Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Education in America

Well, it's hard to believe it, but Sun will be heading off to kindergarten next school year.

Searching for quality, affordable day care was an ordeal, but it doesn't compare to the frightful enterprise of choosing a KINDERGARTEN classroom that will prepare your precious 5-year-old for LIFE.  I mean, this is not your grandmother's (that would be me) kindergarten.  When I started K at Grace A. Green, way back in the year 1, we came into the classroom as tabula rasa. Our teachers treated us like we were little, well children, who needed only to do things like play house, learn to count, learn our ABCs, and learn to sit still when told. I mean, we took naps!

Kindergarten today is serious business.  I read recently that children who go to Pre-Kindergarten turn out to have better lives decades later than children who do not.  If Pre-K can have an effect on future prospects, imagine how important it is to choose the right K environment. Bad kindergarten--forget college.  In the future, employers may want to see your child's kindergarten transcript before offering a job.   There is no napping in kindergarten anymore.  And you'd better be counting into the hundreds.  Forget learning ABCs.  If your kid is not reading by kindergarten, you must be doing something wrong. Playing is no longer play--you must be learning something as well.

So now, the decision is upon us. We discussed Sun and Raine's education before now and worried about the state of education in our country, the general decline in the quality of public schools, the disparity between the haves and the have nots. We talked about the charter school option, even considered started our own. (yeah, right) I fell in love with the Montessori philosophy, but could never find anyone who had actually experienced this educational method firsthand, no one who could assure me that all that independence and "unstructured" learning actually pays off.  We even considered home schooling. (yeah, right)  But, we never felt the urgency because, after all, Sun was only 2. Then, 3.  Then 4.  Plenty of time.

Now he is 5 and registration deadlines loom before us. And, frankly, I'm feeling very sad about our options. After visiting five schools, talking to parents of children in those schools, talking to anyone who would listen, searching for ratings online, I am truly stymied. So, I'm asking for more input.  Tell me, given the choices below, which would you choose?

First, let me lay out my wish list:
  1. An educational philosophy that knows all children can achieve excellence, a classroom environment focused more on experiential learning than on rote memorization or teaching to a test.  I want the teacher to develop creativity, independence, and a love of learning, rather than spend hours imposing rules about what not to do in class.
  2. A diverse student population, and a diverse teaching and administrative staff. Male teachers.
  3. Bright, clean, stimulating environment inside the school building and lots of room to run and play, climb, jump, sit in the grass under trees, grow things, etc. outside.
  4. Art, music, drama, phys. ed. classes in addition to the academic curriculum. And, as a result of visiting a private school, I would really like our kindergarteners to start learning another language--at least one.
  5. All at a price we can afford.
We visited 5 schools. Here are our choices:

School #1: The Catholic School.  All my life, I've heard about how wonderful a parochial education is:  the uniform, the discipline, the academic standards. On our visit to the school, I saw kindergarten classrooms with the chairs lined up perfectly in rows, students who did not seem very friendly, and a repetition of the word 'Obey.'  Also, I'm not completely comfortable with the religious education.  After spending only a few weeks in the Catholic Pre-K, I heard Sun and Raine talking about some of their stuffed animals who had died after being beaten and hung on a cross.  The tuition for the school ran into the thousands, but one can pay monthly and because of a statewide voucher program, parents can get help in the form of grants. The catch is that your child's public school must be in 'Academic Emergency' before you can be considered for a voucher.  Our district's schools are in a state of 'Continuous Improvement' (improving from what? I wonder), and therefore, we don't qualify  for a voucher. Besides, those babies are snapped up very quickly and only about 14,000 students statewide actually receive the grants.

School #2. The Private School:  This wonderful oasis of education sits on 23 acres, tucked away in the innermost reaches of a swanky suburb.  It has almost everything on my wish list. The art and music rooms look like they belong on a college campus. The science classroom has live animals. Each grade has its own garden outside. The lower school students (K-2nd grade) meet every Monday morning to share stories, make announcements and presentations. Every grade has an immersion project during the year. The kindergarteners' immersion project is to learn about nutrition, visit restaurants, and then for several weeks in the spring, they plan, design, and run their own restaurant out of their classroom. The meals cost 55 cents and are prepared and served by the 5 and 6 year olds.  They learn about healthy eating, the chemistry of cooking, planning and working together, making change from a dollar, running a business. All students, from K through high school, are taught Mandarin Chinese.  100 % of the high school graduates go to college. What's not to love? While the student are a mix of ethnicities (somewhat), the lower school faculty is of one stripe: white females.  No men teach in the lower school, and I saw no African American, Latino, or Asian teachers. Then there is the matter of tuition. $15,000 a year.  No, that is not a typo.

