Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Dreaded School Choice Problem

DS is about to turn 5 [insert heartfelt "I can't believe how fast they grow" sentiment here], and will be eligible to start public elementary school next August. The decision of where to send our firstborn to school is, hands down, the biggest worry-inducing stressor we've encountered so far as parents. (And with our low sleep needs kids, that's saying a lot. But also, I fully realize we've had it rather easy in some ways, too.)

The deadline for next fall is February, tick tock. However, I think we're going to keep him at his current bilingual Montessori for Kindergarten, which is the highest grade they offer. It's been so fantastic. My kids have peaked: they're only 3 and 4.5 and already this is the best education they'll ever get in Podunkville, and we all know it. The teachers understand my kids without needing us to tell them. Case in point, teacher says to me yesterday at pick up: "hi hush, we're going to give DS more challenging work because today he got bored and started seeking negative attention..." Music to my ears. Their approach makes our lives so much easier.

I thought we had already decided (back in Nov '10) to send DS to the Home District public school closest to our house, which has been nationally-recognized for excellence.

Then some of the optics changed. Turns out we now have 3 viable public school options to explore. (My internal satisficer says, oh shit.)

Now the bilingual school in Away District is suddenly looking a lot more attractive. What's changed? "Make Your Day," the shitty discipline policy with absolutely no research support that encouraged kids to rat each other out is dead and gone - hooray! How did this miracle occur? Some very dedicated PTA parents pounded the table for several years, and held meetings, and did surveys, and created blogs, and got in the school board's faces, and moved heaven and earth, and lo and behold, they got it replaced this school year with a more empathic discipline policy called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support) that both teachers and parents alike seem to prefer. Remind me never, ever to make fun of nor to devalue the efforts of PTA parents moms again, because they did our little community one tremendous service.

There's also another public school option where the classes sound amazing, as in subjects I myself would want to learn - and, well, it's actually a "public school alternative for Homeschooling Families." Hmm.... I confess I am not naturally inclined to be super open-minded about homeschooling, though I am sympathetic to the homeschooling option for certain cohorts (twice exceptional, and rural gifted, for example). My opinions are malleable enough. The good news is, as predicted, wacky homeschoolers on the internets do not equal life. This local couple we've been getting to know lately have two delightful sons attending the homeschooling public school, and they are like this walking advertisement for the wonders of secular homeschooling. They are low-key, nonjudgmental, NPR-listening types who have invited us to talk with them more, and to visit the school.  I'm also seeing that homeschooling is quite possible for working families like ours, and that contrary to its name the "schooling" doesn't always occur at "home." [Wow, I still can't quite wrap my brain around the fact that we're seriously considering homeschooling. Proof that if you live long enough, you'll see it all j'suppose.]

Then, of course, there's the word on the street about each school. Gossip folks. Consider the source, don't believe everything you hear, blah blah blah. So here's what's allegedly so very "bad" about each school (let's assume the truth is somewhere in the middle and we all have very different priorities) --

The Bad
Home District school: "It's like 85% Mexican and all kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch. I know this family who sent their (white) son there for Kindergarten (he doesn't speak any Spanish). He had no friends all year. They paired him with this autistic kid. He ended up hating school and crying every day at drop off. They finally requested a transfer to a school with more native English speakers." [Note this is the one and only negative parent experience I've ever heard about anyone having at this school and it was told to me secondhand, and no names were given for me to verify.] And (from a teacher who trained there) "If your son does not watch TV and play video games, he'll have a hard time making friends with other boys as he gets older, because those are the main activities over which the kids in this population seem to form bonds."

