Thursday, December 02, 2004

Bored by school talk? Don't read this.

I don't think I've mentioned this much on the blog, but RW and I are both completely obsessed with kindergarten.

Kindergarten! Next year! For our little baby! And because she has an August birthday, she'll almost certainly be the youngest in her class. Somehow that makes me extra panicky.

In our city we have school choice, which is a special bonus for neurotics like us, providing us with lots of extra obsessing material. We even started going on school tours last year so that we could get a head start on freaking out about HOW MANY OTHER PEOPLE WANT THEIR KID TO GO TO THE SAME SCHOOL WE WANT AND HOW HARD IT IS TO GET IN OHMIGOD! etc.

Without going into nauseating detail, the whole deal basically works like this:

1) You take lots of time off work and tour a bunch of schools and/or go to Open Houses in January in February.
2) You fill out an exhaustive, zillion-page application, including several dozen proofs of residence, and list the schools you want in order of preference.
3) You wait for the Gods of the School District to work out their complex lottery and ranking system and tell you which school your child got into.
4) If you hate the school, or think the school district made a mistake (like someone I know whose second child was denied entrance into the school her older brother went to, even though there's supposed to be sibling preference, because someone forgot to key it in), you embark on an apparently hellacious appeals process.
5) You try to line up Before-and-After-School Care, either on the school grounds or somewhere else.

It's sort of like applying to college: you're advised to list at least five or six choices. You get preference (and school bus transportation) within your "cluster," which is a large-ish geographical chunk of the city with 6-10 elementary schools in it. You also have a "reference area school," basically your neighborhood school, to which I think your kid is guaranteed entry. Though I'm not too sure of that because I've heard rumors of kids in other clusters being bumped out of their Reference Area School and sent to the Scary School No One Wants Their Kid to Go To at the other end of their cluster.

But all the schools in our cluster seem to be at least decent. The one with the "worst" reputation is actually... our Reference Area School! Though I have a sneaky affection for it, on account of it's in a nice old homey building, and is just a few blocks away, and the 4th grader down the street goes there and could walk our girl to school. It also has the most Ethnic Diversity of the schools in our overwhelmingly white--not just white, but Scandanavian-- area of town. Until recently it was the magnet school for homeless kids: wherever they moved, all over the city, they went to that school so they could have some consistency. And because most people aren't clamoring to get their kids in, class sizes are smaller than the average.

So I really wanted to like it. Then I went on a tour last year and was underwhelmed. The principal and librarian struck me as pleasant, but unimaginative and hidebound. The place felt uncomfortably stretched for resources. Everyone seemed very focused on getting kids Up To Speed on reading and basic school skills. And I know that's important. And it's not like I want my kid to be constantly entertained and challenged, or like I think she's some kind of genius. I don't. But with two librarian parents, she's already pretty literary, and if all the attention is going to just getting kids up to grade level, she'll probably be bored and get cocky and obnoxious. (Just what the world needs: Mermaid Girl with an even more inflated self-image than she already has.)

Then there's the Groovy Alternative School that's also in our cluster: they do multi-age groupings, and innovative arts programs, and project-based learning, and it's a K-8 school so we wouldn't have to go through all this craziness again in 5th grade, and yada yada yada everyone we know wants to get their kid in there, including us. We hear it's about 50-50 whether you get in. I went on the tour there last year and boy was I glad it was last year and not this year because there were a TON of parents there. It seemed like about a hundred. For just one tour out of the eight or nine they ran over the winter! Whenever I started to hyperventilate I'd look at all the parents and remind myself "these people aren't our competition. Next year's people are our competition."

Aside from the Reference Area School and the Groovy Alternative School (let's call them RAS and GAS), there are two or three other neighborhood schools we've heard good things about, and one that runs a Montessori program, and another alternative school that's clear across town. They're all... pretty good. Not as much arts as we'd like, bigger class sizes than we'd like, but basically okay schools.

So of course this choice thing is driving us completely insane, because how do we choose which schools to list first? And no matter how we choose, and how much research we do, and how much we pore over the district web site and press our friends and neighbors for gossip and read PTA minutes and make lists of questions to ask and qualities that are important to us, it's almost totally the luck of the draw where Mermaid Girl ends up going, and whether she gets a teacher she loves or even clicks with, and what friends she'll find, the friends who are going to be her companions in the long passage from the tail end of toddlerhood to the cusp of adolescence. It seems like such a huge decision, all dependent on pure chance and a lottery number and whether her parents took a fancy to the school with the cool mural or the school that's near the zoo.

Aside from which, we might be moving to Canada in a couple of years. Then we could do it all again!

9 Comments:

Blogger Udge said...

Things were simpler when I was a lad. There was one school in the neighbourhood, and everybody went to it. End of story. Golden days, indeed.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Udge said...

