Thursday, March 20, 2008

The hard stuff

I'm agonizing over where to send my beloved daughter for kindergarten. I've decided against continuing her at her current (private, Montessori) program, in part because it's the most expensive of my options, in part because the parents I've talked to are very happy with the primary classes, and less so with the motivation in the elementary, and finally because the class she'd be moving to is largely made up of boys--noisy, disruptive boys, in this case, who seem to get the majority of the teacher's attention. As a "good girl," my daughter seems likely to get less of the teacher's time and energy. And let's face it, as a control-freak with a PhD, I've hit the wall on the "at your own pace" element of Montessori learning. In theory, it's great; in practice, I want something more structured.

I realize that my decision needn't be permanent, but in several cases, one needs to enroll in the school (public OR private) to guarantee places in subsequent years, so I might not have this many options again.
So, I must decide, this weekend, before leaving for a week-long vacation extravaganza, while revising one article and drafting another, among these 3 schools:

School A is a public "arts magnet" elementary. Several of my students and grads have worked there and really liked it. The teachers are energetic, and art, music, drama, and dance are integrated throughout the curriculum. It's free, with a nominal fee for additional before-and-after care. It's not within walking distance, but then, none of these are. It's pretty close to my campus. It's ethnically and socio-economically diverse. The staff, I confess, has not been very helpful or informative, but then, I'd rather have them focused on my child. Big drawbacks: almost no science, lots of
"rote" work and worksheets, most students entering have had little pre-school or preparation, and there will be 24 students/class with one teacher and possibly parental or student-teacher aid. She'd love the art, music, and drama. I'm not sure how the math and science programs are.

School B is the public school favored by most of my colleagues whose kids are in local public schools. It is slightly closer (both A and B are near my campus; less than 2 miles from our house), and has a pretty well-balanced curriculum--which means minimal art and music, some science, and lots of worksheets. The principal is responsive and committed, the teachers are happy to be there, and an active parental support system tries to make up for the kinds of things that regular school budgets don't provide. Again, though, 24 kids per class. One teacher. Two inexpensive local or nearby choices for before-and-after care.

Both schools A and B are subject to the tyranny of our ridiculous state assessment tests, and while that's not an issue for her next year, it soon will be. There's also the "hard edge" that local public children have--they are very "old"-seeming--and she would have to develop some of that soon to thrive. Both are fine choices, and would be perfectly acceptable if I hadn't explored option C. To make it worse, while I have toured all three schools, the public school information sessions don't happen until after I will have to make my choice and leave town.

School C is private. It's about 20 minutes away and would require me to drive her to school at least once/day (there is another family, and possibly one more, who would carpool). It has one class per grade level, 18-20 students per class, and 2 full-time teachers in each class. She visited it yesterday, and was clearly both welcomed and challenged. It's expensive--pretty much the outside of what I can afford to pay (just below what I pay now, for tuition plus childcare). Students do lots and lots of hands-on art, science, music, Spanish, computers. It's well-established, with an active parent/family network. Unlike the other private schools around, the expenses are minimal once tuition is paid (other schools add supplies fees, trip fees, meals, etc., etc.--this one doesn't). The curriculum is centered on reading and math. There is lots of outdoor activity. On the downside, it means driving, gas, bridge tolls, and more stress (?) for me, although it's not really much farther than I take her now. The student body is not nearly so diverse as the local public schools, which will become more and more of an issue, I suspect. And the childcare is expensive, so her day (and mine) will be a bit shorter.

I can't sleep. I make one decision, and then regret it at 2 a.m. Everyone I ask has an agenda: pro-public schools. Anti-public schools. Private schools "attract a nice group of families," some say; ""private schools are for snobs and troublemakers," say others. "It's too expensive," some say, while others say, "what's more important than education?" "You don't want to be one of those parents," friends say--you know, the ones whose kids are already putting together a Harvard application and learning their second language. "Save that money for college," I've heard, and "these are the most important years for her." She would be fine at school A or school B. School C would be great for her, though, so why should I settle for fine?

