On school choice.

This has been a rough month for a range of reasons, but one of them is that we’ve been struggling to decide what to do with Ezra in terms of Pre-K next year.

The scene: our little guy is smart; academically motivated; significantly beyond age-typical intellectual development; emotionally/socially about normal; very sensitive to others’ interest and approval/disapproval; EAGER to get to school.  We live in the highest-performing elementary district in our city.  I am a HUGE fan of community-based public education.  Our school has one pre-K teacher.  I have visited the class; talked with her; talked with various friends who have had kids in her class.  There’s also, 25 minutes away, a charter school rooted in Reggio-Emilia, with an emphasis on arts and sciences, and Ezra got in through the lottery.

The dilemma: our guy will be (is) a total nightmare if he gets bored.  Our local pre-K seems guaranteed to bore him (and the teacher expresses no curiosity about him nor any interest in the question of how to help kids not get bored).  Transportation to/from the charter school will be a huge hassle.  But in all seriousness, when I think about the predictable outcomes (not fear-based, but logical foreseeable conclusions) of his participation in the local school, I imagine a high likelihood of difficult behavior and (to add the fear-based pieces which are also reasonable in our culture) possible diagnoses and medication.  When you take a smart, active kid and you bore him and teach him that you don’t care about his particular needs, it is reasonable to assume that he will go haywire (and we know he can do this beautifully).

The nutshell: we have, we feel, no real choice in the matter, given the realities of our particular situation.  But that is true of many people we’ve talked to (and not true of many; I’ve been appalled to hear blanket statements like “I hate public school!” from people who don’t even know what district their kid is in).  I feel one of my jobs in life is to try and rescue public education, and I thought I’d be doing that in part as an engaged parent in the local system.  Yes, the charter is public, but I don’t even BELIEVE in charter schools, except in extreme cases.  And I don’t think we’re that extreme.  But maybe we are — maybe the “we” isn’t my family but the system as a whole.  If we have arrived at a place where our teachers are, by inclination or by rule, more interested in managing a whole class for non-disruption than in sustaining a love for learning EVEN AT THE PRE-K LEVEL, then how can we expect to participate long enough to make change?  The risk is too great: it’s not about academic “success” even; it’s about the whole life and worldview and sanity of a child.

Can you tell how uncomfortable I am with this situation?  How deep my grief is for the community I thought we would enter through participation in our local Pre-K?  How sad I am for the system I’ve seen fading for years, as more and more of my brightest, most motivated college students who WANTED MORE THAN ANYTHING TO BE TEACHERS stepped away from those dreams because they couldn’t afford to pay off their loans on a teacher’s salary, they couldn’t imagine sacrificing their ideals to the extent they knew they had to, they couldn’t condone following standards that were about a strange societal commitment to “academic” performance rather than a genuine commitment to the healthy development (and academic learning!) of whole children?  I LOVE public education.  I want to be part of it.  I want my children to revel in it.  But until they are old enough to sort out which are the sucky parts of the game you play because you have to, and which are the nourishing, life-giving aspects that we can find in the middle of the rest — well, until then, I guess they go the charter route.  And we count ourselves lucky.

I welcome thoughtful comments and perspectives, as ever!


3 comments on “On school choice.

  1. millbrown says:

    This post cracked me up! Seems like you just made an argument for school choice and a system that needs to respond to its users instead of to its own sustainment! I understand the logic iof your concern about Ezra. What I don’t understand is the logic behind not “believing” in charter schools. Seems those kids in Harlem with a chance at charter schools have a much better education than the traditional system. What are we trying to save?


    • Thanks, Mill, for your thoughtful response. I am especially sitting with your question: “What are we trying to save?”. For me, the answer is a system that supports everyone in some way. I’ve never thought that public school was about being all things to all people, but being enough for enough…and I think I’m beginning to see that the charter school movement might be about providing a range of different options so people DO have some choices, so that we have more varied “enoughness” in various places. But I worry about the privileges necessary to seek out those choices, and I worry most of all about the conclusions we’re conceding by NEEDING charter schools: that “regular” community-based public education cannot meet the needs of our (diverse, multifarious) people. I don’t see why that should be. I think our systems need to change (my own personal bet is that if we magically raised starting salaries for teachers to $60,000 and did away with tenure, we’d see massive sea changes in less than five years) in accordance with what we know about how people learn. I think we need hope and tolerance and patience and ambition and courage and community. (And clearly, I need to make this into a whole other post. Thank you!!)

  2. School decisions are so tricky – and they felt “easier” in the abstract before it was MY child I was thinking about. I selfishly hope you choose the charter school route because I want to know what it’s like…we’re eyeing it ourselves.

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