Away District Bilingual school: "It all depends on which teacher team your kid gets assigned to - there are some great teachers you will want to request, and then pray your kid doesn't end up with one of the crappy ones. The principal is a nice guy but he's not a good leader and there's no cooperation between the Bilingual teacher teams and the English-only teacher teams." Also - "My son acts out because he's bored. His teacher says he's so gifted it's like he's special needs, but instead of challenging him more in school they encourage him to attend a half hour math enrichment after school as if that solves the problem - so, what's the point of him sitting in class all day? We have to do a lot of extra work at home to meet his needs." And "My daughter went there K through 5th and afterwards we took her to Mexico to visit her grandparents, and it turns out she does not even understand a word of Spanish. We should have never trusted that school." "We didn't know our son got in until my wife finally called the school 3 days before school started and demanded to know." "We didn't find out which teacher my daughter was assigned to until literally the day before school started - she had been asking us all summer long. Frustrating." [Also, due to budget cuts, in this district there is no school on Monday mornings, and that lost time is never made up.]

Homeschooling Public School: (From a parent who sent her sons there for 2 years before putting them back in public school) "A lot of the kids in the upper grades, not so much in K I'd imagine, are there because they do not fit into a typical classroom, so you have a lot of possible ADD and spectrum kids, usually undiagnosed because the parents are in denial, and it can make classroom management a real challenge. There's a religious homeschoolers clique there that it's impossible to be part of if you don't attend the right churches, so that eliminates a lot of the opportunities to socialize." (From another parent whose daughters went there for 2 years) "My youngest daughter needed to socialize more. She's mean to other kids and this school was just not the best place for her to really improve upon those skills."

The Good
Home District school: (From several teachers who have observed or taught there) "I've never seen a school where the children are so respected." "The principal and the teachers have been working together for a long time, they have really strong relationships and make a great team. The superintendent is really proud of the school and is invested in making sure it continues to get all the resources it needs to succeed." (From parents too numerous to count) "The school does a great job, I seriously can't think of anything to criticize." "My daughter is pulled out of class to work at a higher level on certain subjects, she feels really good about school." "Every teacher there is awesome, you don't need to worry about requesting the 'right' teacher."

Away District Bilingual school: "Since none of the schools in this district are winning any awards, we figure at least our kids will come out knowing Spanish."[Also, we think a lot of the families there would be a great fit for us socially, i.e. a lot of former big city liberals now living in Podunkville send their kids there. "If this school were in a big city, there'd be a lottery for it and we'd never get in."] From the daughter of a bilingual teacher: "I'm amazed at how beautifully her accent is coming along when she speaks Spanish. The opportunities to learn Spanish are awesome."

Homeschooling Public School: "This school solved the so-called gifted 'problem' for us. We gave our daughter the choice of staying here or going back to the school where she had had the boring 2nd grade experience from hell." And, "Regular public school just does not have high enough expectations for student learning - those teachers think it's perfectly ok to get a failing grade on the science portion of the state standardized test. This is a healthier environment where higher expectations are the norm."

Logistical Concerns

Home District school: None. The school is 6 minutes away from our house, and the bus stop is only a block away. School is in session the full school day, all week. My kids already speak enough Spanish that they should be able to make native Spanish-speaking friends without any trouble. We watch TV and play video games at home (um, lol), so ditto.

Away District Bilingual school: It's a 22-minute drive each way, and transportation won't be provided. DH works nearby and could handle drop off most days - but I bet it would be hard to nail down a definite routine and I worry my work could potentially suffer if transportation times are not in stone. There's no school Monday mornings (to which I say WTF?). The previous discipline concerns seem to no longer be at issue. Also, I worry that since my kids already speak a ton of Spanish, will they even be challenged enough in a school that does not seem to favor single-subject acceleration.

Homeschooling Public School: It's a 26-minute drive each way. There is obviously a whole lot of work involved in this type of education, but here at least some of that burden is carried by the institution. Still, we'd be responsible for filling out the paperwork with the state, and figuring out how the hell this would actually be done.

Ok, so. I'm asking you kind souls who have graciously read all of the above, in its imperfect informational glory, to please pretend you are me: which option would you choose? Are there any options you're able to eliminate immediately? Please share any data points you may have. Lay it on me! Gracias!


nicoleandmaggie said...