It's all right, and it's all wrong, and no one knows her like I do. She's smart, willful, playful, creative, musical, much more athletic than her mother. She's stubborn, and not likely to push herself to do something difficult. She can read, and pretends not to. She's quirky and loving and inquisitive, and asks me hundreds of questions about how the world works, why the universe is the way it is (she's very concerned about Pluto's recent demotion, and wants to see for herself why it's no longer big enough to be considered a planet). She loves to cook and garden, and knows a smattering of Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish--somewhat interchangeably. She's brave and adaptable and self-sufficient. And the one other person who could make this decision with me is no longer around. I can imagine the various things he would say, but I can't envision where he would end up, given his bias against snobbery and his all-consuming love for his daughter. Of course, if he were here, I'd be more confident that she would learn about the world, and bugs, and planets, regardless of what she got in school. I'd be able to do without those hours and hours of childcare. But this way lies madness, right?



At 12:33 PM , Blogger Snickollet said...

I hate making the Big Decisions alone.

I could throw my opinion into the fray, but I won't. I'll just think of you when *I* lie awake at 2:00 a.m., thinking about the things that I think about. Although different things than you, that isolated feeling of the weight of making the decision alone is the same.

At 1:09 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Oh, no--please feel free to weigh in! I am waiting for that one bit of advice that decides me; that is, the "that feels exactly right" recognition or even the "oh, that's so wrong that I must be supposed to choose the other."

That, or a coin toss.

At 2:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe this is petty but its really nice if your kid makes friends with kids whose parents you like. if your co-workers chose B, you'd have an added convenience for carpools for playdates and afterschool activities etc. and hopefully like minded people to hang out with.

At 3:39 PM , Anonymous MindSpin said...

If you have the option, send her to the place least likely to squelch her innate love of learning or her beautiful personality over the course of years. Choose a place with like-minded families and children who are taught to be kind rather than allowed to be cruel.

At 7:27 PM , Blogger Rev Dr Mom said...

As a rule, I tend to favor public schools for the reasons you mentioned--more diversity, less elitism. And convenience does matter over time.

So if you choose school B which sounds like it could be a good choice, because you'd have more time and more money, you could do extra things--art classes, music classes,sport, etc. Would that balance things out?

I've been a single mom, too, and I know how hard it is to have ALL the responsibility, and all the decisions.

At 9:42 PM , Blogger Meansomething said...

Like Rev Dr Mom and your anon commenter, after reading your post I too leaned toward B. The extent to which we feel part of a school community has been a surprisingly important factor for me as my daughter gets older. Knowing other parents and having some of your support system woven into the school situation can be hugely helpful. Just being in the system, you pick up tons of info on how to negotiate it. Not to mention that in a year or two, when she asks to go to someone's house after school, it will really help if that person is nearby and you might even know the parents already.

I feel for you. It's a hard decision to make, harder when you are making it on your own. It feels so momentous--though there is usually room to make a change if you are not happy with what you're seeing.

At 9:52 AM , Anonymous Jen said...

I've been reading for awhile but not commented before. I'm a pre-tenure prof, in the middle of a similar public/private decision, and it is driving me crazy for all the reasons you listed. You summarized the choice so nicely: "She would be fine at school A or school B. School C would be great for her, though, so why should I settle for fine?"

I keep thinking I *should* send my child to public schools for all sorts of liberal-social-economic reasons as you indicate, but it is hard to look past the opportunities of the private education... So I have nothing helpful to add but I just wanted to say that I HEAR you. And thank you for putting the choice in such nice prose. And while I'm at it, thank you for the lovely, honest blog. Your daughter is such a lucky child to have a mother like you. Good luck. Jen

At 11:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

terse suggestions, because I know you'll take or leave them:

you could choose school A and do some fun, private math and science tutoring at home. if not that, then school C. school B sounds more mediocore than school C sounds elitist.

if school C, then do yourself three favors.

1. tune out the voices, inner and outer, who say, "you're one of those parents." you're not. even without your husband here, you're not. and you won't become one.

2. tune out the ones who say, stop worrying about this now, save it for college. that's not who you are, it seems. stop WORRYing yes; but give yourself permission to have your concerns, at every stage of her life. that's who you are. don't worry, just have your concerns.

