“So where will your son/daughter go for kindergarten?” is a frequent topic of conversation for fellow city-dwellers who we run into on playgrounds and library storytimes. It can be a tricky decision. Even among urban school districts, our city has unusually horrible schools. They are known for dismal academic performance and high rates of violence. Friends who have worked in the city schools report stifling bureaucracy, unsupportive administrations, and many student who aren’t able to focus on schoolwork because their basic needs aren’t being met. Because of this, middle-class families in our area tend to avoid their neighborhood schools. Most of them end up at religious schools, charter schools, or private schools. Other families move the surrounding counties as soon as their children approach school age in order to attend better-performing public schools there. We’ve watched the parents of Tadpole’s friends who have older siblings go through the process of deciding where to send their kids. They generally went through a few stressful months, but eventually landed somewhere that they are happy. We weren’t sure what we would end up choosing, but tried to have faith that we, too, would end up making a decision that we were happy with.
We did know ahead of time that the Catholic school route wouldn’t work for us. We met a family recently that raves about the Montessori-based program at a nearby Catholic school. The school seems progressive in many ways, but it still has a Religion class, and I’m just not comfortable with Tad being taught the Catholic church’s position on women, theology, or his family.
After crossing the Catholic school off our list, we were left with exploring charter and private schools. There are a growing number of charter schools in our city, including several nearby. They often have more flexibility in terms of curriculum design and opting out of at least some of the crazy testing. These schools also tend to have more-involved parents. However, the demand for these schools is high. They all accept students based on lotteries, and tend to get many more applicants than they have spots. At one school that we toured, we were told there were 22 spots in the kindergarten class, 16 of which were expected to be filled by current students’ siblings. And they expected to get about 150 applications!
We’ve known plenty of families whose solution to the school dilemma is to move to the surrounding counties. But we love our neighborhood. We love knowing most of our neighbors. We love the farmer’s market down the street in the summertime. We love living in a community that is racially and economically diverse (which is something so rare in this city and in this country). We love our cozy house and decent-sized yard–both bigger than we could probably afford in the county. And even if we wanted to, the idea of packing and moving with a newborn felt impossibly overwhelming.
We spent this winter and spring in a whirlwind of school visits and school applications. It ended up being helpful that I was unemployed, because I’m not sure how we would have managed it all if we were both working full-time. The private schools’ application process felt like we were applying for college, complete with essays and interviews. And we wanted to tour a number of the charter schools, so that we would be prepared on the off-chance that Tad got into one. At the end of the whole process, we were left with the following options:
Our Neighborhood Public School:
There is a public elementary-middle school just a few blocks from our house. It would be fabulous to be able to walk to school and to have all of Tadpole’s classmates living nearby. But it didn’t feel like a good fit for us, for a variety of different reasons.
I don’t put a huge amount of stock in standardized test scores. But when I checked on ONPS’s test scores, I found out that only about 40% of its students passed the very basic level of the tests. That seemed concerning. And then there was the time when I saw a big group of high-school-aged boys hanging out on the playground smoking something that wasn’t cigarettes…at 4 in the afternoon.
In addition, I used to work at a different public school nearby. It was one of the better-performing schools in the city, and it wasn’t a horrible place at all. The teachers were generally enthusiastic and engaged. Yet the kindergarten classes always made me a little sad. They were full of 25+ children doing worksheets at little tiny desks. There was no dress-up area or sand table or anything for engaging the children’s imaginations. These schools also include a huge emphasis on standardized testing. One year, the school where I worked was required to do 8 sessions of “benchmark” tests, two days each session. With 180 school days in a year, that meant that almost a tenth of the days were devoted to testing, which doesn’t leave much room for actual learning in between.
PE-Focused Charter School
We got into one of the nearby charter schools. We toured it twice, and seriously considered it. Like most charter schools, it seemed to have a lot of involved parents. The classrooms were bright and spacious, and our active boy would love the focus on physical activity.
