January 22, 2004

more on kindergarten

Why isnít it simple? Why canít we just find a school that fits Damian perfectly, apply, get him in, and fall asleep easily knowing heís covered for the next six years?

Maybe it will be that smooth, I donít know. Right now it doesnít feel that way. Last time I talked about this I covered private school (canít) and his home school (wonít) and homeschooling (Iím exhausted already) and touched on but didnít cover the other options. Which of course have been obsessing me for months. If you need your child in the public school system but abhor the school in your neighborhood (ie: his home school), that leaves charter, magnet, and open enrollment.

Charter schools are schools within the system that have some autonomy, thanks to the charter drawn up by each schoolís founders. Theoretically they each have a specific mandate, a thematic focus. So thereíd be one with an emphasis in science, one thatís more artsy and so on. In practice, though, the idea seems to mostly be ďwe can have a better school if we can have our own fiefdom here.Ē Iím all for better schools, but what I really want is a school whose philosophy matches my own. There are a handful of private schools (at least) that do, why not public? And yes, there are some. One is in the Valley, too far away even for me. One is in Santa Monica, and weíre in the wrong school district for that. Two are in the Los Angeles basin. One is a regular charter school, the other is a charter and a magnet school. Confused? Yeah. Youíre not the only one.

Magnet schools differ from charter schools mainly in how they gather students to enroll. Each charter school has a lottery. Completely random. Everyone has the same chance as everyone else. If youíve applied before, well, that doesnít matter. Your odds donít get better. Also, the two most respected charter schools (they donít have open houses till March) only have a few available slots because they mostly get kids from their home district. So the odds are worse than Vegas. Might as well forget it, but of course you canít forget it because itís your kid.

The theory behind the magnet system, on the other hand, is to give children a chance to get out of their overcrowded, underachieving home schools. Thereís a lottery for magnets too, but the lottery is weighted. You get a certain number of points if your home school is overcrowded, a certain number if itís more than 50% non-white, and a certain number if youíve been wait-listed before. After that they sort kids by ethnicity so each magnet school will have a nice diversity.

Iím applying to one magnet school and a few charter schools, but there are just two schools Iím serious about.

The magnet/charter school, School FarAway is, well, far away. A trek again. But thereís a bus. That would be okay. And if he got in, weíd probably move closer within a year or so. That would be more okay. And itís an amazing school. Thatís the best part.

I spent some time there Tuesday, touring the place with a gaggle of other hopeful parents. We were all drooling, I think. The place is Ė I want to hug it. Nearly everything is project-based and theme-based. One class has been learning about folk tales; theyíre reading a dozen versions of Cinderella and making charts comparing them (the teacherís favorite is the one where the glass slipper is a loafer). Another is learning about cities. Ecology, architecture, economy. It takes the whole year.

But thatís just the academics. What I like is how the kids break into small groups, how they sit or lie on the floor if they want to do their work that way (or sit at desks if they prefer), how the teachers pay attention to each childís strengths and interests and tailor assignments so that thereís more than one way to do the work (you can draw a comic, make up a story, or just list your spelling words). I love how they pay attention to social empathy and teach tolerance, how they know that thereís more to learning than academics, and how they make sure thereís no bullying. My kid would be safe there. Heíd be respected and allowed to be his adorably quirky self. Thatís more important than anything.

I like the teachers, too. I toured another highly respected school last year and I hated what I saw. The teachers seemed irritable. The kids were all grimly focused. It looked hard. This place looks like fun and the teachers are all relaxed and chatty. And thereís music (lots of rhythm and movement) and art (no details on this) and gardening (They mulch! They grow things! They layer plantings like the Native Americans!) and PE (only they call it ďCoachĒ) once a week each, and you can sign your kid up for drama after school twice a week. Which Damian would love. Oh, and they have several iMacs in every classroom. Under the desks, with clear panels so you can see through to the screen but still can use the desk as a desk. And the library is pleasant and open all the time, especially including recess. And they lay out board games during recess too, for the kids who donít want to play ball games. And itís public! With high test scores!

Yeah, okay, I fell in love. What are our chances of getting Damian in? Unknown. Weíre not the only people who think this school is the best around. Itís really just a question of how his home school scores; those numbers change every year. And yes, it will drive me crazy for the next few months, this huge question mark. Thanks for asking.