3. save some of your energy this way: give up thinking that, in the end, your concerns about your own convenience are really going to factor in this time. they aren't. it is of course reasonable to those concerns about convenience -- your own and your daughter's. but you've described the concerns specific to each option here, and you've said school C is not much further than you take her now. so its seems these concerns are relatively minor. not nothing, but minor. yes, an irritation that will bug you over time if you feed it. but this time, not as important as the other factors in the choice. acknowledge yourself for your sacrifice, get some good podcasts or books on tape for the commute, and let it go.

best of luck. thanks for hearing my anonymous two (or more) cents.

At 6:11 PM , Blogger Julia said...

When we were making the choice a little over a year ago, our public school choices weren't nearly as good or as guaranteed. Our one private school choice sounds very much like your school C. As much as I believe in public education, we eventually chose the private school because it felt like it would be a nourishing environment for our daughter (plus, as predicted, we lost the public school lottery, and she would've been stuck in a public school that was a lot more dismal than even approaching passable). After our son died, it turned out to be an even more important choice-- the teachers (also 2 for a class of 22) have been wonderful in supporting her and making room for her grief without sacrificing any of the other aspects of her development. All the more remarkable if you consider she came to school with very limited English and is fluent now. Having two teachers in that classroom turned out to be even more important than I could've predicted. It allows them great flexibility, and they put it to impressive use. They have a writers workshop, for example. They even ask kids to analyze their own learning and growth (impressive metacognitive skills for a bunch of six year olds), and my daughter decided that what she learned about herself from participating in the writers workshop is that she likes to write stories about her life. My favorite math and science skill they are building (and they started on this one in September) is data collection, recording, and interpretation. They work on literacy skills too, their art curriculum is impressive, their music is not bad, and they build nice relationships with kids in older grades. The school is so much better for her than anything I could've anticipated I can't even do it justice. I realize I am talking about our school rather than your school C, but certain elements sound close enough that I felt the need to overshare. I have no idea whether this is at all helpful for you.
Best of luck making this decision. I know it can't be easy.
There is also a coin method, but it requires you to narrow it down to two choices. You toss the coin, and in the moment when it hits the ground and you see what the verdict is, you get this instant gut check of whether it is what you really wanted. And you go with the gut.
Again, best of luck. And sorry for the novel.

At 6:53 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Thank you all! This is just what I need--to see the things I have been considering put into other people's words, filtered in different ways. I am still struggling with the decision--I was all set to go with school B when a wise friend suggested I try C for a year, since I am more likely to regret having skipped the "better" opportunity than having at least tried it. If they are snooty elitists, or the commute is too wearing, or we stay as broke as we are this year, those two public options will still be there, and 1st grade is NOT such a long way from kindergarten.

I think it's running up against my own aspirations, the fact that my finances don't allow those aspirations, and my...guilt? cosmic disappointment? that she has no father (no, I don't feel it's my fault; yes, I basically think I do a good job with her) that makes her school choice SO important to me.
As a single parent, I've come to rely on her wonderful teacher of the past 3 years as practically another parent--one who gives my daughter things I don't have time, inclination, talent, or temperament for. Add my own neurotic degree-chasing (BA, not one but *2* MAs, PhD), and school is a huge thing for me. So teasing out how much of this decision is about ME as opposed to HER is also difficult.

Thank you all for the perspectives and suggestions--and don't we wish we could read the comment apparently written in Chinese? Perhaps after her summer in Chinese school, my daughter will be able to.

At 4:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the idea of a culturally and socio-economically diverse place. But I'm also completely against the No Child Left Behind teaching to the test crap that goes on these days in public schools. Too many hours are wasted teaching to the test. Because of that, I'd be more inclined to choose the private school route, especially if I could have the mindset of taking it a year at a time. I suppose there are other ways to expose children to a true representation of the colors and cultures of our world, and those pursuits could perhaps be accomplished outside of class time. Ack! Don't you just wish you could create your dream environment for your child?!

At 1:03 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dorcasina, just delurking to say that sending your daughter to private school for a year sounds like a good way to work out whether it's the right choice. I went to both public and private schools, and they each had advantages and disadvantages. As you sense, part of the trick is to find the school that fits your daughter.

Also, that Chinese comment is spam.


At 8:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has been one of the toughest part of parenting for me. I'm grateful we have the "choice", but the need to feel like I'm doing the best by them, my kids, is so overwhelming at times. I agree that finding the one that fits the kid and not thinking about it as finding where your kid fits is the best way to go into it.

Sounds like you have some very solid options, good luck in the search.


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