This is the first post in the series, Jesus At the Blackboard. Check back every monday to discuss how different people came to different decisions in regards to education. If you are interested in contributing to this series, please contact me.
I’ve been talking about school choice since my freshman year of college. Back in 2002 charter schools were a new frontier of education that were just getting started. Magnet schools had already cropped up, but just barely. The choices families could make about schools were pretty much, public, private, or home school. That was it.
To say things have changed is putting it mildly. With the No Child Left Behind Law came not only testing, but a decree that no student should be forced to go to a school that could not meet the required testing bar. If a school didn’t make the right number for two years in a row it became a “school of choice” meaning the parent had to be given other options for the education of their child. Sometimes that means a charter school, sometimes that means a different school in the same district, sometimes that means a school in a neighboring district, sometimes that means the public school district has to pay private school tuition through a voucher. This is putting it simplistically, but that is pretty much the way things currently stand.
The first three years I taught were at a “school of choice” (which sounds like it is a school people choose, but remember that actually means it is a school you can choose not to go to due to low performance on test scores). I understand why this is an important rule. As a parent I don’t want to have to send my kid to a sub par school. As a teacher, this rule made my job near impossible. In order to get out of the failing school category, our school’s test scores had to improve. At the same time that our schools had to improve, our kids with the most educated and involved parents were deciding to take the extra time and effort to fill out the forms, go through audition processes, and ensure transportation to schools other than the one I was teaching at. We were left with the kids who did not have the resources to make these other choices, unsurprisingly these were the kids with the lowest test scores. At the same time we were expected to significantly raise our scores, the students with the best scores were leaving our school.
This put us in an almost impossible position, and made me so angry I could cry every time someone mentioned how awesome charter schools were. Even when a charter school doesn’t “cherry pick” and accepts everyone based on a lottery system, you still only have the kids in the lottery whose parents were willing and able to fill out the form. This is a major advantage. (Weirdly, charter schools are faring no better than public schools as far as test scores are concerned.) Schools are a product of the local community and putting all the active parents in one place is going to hurt the other school. When working in a school with a PTA with literally one P, I learned that what my parents used to say is accurate. “The best way to support your local school is to send your kid there and get involved.” When I had kids, I didn’t care where I lived. I was going to send them to the local elementary school and make it great!
Then I had kids. Suddenly, the thriving charter school within walking distance of my house looked very appealing. A friend from work had children who went there and the perks were pretty incredible. Her kids got African-drumming lessons on Fridays with the local drum circle, golf lessons with Tiger Wood’s golf instructor, access to technology I didn’t even know existed, all because she had chosen the charter school that I passed anytime I went anywhere. Was I willing to deny my kids all these perks to support my community elementary school? Was that fair to my kids?
When a friend’s rental went up for sale, I started seriously researching the schools in my area in the hopes that she would move into my neighborhood. It was then that I found out that my family did not qualify for the dream charter school down the street. While located less than a mile from my home, it was on the other side of the crooked county line and technically in the district next door. While hypothetically if there were spots available after all of the kids in the district wanted in then my kid could go there, I knew that there was a waiting list every year since the advent of the school.
It was then I started thinking seriously about homeschooling. My husband is in PhD school right now, and according to my calculations, if everything went perfectly and he was immediately offered his dream job, I could start homeschooling right as my oldest started Kindergarten. I have extremely strong opinions about education and they aren’t in line with the current political atmosphere. Maybe it would be better for everyone if I handled my kid’s education. The perks seemed pretty great to me too. I had visions of everyone in my house getting up when they felt like it and hanging out in our pajamas over breakfast while we learned. I thought about how college has extended Christmas breaks and we could just follow the college break schedule and home school on the road. I thought about amazing and educational vacation spots and being able to say yes to September weddings. Maybe homeschooling was the answer to all of my problems.
The more I prayed about it and thought about it, the more I was convicted that, for me, I wasn’t attracted to homeschooling for the benefit of my kids, but for the benefit of myself. If I am being brutally honest, I liked homeschooling the most on the days I was fed up with my own life, my own job. My kids already love the one school environment they are in for a few hours a week. Homeschooling is the right choice for some, but probably not for me and my brood.
So that pretty much puts me right back where I started, only with more information. My oldest turns three on May 1, she already knows much of what she needs to learn in pre-school, so for now we have decided it isn’t quite time for that. Next spring we will figure out which pre-k program to apply for. Looking ahead, I think, for my family, we have two options.
The local elementary school looks like it is headed in the right direction. If a school can reach an 80 percent pass rate, it is good enough for me. My concern is how the school is going about improving their pass rate. I would rather send my kid to a school with a holistic approach to education where less kids pass the test, than send my kid to a school where everyone passes the test because all they ever do is drill and kill. For that information, I am going to have to actually go into the school and observe some classrooms. Principals are surprisingly willing to let you do this. Most schools have some great things going on, and the principal wants the kid of the parent who is taking the time to tour the school to come there. Also, if your local school is great, your house is worth a lot more. There are some financial incentives to investing in the local elementary school, as much as we want to pretend this is purely a benevolent decision.
The other choice I have is a local charter school, one that I didn’t know about until I started doing the research for my friend. Just as close to us as our local elementary school is a charter school with an arts focus. Weekly piano, art and dance lessons that I don’t have to pay for seem like a deal that is too good to pass up. I am drawn to a school that uses the arts as a vehicle for teaching all material, and think it might be a haven in a world where more and more schools are completely testing focused (mostly because they have no other choice).
I am aware that this last sentence seems a little hypocritical considering the number of sentences I have dedicated to testing, but it is where we are at right now. I think testing data gives us important information, but I hate the way it is being used and how those numbers are driving the climate of the schools. So for now, we are watching and waiting and crossing our fingers that testing the life out of our kids gets chucked rather than tweaked as it pertains to educational policy. Which school will my kids attend? I guess we will know when we get there.