Sorry, my mouse slipped. I wanted to add: Do you read SmartMom? Also from your (old) neighbourhood, also deep in this sticky and sordid "pick the right school for my kid" business. She's quite a good writer.

3:20 AM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

Sounds like an interesting system.

Things were a bit different when The Boy was ready to enter kindergarten. (Hell, my whole LIFE was so much different back when The Boy was ready to enter kindergarten!) We had moved into a neighborhood with a public elementary school half a block away. I took one tour of that place and it was "ugh, no way!"

He ended up attending a private Montessori school for eight years. One of the best choices we ever made. I think. Can one ever be sure?

I've always felt the success of a child in school also depends a lot on the parent and what they put into it. Makes for an interesting equation.

5:12 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

AUGH! My boy is only a year old and I've been worrying about this school stuff since before he was born. Your post gave me the screaming willies...I will now go unclench my teeth and get my nerves off the ceiling.

*sigh*

8:00 AM  
Blogger LilySea said...

heh.
I'm freaking over this issue and we haven't even had a call from the adoption agency.
At the moment I'm leaning towards post-kindergarten homeschooling through about age 12 (or an age at which our future child can intelligently articulate a preference for some other kind of schooling).
That is if they have half-day kindergarten anymore. Or is it all day only now?

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know what? I think she'll do great at any of these schools. Because of the wonderful enriching environment she comes home to, I would frankly put her in the school where you think she'll have the best social environment. You will recall that I went to the world's crappiest high school and still got into a certain college with certain SAT scores and now, though frankly I could do without it, have a certain higher degree, a lovely partner (whom I could NOT do without) and a great deal of expertise about schooling. Plus, in the fight-filled halls and film-strip-filled classrooms of Portales High School, I got to meet people I never would have otherwise, and not to be corny but this has made me a better person; more tolerant of my own weaknesses and with a stronger sense that there's nothing special about me except luck. When I see my undergraduate students who went to the best public schools in Maryland, they have so little experience. They go to after-school programs for at-risk kids to do their field placements, and they are shocked by, for instance, the fact that the kids are mostly cheerful and nicely dressed--they imagine that low-achieving elementary school children would be some sort of crazed, bruised, bedraggled, violent victims of neglect. They can't say the words black and white, and when I say them often and firmly, they flinch at first. Then one day they start talking about it, and they talk and talk and talk and talk, because they've never felt free to talk about race before. Whereas the high school students I taught in Arlington, at the "worst" school in the district, not only got 5's on their AP Physics exams (sometimes), got into UVA and William & Mary, but they all had friends of different races, they wore regular, inexpensive clothes to school (even the rich white ones), and when the white ones came back from Charlottesville or Williamsburg for their first Christmas Break, they came to see me and said, in horrified whispers, "The kids at my college are racist!"

Sarah is a lovely, exuberant child who will make friends quickly and easily in any school. Her teachers will always love her; she will always thrive. Her intellect is sparkling, she is hungry to learn, and even a bad teacher occasionally isn't going to dampen that down. She is already bursting with compassion and imagination. If she is at, for instance, a school where some children suffer from economic, physical, psychic or ethnic violence, you all are going to have to talk with her about these things earlier than you might want to. But on the other hand that would give her a chance to grow and nurture her incipient compassion.

In short, with the choices you've described, I think you just can't go wrong. If it were me, I think I might put her in the school nearest to home, for reasons social and convenient and aesthetic, and just be sure in the summers that her reading & experiences are on target with Washington's state curriculum, because, much though I hate many state curricula and hate the inadequacy of No Child Left Behind (though I love the goal: That a school must be sure that all children, regardless of race and economics, must be succeeding), if you one day move her to a "better" school, she will then be right on target.

Well, this is twice in a week that your blog has triggered lecture mode in me. But I really do think you have nothing to worry about. Your daughter has, to use Gardiner, superb interpersonal intelligence, and I think she is showing signs of a high intrapersonal intelligence as well, so your job is to just feed those things by giving her as many interesting social experiences as possible! And she will tell you if she is uncomfortable.

--Angela

5:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Angela's argument makes a lot of sense. Have confidence in Sarah's strengths and resources (especially but not only you and RW)!

6:32 AM  
Blogger LilySea said...

Post-your-comment-on-my education discussion:

Oh man, don't feel the need to get defensive! You're right. We all have to do what's best for us and our kids and what we can do most successfully. I am sure that whatever capitalism training the little mermaid gets in public school will be more than effectively countered by her home values. Not to mention bribery with chocolate!
: )

11:13 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

We have an almost identical system wherein all the schools are "magnet schools" and you apply to get in, which pretty much means that all the whitebread schools are turning kids away, and the hispanic schools have bad reputations. My older daughter first went to what seemed like the best choice, a co-op public elementary, and it sucked. We sent her to the one we liked in the first place, the one that didn't have the great test scores but "felt" right when we visited, and lo and behold it was an awesome school. Trust your impulses.

9:44 AM  

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