year until 8th grade. No more meeting the moms of 23 kids before she is allowed to play with them. I like the fact the teacher will tailor the cirriculum based on each child's individual need. I like the fact that I already know most of the teachers in the school, principal included (after only 3 weeks).

One thing I don't like is the lack of security in releasing my child to anyone who shows up to pick her up (check back on my blog tommorrow for a full report).

Overall, I like to think I made the right decision for my child.

victoria said...

I agree that this is an interesting, and difficult, issue. My parents were big public school supporters, very active in the schools and parent organizations. I went to public school through 9th grade, at which point my parents thought it might be nice for me to actually attend school, and I was yanked and placed in a private school. This was the best decision for me, but they left my four younger siblings in public schools and continued to fight the good fight. But, the next sibling ended up in private school in 7th grade. The next, 9th, and the final two, 4th, where they repeated 4th grade to be on par with the other 4th graders.

Our kids are in montessori school and have been since they were 18 months old. Simply for the way they teach. There are a lot of things that a parent can advocate for, but implementing montessori education in the public school in this Southern town is just not going to happen. And for us, it is worth it. But, I also feel like the girls are missing out on a lot of "real" life and that it is unfortunate for the children who cannot afford the choice. The school provides financial assistance for some students and that provides some diversity and opportunity, but it really doesn't change the fact that education in the U.S. is leaving children behind all of the time.

The girls love going to school. They love learning. They want to continue going to school in the summer. We are very lucky that we have been able to provide this for them. Unfortunately, I do not think it is the experience of many public school students, forced to sit in the little desk and do rote work.

Melissa said...

This is my daughter's third year in a public school. We could never afford to send her to private school even if we wanted to.

We are solidly middle class and live in a "rural" area just outside a college town full of wealthy professors and professionals. My daughter is friends with some of those "rich" children, but she is more likely to be friends with the kids who live in filth and get lunch from school for free, sometimes their only "good" meal of the day.

And although her school is one of the poorest performing in the district (but still higher than the national average) we have had nothing but positive experiences with the teachers, staff, and parents. When my daughter was having trouble with math, her first-grade teacher worked with us over the summer to make sure she stayed up-to-date on her math skills.

As a parent, you HAVE to be involved in whatever school you choose, public or private. Join the PTA. Go to meetings. Volunteer. Keep in contact with the teachers and principal and other parents. I edit the school newsletter for the elementary school. My son's preschool is a co-op, so we are obligated to help out.

But I can't fault anyone for choosing private school because, afterall, it IS their decision. And hopefully those parents recognize that involvement is key.

I guess I love public schools because I want my children to be exposed to all people, rich or poor, white or not, genius or average. The person you spoke of whose already literate child pretended NOT to know the alphabet is in the very small minority of kindergarten children who can actually read.

I remember my daughter's kindergarten teacher saying that if kids would come to school knowing how to tie their shoes, wipe their own bottoms (and some can't believe it or not!), and manipulate snaps/zippers/buckles/buttons, that would be great. Too much stress is placed on our children to perform academically, and it's usually the parent who is the culprit. Did that mom ever talk to the teacher or principal or reading specialist about having her son move up a reading level?

Also, I don't think there is anything wrong with a public school teacher expecting a certain sort of behavior in the classroom - sitting quietly, raising hands, not abusing the bathroom. Isn't that all part of socialization -learning what behavior is appropriate and when?

Annabel is lucky to have you as a mom. You recognize the importance of actively being involved. As parents, we can't place all the responsibility on the schools or teachers.

PS - to the mom whose daughter is in Montessori school. I have a friend whose daughter attended Montessori until just this year. She is repeating second grade because she tested behind all the other kids who are in public school. I LOVE the Montessori philosophy and wish I could send my kids there even if only for a little while. But realistically, not everyone is going to let them go at their own pace all the time. I totally agree with her saying that children are getting left behind all the time. My husband makes too much money for us to qualify for any sort of financial aid or "Head Start" preschool program, yet after all the bills are paid, we can barely afford to send him to preschool just two days a week. The poor kids get to go to school for free. Those who can afford Montessori, Waldorf, or private get the best education, and it's middle class families like mine who have to really work hard to make public school the best that it can be.

toyfoto said...

These responses are all wonderful, and filled with rich food for thought. Thank you all for sharing.

wordgirl said...

We're public school people. While I can't vouch for what they can do if your kid has learning difficulties (probably not very much), the sky is the limit if you're kid is of average or better intelligence and he/she comes from a home of involved parents. Involved parents are the new drug of the public schools. Without them, you're back to square one.

wordgirl said...

Sorry...your kid. Not you're kid. Gah!

Be Still said...

Funny that you wrote about this now. We've been having this discussion in our home as of late.

As someone that was bored completely out of my skull during school, my main concern is that Jude is challenged. If public school can keep up with him, then we'll go that route. But if not, he's out of there.

That said, I don't expect a voucher for private school. I consider good schools important to the health of my community and good schools require my funding whether my kid is in them or not.