But the teaching techniques seemed fairly traditional–it seemed like the kindergarten would still include a lot of time sitting at pint-sized desks. And we weren’t sure how welcome our two-mommy family would feel. One piece of our decision was the fact that the principal described with pride the school’s Chick-fil-A fundraising night. This wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for us, but it contributed to our feeling that it wasn’t the right fit for our family.
Funky Held Together With Duct Tape School:
Tad was accepted at a funky little private school, which we also seriously considered. It’s a small school, and has a philosophy of “project-based learning”. There are traditional classes in English, math, etc. But the students also explore topics that interest them through a variety of creative, inter-disciplinary projects. I attended a fabulous elementary school with a similar teaching philosophy, and thought Tad would flourish there. Our curious kid would love to spend weeks thoroughly exploring something he is interested in, and this would be a place where he could do that.
Tuition is about half of most of the bigger private schools. But there is also less financial aid available. And part of the way they keep tuition so low is requiring each custodial parent to do 40 hours of work for the school a year. There are a few ways of fulfilling these hours in the evening and on weekends, but finding the time for 80 hours of work still seemed daunting. And the school isn’t very conveniently located for us. Also, the facilities seemed very cramped and shabby. We weren’t sure that our antsy, active kid would do well in a tiny classroom.
Progressive Traditional Private School
Tad was also accepted at one of the large more-traditional private schools in the area. It has some great progressive values. The teaching style is more traditional than FHTWDTS, but it would be a high-quality education. The facilities are amazing. Tad would get to learn to play an instrument starting in 3rd grade, and would start Spanish in kindergarten. The annual tuition is daunting (like the price of a car!). We qualified for substantial financial aid, but were told we were on a “financial aid waiting list” because they gave financial aid preference to returning families. This meant that future years would be expensive but probably manageable. And my parents agreed to help us to cover this first year, if we decided this school was the right fit for us.
I wrestled a lot with the ethical questions involved in our decision. In terms of abstract politics, I felt like we ought to send Tad to our neighborhood school. How are the dismally-performing schools of our city going to get better if all of the folks who have the wherewithal to send their kids elsewhere do so? There are lots of critics of charter schools who complain that it’s not fair to siphon off the families with committed and involved parents, leaving the rest of the schools behind. This seems like a legitimate concern. And I have ethical questions about the other options too. I was excited about a lot of things about PTPS, but I wasn’t sure about sending my kid to a school that the vast majority of families couldn’t afford (and that we could only manage with help from my parents). In the end, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to send Tad to ONPS. And once that was off the table, it seemed like there were moral issues with any of the other choices, so we should just pick the school that felt right for our family and our kid.
We decided to go with Progressive Traditional Private School. We were worried about affording it (even with financial aid and some help from my parents). But none of the other schools felt quite right, and we were excited about the opportunities that Tad would have. We paid our deposit, told Tadpole our decision, and attended a welcome event for new families.
And then, last Tuesday, we got an email from another charter school. Another student had withdrawn, and Tad had been offered a spot from the waiting list. This school, which I’ll call Hippie Charter School, has a similar project-based philosophy to FHTWDTS. But it seems more organized and together than FHTWDTS. The kindergarten at HCS is play-based, meaning that there are structured lessons in various subjects, but also time for kids to learn through playing with blocks, dress-ups, etc. The school is in a fairly convenient location, and has a number of hippie families from our neighborhood. It is racially and socio-economically diverse and works hard at welcoming many different kinds of kids and families. And of course the price (free!) is appealing. We had had some major unexpected expenses in the few weeks after accepting PTPS, which made us even more aware of the financial sacrifices that it would take to make things work at a private school, even with financial aid.
Roo and I spent about 24 hours freaking out about the idea of changing our plans and being scared of making the wrong decision. And in the end, we decided to go with HCS. It feels like a really good fit for our family. And Tad says he wants to go there, “because they have puppets in the classroom.” So now we’re finally settled. Just like the parents who we’ve seen go before us, there have been several months of chaos and stress, followed by finding a school that we’re excited about.
What are the school options like in your area? How did/will you decide what is right for your family?