Saturday, December 04, 2004

Schoolishness: the Sequel

Wow. Thanks for the thoughtful (if sometimes freaked-out) comments, links, and glowing referrals (Angela, can you write Mermaid Girl's college recommendation in 12 years? We can say you're guidance counselor. Yeah, that's it.)

We're pretty set on public school for Mermaid Girl, due to being genteelly broke, and not wanting to quit the jobs we love in order to homeschool, and, oh yeah, our deep-seated commitment to public education. Seriously, Mermaid Girl is a pretty solid kid, much more socially savvy than either of us ever were, a social butterfly in fact, and bright enough without being so scarily gifted that she'll throw the average classroom out of whack. Our girl gets so much doting one-on-one attention from her adoring moms (when we're not ignoring her in favor of our respective laptops) that honestly I think she could do with a little rough-and-tumble, and, as Angela wrote in her lovely comment on my last post, some exposure to different kinds of kids.

As long as it's not too rough. And the teachers aren't mean. And it's not all dumb workbook sheets. And the other kids don't form a clique and leave her out. And...WAAAH! My tiny sweet baby's gonna go to a huge impersonal institution and spend her day waiting in lines and sitting quietly and being bored and get beat up by 5th graders who will take her lunch money!

For those of you (hi mom!) who wonder why we are so anxious when the schools are all pretty decent, please note the contradictions inherent in the above two paragraphs.

Many of the other parents at Mermaid Girl's preschool feel the same way, so we had an evening meeting last Tuesday to share what we knew, and invited some parents of graduates who are now in kindergarten or first grade, all in public schools as it turned out.

Mermaid Girl's classmates tend to be the kids of teachers and social workers and vaguely lefty and/or artistic sorts, as befits the unstructured, quirky nature of her school. It's also a day care center, and a lot of the kids, including ours, have been there since they were babies; there's a really nice feeling of community.

We all went around the room and said what we were interested in learning from the alumnae parents (or, as someone put it, "those of you who have passed over to the other side"). People wanted to know about negotiating the byzantine application/registration process, and music and art at various schools, and how they'd decided which school was the best fit for their kid's personality, and good, thoughtful (there's that word again!) questions like that.

No one asked about test scores, partly I think because we can get that info off the school system's website, and partly because there was general understanding that test scores mostly correlate with parental income. While really low test scores can be a red flag because they indicate that everyone's energies will be spent getting most of the kids up to grade-level, high test scores usually just mean it's a school with lots of professional, achievement-oriented parents, not necessarily with great teachers or programs.

Whew! [/rant]. Where was I... oh, right, questions. So when it was my turn, I said, "I want gossip. I want to know which great principal is retiring next year, and which school has one good kindergarten teacher and one bad kindergarten teacher and how you can get your kid the good one, and what the parents say in the parking lot. I want the dirt." Everyone sort of laughed but I was dead serious. I know from my job that that stuff is what makes or breaks a school; it can be destructive, but it can also go a long way towards telling you the real story. And you sure don't get it from the website or the tours.

I got it at that meeting. And mostly it was reassuring: everyone had good--but not PR-like--things to say about the schools their kids go to, and about other schools their neighbors go to (including our Reference Area School of the mediocre reputation), and helpful tips for getting through the process and about what to look for and ask on the tours, and stuff like that.

They also said the stay-at-home-mom volunteers pretty much run the places, and that they'd had to get over another level of guilt and defensiveness after some years of being comfortable members of our preschool/day-care community, and that if you work full-time (which most of us do) you'll almost never see your child's teacher, but there are lots of great after-school programs and teachers are responsive to e-mail.

The best part was that the meeting was at someone's house. Everyone brought food. The dad even broke out some wine. The kids were at a couple other houses where we'd pooled to hire some teachers for childcare, or else home with the other parent. There was a festive, relaxed air about the whole thing that I don't think would have been there if we'd been sitting in the tiny chairs at the preschool with our kids rampaging in the next room.

And if had been an official school event, someone from the school would have been there, as well as the Parent Educator who most of us can't stand, and I don't think the gossip would have flowed quite so freely. And I am all about the gossip.


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