The other serious possibility, letís just call it School NotSoFar. Itís charter-only. Itís a new school, only a few years old. This means thereís a very small waiting list. Which means Damian can probably get in, at least in theory. It too is project-based. When I visited, the third graders were measuring a miniature terrier. Learning circumference, diameter, fractions. Also how cute a small dog is when you hold it aloft and wrap your tape measure around its torso. This too seems like a nurturing place with fun work instead of drudgery. I like the small class sizes (the other school doesnít have this) and the small school size (the other school is twice as big) and the compassionate, nonviolent philosophy.

I worry that itís too new, that itís got too many kinks yet to untangle. A typical child could go with the flow. My child? I want somewhere solid and streamlined for him. And I worry that they might not know what to make of my kid. The teachers are much less experienced. This can be a plus (theyíre not jaded) but also a minus (ďHigh functioning autism? How do I handle that?Ē). I worry also that the kids seemed to be from blue collar backgrounds, and I want Damian to be in the middle of a wide-ranging pack, neither the poorest in a rich school nor the richest in a poor school. Again, heís got enough making him different, he doesnít need more. I worry that their test scores are pretty bad. (Not as important as other factors, but I do after all want him to learn.)

But mostly Iím worried because I talked to the head of the school about our situation and she wanted to meet and look over Damianís IEP, make sure they can accommodate his needs. Which is reasonable, but when I emailed her as requested, she emailed back (weeks later) and said to call. When I called this morning, she was brusque, with no memory of me, and rushed off to help a kid having an asthma attack. I appreciate that the child needed an assist but werenít there any capable teachers around? Maybe this was her way of blowing me off because she wasnít comfortable with the idea of a special needs kid in her school. And that worries me. She never did call back today to schedule that meeting.

On the other hand, after I went on that tour last month, I got to the car and sat down and tears unexpectedly welled up. The place feels like a home, sweet and nurturing. I do think heíd be okay there. If theyíll let him in. And if School FarAway doesnít. Maybe I was reading too much into her tone.

In the meantime, Iím off to look at other schools. Other charter schools and other neighborhood schools we could apply to via open enrollment. I already know I wonít like them as much. Iím not into traditional sit-at-your-desk do-the-work-this-way schooling. I have a feeling Damian wouldnít like it much either. Heíd fidget and zone out and want to sprawl. He needs more interaction and flexibility and as much teacher-warmth as possible. But I canít put all my hopes in two places, thatís a recipe for lost sleep.

So on it goes. Wish us luck.

Posted by Tamar at January 22, 2004 09:46 PM

Luck. Lots and lots of luck. You'll find something. It'll never be 'perfect,' because I don't think there's a school that is. But you'll find a place where Damian fits. I know it.


Posted by: Tiny Coconut at January 23, 2004 01:48 PM

Deep breaths. I don't know if this comforts you at all, but my son, who you know resembles Damian, is just thriving in first grade in a fairly mediocre cookie-cutter public school. It's not ideal, it's not the school I dream of, I try not to think of the options I might have in the U.S., but he's really happy and loves school.

And he does loves the structured-ness of it. It is SO much easier for him knowing what he's supposed to be doing almost every moment of the day. The hardest part for him, of course, is recess. So while I do dream about the less structured, freer, more creative options -- and there is a Democratic School in town -- I seriously question whether he would indeed thrive there.

Posted by: Allison at January 24, 2004 09:07 AM

Thanks, TC. And Alllison. Allison, I think it does help to be reminded of that. Damian does need to know what's on the agenda. I think my top choice has enough structure to do well by him (and they've had kids like him going through the program and say they do very well) but the second choice may be too loose and unstructured. It may be harder for him. Another drawback there.

I just wish the regular schools didn't have the damned Open Court system. It takes up half the day. For what amounts to remedial literacy. And Damian may well be fully reading by the time he enters kindergarten. Talk about a waste of time! And when he's bored, he zones out like any kid would, but worse. It's harder to get him to come back. I'd feel better about the whole thing if it wasn't for Open Court.

Okay. Deep breaths. Yup.

Posted by: Tamar at January 24, 2004 10:23 PM

Again, if its any comfort, Eitan hasn't shown any sign of boredom and is really proud of his mastery of the material. And his high level of reading and math ability give him a status in the class that somewhat compensates for his lack of social status....

At least in first grade, there was so much to adjust to, that I've been glad that academics are the least of my worries....they do, however, give him and other kids who can read to go a bit ahead of the rest of the class. And because he finishes the reading quickly, his aide uses the time with him and the other child he shares the aide with to go over the reading and make sure there is full comprehension and not just decoding.

But I'm not familiar with Open Court so I don't know how bad it is....

Posted by: Allison at January 27, 2004 04:51 AM