Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Choosing the right school for your child - glimpses of life on the other side

I sometimes feel as if I’m a character in a plebeian version of The Nanny Diaries. As an activist, blogophile, volunteer and mother to three children within the Chicago Public Schools, I am often asked what I think about the system as it stands now. Do I like my children’s school? Do I regret not sending my children to an SE program? Would I make the same decision? How did I know that the school is the right fit for my kids? How do I know that now?

The people doing the asking are much the same as I was a couple of years ago. They are concerned about the arduous and very important task of educating our children. They are unable or unwilling to consider private schools, and are committed to city living. They are also worried and scared about what is going to happen in the next 5-6 months, and how those decisions—entirely out of their control—will affect their children.

The truth is: I don’t know these things. I was not sure if the school I chose for The Boy was the right one for his style of learning. Before we had ever seen the inside of a classroom, met more than one teacher or the principal, or had any idea what the school would actually be like, The Dad and I were attracted to the technology aspect of the school. I’ve heard Karen Lewis say that, although we're living in the 21st century, our school system is still based on a 19th century model. While it may be the only issue upon which Ms. Lewis and I agree, that technology is integral to the success of our society, both now and in the future, seems indisputable. 

How can a parent accurately judge what kind of learner their 5-year-old is? I often try to be deliberate and thoughtful in my parenting, but trying to figure out how to match the tab to the slots feels like rocket science: infinitely difficult. My criteria for choosing The Boy’s school went something like this:

1. He got in
2. It’s walking distance from our house
3. It’s got a technology focus
4. It’s a new school with new equipment
5. Its teachers are well-spoken and well-dressed
6. It’s backed by Boeing

Some studies suggest that it may not really matter anyway: family involvement is critical to student success.

And if The Boy’s kindergarten year was any indication, The Dad and I were very involved in his academic progress. I think this was the hardest adjustment for me. When I was in K in 1979, I went for 2.5 hours, sang songs, drew pictures, learned my letters and how to get along with the other kids in my class. I didn't have daily homework until I was in 7th grade. But my kindergartner had daily homework in the second week.

The current educational climate expects children to do more work at a faster pace and at more advanced levels than it did when I was in K. It seems like K is the new 1st grade, preschool is the new K. And the level of teachers' and administrators' expectations of children is so much higher than it was 20-30 years ago.

I was wary of the academic pressure on a 5-year-old who hadn’t yet decided that learning was a fun activity. Was I doing the right thing? Why weren’t my friends’ kids doing so much work? How much is too much? But: the teachers were so nice and so passionate about their work and the kids. The administration held fast to the belief that this was the best way. So we stuck it out, gritting our teeth at first until we became accustomed to the level of work required of our 5-year-old.

I’m a pragmatic decision-maker – this means I like to see results rather than every data point under the sun. And I can see the results in The Boy’s academic progress. Two-and-half years later, I’m still not sure what kind of learner The Boy is. But I do know this: he is thriving.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

We just couldn't face doing the math...3 kids, possibly 3 different schools, testing, shuttling around the city....Getting all your kids into a single decent public school shouldn't be so difficult. So we went suburban, where we can walk to school, all the kids in the neighborhood go to the same school, and they do a good job of meeting the needs of learners all along the spectrum. I miss the city, but I can't say I miss the rat race that CPS puts parents through. Not to mention the gross unfairness that some families have the resources to play the game and others don't.