Well, given those options, I would go and talk to the principals (particularly about the "gifted" problem) and ask to observe classes. We learned a *lot* from observing classes and talking to people at the schools. Btw, folks tend to be less "oh sure, all parents think their kids are gifted and your kids are probably not actually special" if you have a list of examples upfront. "Our three year old is reading Magic Treehouse books [and yes, understanding them]" tended to shift people into taking us and our concerns more seriously.

I would also lean towards the home school-- it seems like the less effort and has few red flags and if it doesn't work out, you can always change to one of the more logistically difficult options (though maybe not away district bilingual if it is one of those one shot lottery things).

Good luck! Sometimes it seems like these school choice things would be easier without choice. Though I am very thankful for our private school.

Cloud said...

I agree with @Nicoleandmaggie- visiting the schools will help A LOT, or at least it did in our case. And I'd also lean towards to logistically easier home district. There is a lot to be said for keeping the logistics simple. Of course, we lucked out and got in to our logistically easiest option, which happens to be a Spanish immersion school whose program we love... so yeah, easy for me to say. But still. From what you've described here, I'd go with the home district.

Maria said...

I am not sure what nicoleandmaggie means by the homeschool school option is less effort -- I guarantee that you will have to put in a ton of effort. That said, if you're willing to do it it could be a great option, IF your kids are the sort who would thrive on homeschooling (I would have, my daughter definitely did not).

For me, the six minutes away option would get a ton of points. We went from six minutes away last year to 26 minutes this year, and while the school seems to be a better fit for my so-gifted-she's-special-needs/or-maybe-it's-2e/what's-the-difference-anyway/how-does-anyone-even-figure-these-kids-out daughter, the commute is taking a lot out of us both. Part of the difficulty is that after school activities (which in her case include therapy and OT and are therefore not really optional) add another 30 or more minutes in the car several days a week. So think about that part of the travel issue as well.

There's a lot you can't control or plan for, like the dynamics of any given group of kids, so my best lesson learned thus far is to be willing to jump in and make waves and to be willing to make a change if needed.

Maria said...

Oh! I apologize, nicoleandmaggie! I get now that home school means home district school, not homeschool school. Sorry!

nicoleandmaggie said...

Yes-- the home district. I can see how saying home school is unclear when one of the options is a homeschooling option!

Dr. Sneetch said...

It might be difficult to be in a school with mostly one ethnic group. I mean this is the situation that a Mexican child would be in, if the school was mostly white and there was no choice. Some issues wil be there. In the reverse situation too some issues will be there, like the ones you describe but also unexpected ones, May be best not to voluntarily put your child in a school that largely comprises of an ethnicity not your own (sad to say)

Mom2boy said...

Is bilingual different than the immersion program Cloud picked? Is it just Spanish as an additional subject?
Peer group is important and you sound impressed with the families (moms) at Spanish school.
Definitely visit in person probably more than once the alternative school. If it is truly the most academically challenging it gets moved to the top of my list.

the milliner said...

We have the dreaded school problem over here too, so I feel your pain! We're just about to start school visits (some open houses for elementary school here are in Oct, the rest in Jan). Considering our previous daycare experiences (really bad, ok and fantastic respectively for the 3 daycares L has attended), I'll agree with @Cloud & others that visits are imperative and will probably tell you a lot about what you *think* your feelings are about each school. Go with your gut feeling, even if it doesn't seem to make sense logistically. I know, easier said than done.

FWIW, our daycare is a 25-30 minute drive away, and we make it work. Would I like daycare in our neighbourhood? Well, yeah. But being thrilled about where L is during the day buys me a lot of peace of mind. The only thing I can see being more challenging (than daycare) with being further away is perhaps logistics of after school activities (as someone up thread mentions).

