I had already intended to write a post about some guilt I was feeling about sending Daniel to private school before Allison Benedikt lobbed a grenade in the middle of back-to-school frenzy last week, declaring that anyone who sent his or her children to private school was a bad person. Thanks to Ms. Benedikt’s opinion, I now feel compelled – if only by myself – to discuss my feelings on the issue.
I never thought I would send a child of mine to private school. I grew up in a somewhat rural area of North Carolina in a county that could loosely be considered a bedroom community of larger cities nearby. We had (and still do have) one school system. Elementary schools fed two middle schools which fed the one high school in the county. I had 300 students in my graduating class (down from 360 when I was in the 10th grade). My high school wasn’t perfect, but it offered a few AP courses and a unique partnership (for that time) with a nearby university that melded college classes with senior year classes for actual college credit. I entered college with 26 credit hours under my belt, enabling me to take a lot of courses for fun instead of needing to worry about pesky general ed requirements.
Since we had only the one high school, pretty much everyone attended it. If they didn’t attend it, they attended private school in neighboring counties, something that seemed hopelessly hoity toity and out of reach to the girl who grew up in an area colorfully called “Turkeyfoot” by its inhabitants. Plus, private school sounded snotty, elite & cliquish, attributes that aren’t on the top of the list to cultivate for my child.
The truth is, I didn’t expect to fall in love with the private school we chose for Daniel. It had always been on our list of potential schools for Daniel in some abstract way, but last spring we decided to get serious about exploring our options because school registration for kindergarten would happen in early 2014.
And it was love at first sight. The school is small. While it offers 9 grades (Pre-K-8th), it has only one class per grade and less than 300 students total. Each class is large, but all have a teacher as well as a full-time aide. I loved that the school emphasizes academics over sports (it’s not the school to attend if you have a budding athlete on your hands). Since the school is small, teachers can follow the progress of former students and confer with each other. They know the students. There is a community feel about the school, a sense of being a family. I’ve already talked more with fellow Pre-K parents in the last 2 weeks than I did with any at Daniel’s previous daycare. I loved that routines, transitions and traditions are strong, and when they said they have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, I believed it. I loved that while they adhere to the North Carolina curriculum, they are able to deviate in others ways such as the math they teach and teaching cursive. Cursive!!! The school believes in teaching students accountability and scaffolds their learning. The tour had barely ended when I looked at Jimmy and said, “I’m sold.”
And here comes the guilt. I believe strongly in public schools and the role of public schools to prepare children for their role as informed, educated members of society. How can I not be branded anything other than a hypocrite for believing in public schools but sending my own child to private?
It’s cliche, but you do see things differently when you have a child. Suddenly, issues and stances that seemed academic become frighteningly real when you consider how they will impact your child and putting your child in that environment. It’s your child’s future that could be impacted. In some cases, it’s your child’s safety and well being.
Overall, North Carolina’s public schools are pretty good. My own public school experience was very good in terms of providing me with opportunities to develop and preparing me for college. It is amazing how school systems differ from one county to the other. In neighboring Wake County, public schools consist of traditional calendar, year-round calendar, magnets and charters. In my county, there is one school system that operates on a traditional calendar and no magnet or charter opportunities. In contrast to our private school, the elementary school Daniel would attend has almost 1000 students in K-5. This is typical for the area. Our county is a transitional county in that it is quickly growing and becoming affluent, especially as it serves as a bedroom community for Wake County, but it has growing pains. It has a large migrant population, and there are reports of gang and drug activity at the high schools. The eastern parts of the county are very rural. Some schools have no gifted programs. Honestly, it’s probably pretty typical of what you would find in most of the state.
It’s not the school environment we want for our child. There. I said it. I’m elitist. And we have the ability to be that way, to send our child to private school. We are so very fortunate to be able to do so.
But I can’t stop thinking about public schools. If Benedikt had one point in her cringe-worthy article, it is that fleeing public schools does nothing to help those left behind. But how much change can you make when there are systemic changes needed that are bigger than parental pressure? For example, my own state (not exactly a model for anything lately except what NOT to do):
- Killed a teacher scholarship program designed to get the best and brightest teachers into the classroom
- Mused that instead of building new schools to ease over-crowding, we could use space such as art, music and special-ed rooms since they aren’t important or being fully utilized
- Denied teacher raises and reducing school spending while arguing that you haven’t altered the budget at all
- Somehow managed to both prevent children from attending the schools closest to them and created neighborhoods with poor schools, likely lowering property values (and thus school revenue) for that area
- Watched magnet schools premised on integrating urban areas through specialized offerings remain segregated with the advanced classes filled with the students not from the area while the “native” population remains in lower-level classes
- Received the tepid response of “It’s OK” when parents respond to my question about how their child’s school is
I also have some issues with public education in general that I think need to be addressed:
- Outdated models of instruction and structure that resemble factories
- The increasingly narrow definition of what “normal” is, especially for boys
- The emphasis on testing which becomes teaching to the test (I know it doesn’t have to be like that, but let’s face it. In a lot of schools, that’s what it becomes)
- Not treating and compensating teachers like educated, competent professionals
- Too many fads making their way into the curriculum with little time to evaluate and decide if they are worthy
- A structure that squelches innovation, creativity and passion, skills badly-needed for us to compete globally (see Sir Ken Robinson; also this)
Y’all, I don’t have any answers. Would Daniel be fine if we sent him to public school? Probably. And who knows, we may still. It comes down to the fact that we have a choice, and a lot of people don’t. So I’ll work to squelch my guilt at doing what’s best for my child and think of ways I can help the public schools in any small way I can.