Schools #3 and 4: The Charter Schools. The reports that charter schools in our area are not producing the stellar scholars they claim to be able to produce are troubling.  However, the reports from parents are mostly positive. But the first one I visited was situated in an old, nominally renovated building, with cramped, artificially lit rooms, narrow hallways with thick coats of paint that can not convey a cheerful environment.  The building is on a busy street in a 'transitional' neighborhood (one whose transition is stalled) with absolutely no green grass or trees anywhere.  The 'playground' consisted of a tired little plastic set plunked down in a circle of concrete. Ugh! Furthermore, the school administrators touted the fact that their students must memorize a School Creed, which spooked me, I'll admit. And finally, this school building is only one of three.  Once a child goes to 3rd grade, he must go to another building blocks away. And after grade 6, he must go to another building in another part of the city. And there is no high school.  So, built into this school experience is four moves to different school environments.  For me, that is a deal-breaker.

The second charter school presented a marginally better appearance. The building was bright, shiny new. There was a play yard, and some grass. Instead of a creed, there were signs everywhere touting the moral lessons that would be part of our child's education. I don't have a problem with that. But online reviews from parents complained about the school's 'zero tolerance' policy, imposed even upon the tender K students, and while we were there, we found several boys (African-American boys) who had been 'sent to the Principal's office' for discipline problems.  Somehow, the notion that moral education is stressed and yet you have discipline problems that you can't hide from visitors bothered me. This school did have a male music teacher.  Yeah!  That alone might be the decision point for me. And it houses K-8th grade in one building. However, the student population was not diverse, and the academic scores reported on the  'Great Schools' website were disappointingly low.

School #5: The Public School. Ah, where to start? In the last election, the school levy was defeated. Therefore, several school buildings are closed. So the building that was meant to house the Pre-K program now must accommodate Pre-K through 2nd grade.  On a tour of the admittedly clean, bright, newish building, I asked how many students would be in each kindergarten class.  The answer: probably around 28. 28 kindergarteners? Really? I did not even ask about educational philosophy, because I can't imagine a teacher being capable of managing, let alone educating, 28 5-year-olds every day. I did ask if the students were taught a different language, or if they had weekly meetings run by the students, and if there was bus transportation. No, no, and yes. So there you go.  To its credit, the student population is somewhat diverse, the principal is a man, the staff seemed quite friendly, and they did have art, music, PE, and a technology room.  And a cute library.  Another plus is that Raine, being in Pre-K, would be in the same building as Sun--Raine and 900 other students. (I exaggerate, but not by much).

Big sigh. What to do? The Catholic school seems stuffy and overbearing. The private school (which we love) is priced out of our range--even though they have offered a grant for half of the tuition. Do we get second jobs (already done that) or take out a loan for the difference, panhandle on the streets? We're purchasing a home within the year. We're saving for their college tuition. We're strapped. We don't have wealthy grandparents to help out with the fees.  We're the grandparents, remember. The charter schools' environment, educational philosophies, and track records are sketchy. And the public school--it almost feels like to send him there is to set him back before he even gets started.

What would you do?


Daria Dillard Stone said...

Joyce, Daria here (Parents Advancing Choice in Education - PACE)responding to your comments from your Mom Again Blog "Education in America" or in Dayton at least. First I want to APPLAUD you for doing your investigative homework - something we at PACE strongly encourage parents to do. We even have a check list for them if they don'thave a clue where to start. Which is/was not the case with you. YOU want a perfect educational environment for your stars (as I call ALL students)and there is none my dear. You make the best choice based on the facts you have pointed out. And you work with the school as a partner. I would love to talk with you more and help you in any way PACE can.

Great reality blog for parents, I suggest you go on FB and ask for comments as well if you have done so already.

Truly Blessed said...

Joyce, Can't believe he's ready for, where has the time gone? Let me marinate on your choices & get back with you.

red top said...

Joyce, here I go again. I'm determined to get in touch with you via this blog.
I enjoyed our telephone conversation yesterday so much. I miss terriblly conversations with intelligent, thoughtful YOU. Just after our conversation, Malik called and we had a very long, informartive conversation, Hr let me in on the family's plans for the future, especially his. I can't believe he has been in the military for ten years!
You will recognized the love the children have for you and their love will assure you not to be afraid. Look at how they have been blessed and alreeady destined for greatness being in your care. Believe in yourself. You WILL make the right choice. There is evidence all arounf you. Always remember we love you very much and remain constantly proud oa all you do . have done and will continue to do. How's that for a send-off for the upcoming school year?