December 15, 2003

kindergarten here we come

Damianís entering kindergarten next year. Heíll be enrolling in the public school system, because we canít afford the thousands of dollars a year for private school, plus heíd lose his extra school district-provided services (speech therapy, occupational therapy, floor time therapy, adaptive PE, the possibility of a shadow in the classroom) and we certainly canít cover that expense privately on top of tuition. Weíd also lose the school accountability an IEP (individual education plan) gives us.

So public school it is. This scares me.

Iím not against a public school education. I attended a total of four schools myself, not including college. Two were private, the other two public. None were ideal, but probably my best experience was in a public elementary school, and the public high school had a few phenomenal teachers (as well as a bunch of stinkers).

No, what scares me is the nature of our local public school system. I know testing mania has hit the entire country (thank you GW Bush and your No Child Left Untested plan), but it sure is bad here. The results of the end-of-year tests determine how much money a school receives. The school principals often therefore insist the teachers teach toward the test. All year. Rote learning. Stuff that knowledge down the kidsí throats. Is it on the test? No? Then it doesnít count, donít bother teaching it.

Thereís also a little extra something called Open Court. (Interesting link, by the way.) As I understand it, this is a literacy program. Every single day, the teacher sits on a chair with the children on the floor in front of her. Every day for a set amount of time (forty five minutes? something like that; a large chunk of the day) the teacher reads from a sheet, does exactly whatís on that sheet, does not Ė can not Ė deviate for a single sentence from that sheet, must say the right words in the right order, no matter whether the kids are fidgeting, bored out of their minds, already know this stuff, donít learn best this way. They must drill, must learn this way and no other.

It makes me sad to think of my restless, eager, hungry child being forced to learn that way, a way thatís so antithetical to his pepper-you-with-questions, try-it-out-himself mind. Our home school, the school he is supposed to attend, is even worse. We live in a very Russian neighborhood. The school population is something like 80% Russian. I have nothing against Russians as a cultural group, they can be neighborly. As long as you make it clear you wonít be cajoled or bullied (yes, I have stories), they respect you and are rather sweet. Weíve got a complete set of Beatrix Potter thanks to a Russian cab driver. ButÖ wellÖ letís put it this way: Damianís dentist has a hygienist who used to live in our neighborhood. Her parents live there still and she uses their address so she can continue to send her kids to our home school. Why? Because itís very old-school Russian. Lots of homework. Very strict, stern teachers. Learn this textbook this way, donít question, just digest.

This goes against what I believe education should be about. A six year old or even a ten year old doesnít need to have multiplication tables memorized as much as he or she needs to understand how to think about math, how to use math, and how very cool and neat and amazing numbers can be. Thatís key, I think. Excitement about learning. Children naturally devour the world, asking so many questions, driving you crazy with it, exploring and analyzing, taking things apart and putting them together again. Why not harness that, why not make learning hands-on, make it flow naturally from their curiosity about the world and incorporate the necessary lessons into that? It looks to me like Damian will be reading fluently by the time he enters kindergarten. He doesnít need literacy drills, he needs to be stimulated and guided. He needs the foundation of knowledge, yes, but also a foundation of a way of learning and thinking thatíll last longer than schooling, certainly longer than facts.

Where does this leave us? Well, the private schools are terribly tempting. I know of at least four in our general area (between Hollywood and Culver City, so within a seven mile radius) that have a lovely experiential learning, project-based philosophy. But weíd most likely be the poorest family in the school, which would absolutely have a psychological effect on me but also on my child as he grows older and more aware of such things. I donít want him to be the poorest child in a rich school just as I donít him to be the richest child in an inner city school. I want him to have friends of various income levels and skin colors and cultures. I want him to grow up with as little prejudice as possible and also to be comfortable with his identity. Heís got enough otherness already with his diagnosis, he doesnít need to stand apart more because of a socioeconomic gulf.

Besides, thereís the money thing. We ainít got it. If we could get a scholarship (will they bend over backwards to give financial aid to a special needs kid?), it would only cut the yearly cost from tens of thousands to mere thousands. Which means no vacations, no new clothes, no meals out. And thatís only elementary school. This is obviously a multi-year commitment and weíd run dry long before college. Iíd sacrifice for Damian if it really was worth it and I know Dan feels the same, but Iím not sure it is.

Whatís that I hear you say? Homeschool? It looks right but I donít think it is, not for us. It fits philosophically and I applaud and admire the people who can make a commitment to it, but Iím not one of them. Iím already pretty burned out after everything this kid has needed from me; I think Iíd quickly grow to resent Damian if teaching him took more of my time and energy than it already does. And I think if we can find a good school situation for him the socialization will do wonders for his confidence as well as his understanding of social interaction. And thatís a lesson that will last for the rest of his life.

Fortunately, thereís the charter school system. Charter schools are more independent than regular public schools. Each principal runs their school like a separate fiefdom according to the charter drawn up at the schoolís inception. They donít have to abide by every one of the school districtís strictures, though they do have to give the children end-of-year tests and those test scores need to show steady improvement until and unless they reach a certain high level. So thereís some district oversight, but not a lot. Finding a compatible charter school may be the answer. Iíve started looking. And stopped sleeping.

(To be continued.)

Posted by Tamar at December 15, 2003 10:15 PM

Ugh. Open Court. Ugh. I despise that program, or at least what I've heard about it. I can totally understand your reluctance to send Damian to a school that uses it.

These schooling decisions are hard. Really hard. They feel so...irrevocable. But keep in mind that nothing is ever set in stone. If you start him in the strict school, and he hates it, you can take him out, move him to a private school, a charter school, or even homeschool him for half a year whie you figure things out. You can homeschool one year, then enroll him in school the next. None of these decisions is permanent. And you can't know how it's all going to turn out. Go with your gut--and with the realities of your situation, because if you destroy your lives to send him to a private school and it still doesn't work out, you're really going to resent it. Then, once the decision is made, let Damian try and find his way, but don't let him get lost. (Not that you would, anyway.)

It'll be fine. You're watching out for him, and that's what really matters.


Posted by: Tiny Coconut at December 16, 2003 01:26 PM

Tamar, have you looked into the magnet schools?I think they are a bit of a different option than the charter schools, at least they used to be.


Posted by: rose at December 17, 2003 06:23 PM

Tamar, have you looked into the magnet schools?I think they are a bit of a different option than the charter schools, at least they used to be.


Posted by: rose at December 17, 2003 06:23 PM

Thanks, TC. I appreciate the reminder. It's true, I have been thinking it all rides on our decisions this year. I have to take a deep breath. Even private schools must have some openings in the years after kindergarten, right?

Rose, I have indeed been looking at magnet schools too. You can only apply to one magnet each year, though, and the one I'm most drawn toward is coincidentally a charter school.

Posted by: Tamar at December 17, 2003 09:57 PM

I hate to be cliche, but what public schools lack in academic education (Open Court? Yuck) they make up for in real-life, common-sense, street smarts education. In my experience, most private school kids have no clue, and this continues deep into their 20s or sometimes forever. And I've known the poorest kid at a rich kid school -- two of them. They were miserable. Don't do it. It's easier to fill in the academic gaps with the public library and your own knowledge than to single-handedly teach your kid how the world really works.

Posted by: jen at December 19, 2003 09:26 AM