For us, English school? French school? Bilingual? (And all of the language decisions are mired with the language politics here). Close? Far? Ugh. Finding a daycare was stressful enough. I imagine this will be worse. And on top, two of the interesting alternative school open houses are next week while I'm away on a business trip. DH will go, but I don't feel so good about trying to get L into a school that I haven't actually seen & 'experienced' with my own eyes. May try to observe a class as @N&M mentions above if they become serious contenders.

Good luck!!

Haley said...

My .02 comes not from parenting, but being the kid that attended the faraway school because the local one didn't offer appropriate gifted options.

If you're going to send your kids to a school far from the neighborhood, think about what's going to happen when they start getting involved in extra-curricular activities. I was not allowed to play sports because the practice times/distance didn't jive with our family schedule (I had a sibling three grades below me) and transportation wasn't provided. I also had lots of friends at school, but they lived 10+ miles away from us and I was very left out of neighborhood cliques.

I'm glad my parents picked the academically fulfilling option for me (their "scary" 99th percentile child) but I paid for it because our family situation meant that I didn't have a dedicated driver that allowed me to participate in everything my schools had to offer once I got out of the lower elementary grades.

To be honest, I skimmed, but it seems like your kids have some really cool options and will be wonderful little humans at the end of the year. :)

paola said...

I don't know how easy it is there to actually change schoolsif the going gets rough, but here it is quite the norm mainly because the English tend to change homes as the family grows. Our kids changed school after being in this country only 3 months as our first school choice, a very successful school only 2 minutes away,came up. That was the best decision we ever made.

I,like others would go for the local school. Honestly, not having to commute far everyday, being able to drop in to administer medication or pick up sick children, and not having far to go for extra- curricular activities means an enormous amount seeing they will more than likely be attending for 6 years or so. As @ Haley mentioned, not having to travel far to see friends is priceless. If it doesn't work out, you can always change schools at a later date (if that is indeed an option).

jlp said...

First, I absolutely agree with the idea of visiting the schools.

I will also say that it sounds like the bilingual school may be a dominated choice, given that 85% of the kids at the home district school are native Spanish speakers. That is, I would consider the home district school to potentially have a strong Spanish-learning component as well.

hush said...

Thank you all for commenting - this is all such good feedback.

@mom2boy - "Is bilingual different than the immersion program Cloud picked? Is it just Spanish as an additional subject? "

Yes, the Bilingual school in Away District has a vastly different approach, one I think is inferior to immersion programs. Here's how it works: each kid is paired up with a "bilingual buddy" - a kid whose native language is different than their own. This is like outsourcing the teaching to the students IMHO, it can be problematic. If my kids were paired with child who doesn't speak any English at all, my guess they would probably only speak Spanish together, and the other kid would lose the chance to really practice speaking English.

By 2nd grade kids have a choice as to whether they take classes in English or Spanish - so, not surprisingly, many never actually learn Spanish at all.

How would the school handle kids who already speak both languages - put a Kindergartner or 1st grader into 4th or 5th grade Spanish literacy? Hmm...

mom2boy said...

I'm back for more. We talk about this topic at home almost every day and we have another year to go, too.

We are renting where the neighborhood elementary school is "very good." We also love, and can afford, living in this neighborhood. However, the next district over has AMAZING elementary (and middle and high) schools. So. While the plan is to send Tate to the neighborhood school, we are very strongly considering applying for the elementary school in the next district, a significant (in traffic terms) drive there and back.

And part of me thinks all of this is insane but I just can't help myself from over-thinking it all. When you don't have a choice you just make do, you know? And making do isn't even a bad thing at this point. Crazy.

So back to you - I like close by school choice and freaky home-school/public school choice. The sort of Spanish program school just seems not worth the hassle really. Save that hour commute for a tutor if you want more Spanish lessons.

hush said...

@mom2boy - I hear you on the over-thinking. I'm such a satisficer that all of this "choice" feels annoying after awhile. ;)