Back to School1

Photos and text by Gabrielle.

I get emails about this topic all the time, and I’ve had a draft of this post written up for a full year! But I’ve hesitated to publish this because it’s such a stressful topic for so many people, and I don’t want to inadvertently add to anyone’s stress. Please, if you start reading this and you’re not into it, just skip it and move on. I promise, this is not a directive on how to pick a school, and I don’t claim to know where your particular child should go to school. This is just my thoughts on the topic for my own family.

For me, realizing that I wasn’t willing to stress about school, started when we lived in New York. People that live in New York are crazy when it comes to schools. I’m not sure that statement is even up for argument. And I don’t blame them. It’s intense. Our oldest turned 4 the month we moved there and school started a few weeks afterward. As we settled in, every time we met someone new the big question was: Where is Ralph going to preschool? And the stress wasn’t because we lived in Manhattan. We were in a little town just north of the Bronx, called Tuckahoe.

Since Ben Blair was starting his graduate work at Columbia, and I had baby number 3 a few weeks after we moved in, money was tight, and our only considerations for pre-school were essentially that it be cheap or free. You can imagine my shock when I found out that it wasn’t uncommon in our area for people to pay $20,000 or more per year for pre-school tuition. And these weren’t imaginary people with private jets. These were my friends and neighbors who didn’t drive fancy cars or take exotic vacations.

Back to School2

Well, paying that kind of preschool tuition simply wasn’t an option for us. So we kept asking around until we heard about other solutions. There was a co-op preschool some mothers at my church had put together — it would switch from house to house each month, with parents doing the teaching. The price was right (free!), but with 3 kids, aged 4 and under, I knew I couldn’t manage it. (We did end up participating in a similar co-op a couple years later for Maude). We also found a Methodist church nearby that offered a preschool with more reasonable prices. It wasn’t a bargain, but it was manageable. It also wasn’t a feeder into the ivy-league-track schools, but we visited it and could see that Ralph would be safe and happy there. We signed him up.

A few short months later, it was time to think about registering for Kindergarten. We knew Ralph would go to the public school in Tuckahoe, though it wasn’t rated nearly as high as the public schools in the nearby wealthier towns of Bronxville and Scarsdale. But even with that decision made, there was so much stress about which teacher he would get. My friends encouraged me to write letters to the school to make sure Ralph was put in the class taught by the Kindergarten teacher with the best reputation. The letters weren’t a guarantee, but they might help.

I found the whole thing just completely overwhelming. I was crushed with worry about who Ralph’s Kindergarten teacher would be. And I felt like an awful parent, knowing there were better-rated public schools available to us if we could afford more expensive rent in neighboring towns. At the park, in the grocery store, anywhere I went, it seemed like the topic of schools was all anybody could talk about.

Well, Ralph didn’t get assigned to that sought after Kindergarten teacher, and my heart was broken. I could barely sleep, wondering if I was sending my first child off to a horrible situation. But it turned out that the teacher he was assigned to was fantastic! Like really awesome! She was a terrific fit for Ralph in so many ways. Plus, she had a communication style with parents that was ideal for me and Ben Blair. Ralph had an amazing Kindergarten year! He loved school and we remained friends with his teacher for the 8 years we lived there. (As a side-note, the following year we didn’t make a teacher request for Maude, but she was assigned the sought-after Kindergarten teacher, and that teacher was excellent as well.)

After our experiences with Kindergarten for Ralph and Maude, I had a mental shift. I realized that I had been so stressed out about Kindergarten when I hadn’t even met any of the Kindergarten teachers. I also realized that the stress didn’t leave after Kindergarten. That these worries would continue till college — I knew my fellow parents were writing teacher-request-letters for every year of school.

At that point, we basically refused to buy in to the school stress any longer. And it’s not that we didn’t care about school. We definitely care that our kids get a good education! We care that our kids thrive and succeed! But spending time worrying about what school to attend, or paying exorbitant tuition, just isn’t okay with us.

If I find myself getting stressed out about choosing a school, I do my best to return to thoughts like these:

1) Don’t stress out.
I get it. It’s tempting to think about where our kids will go to college before we pick their pre-school, but I think that’s a mistake. Will my child really thrive at Harvard? Maybe. (Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath makes me think otherwise.) At age 5, we don’t know what our kids will be like during middle school or high school or college. And a school that’s working one year may drastically change if you get a teacher that’s not a good fit for your child, or if your son’s best friend moves and he falls into a depression. You can’t control for stuff like that. At different times you’ll need different things.

If you’re an involved parent at all, your child will be able to go to college. And whatever college they get into, can be a building block to the next thing. How many people do you know that went to average public schools, then a decent university, then did medical school or graduate work at a top school? I literally know dozens of these people! And they earn the same salaries as the people that attended high stakes private schools starting in Kindergarten.

Ben Blair and I simply don’t stress about getting into certain schools, and we don’t pick our houses based on school district borders. It’s not worth the worry to me. Instead, I like the idea of using that energy to improve the school we’re assigned to. Or using that energy to improve our home environment. We do not need to get obsessed with choosing a school. It’s unnecessary. We’ll know what to do for our kids. We’ll be able to figure it out, to ask for advice from the right people, to find another option if the first idea isn’t working. Stressing out will not help.

2) You can’t buy happiness.
Paying high tuition, or attending the highest rated school doesn’t guarantee my child will have a happy, successful, fulfilled life. It doesn’t guarantee that my child will be a good citizen or kind person. It doesn’t guarantee that my child will make lots of money as an adult. It doesn’t even guarantee the school will be a good fit for my child. She might hate it. She might be a little fish in a big pond. She might feel pressure to go ivy league, when really, she’d be a better fit at a state school, or even jumping right into a career.

Paying the most tuition in the area won’t guarantee the best or brightest kid. You can’t buy happiness.

So does that mean a quality education doesn’t matter? It for sure matters! We want our kids to have as much quality education as they can. But I think there are many ways to define “quality education”.

3) There are options.
The town I grew up in has since grown, but when we first got there, every kid in town went to the nearest public elementary school. There were no other options. The same thing is true in many towns across America. One public school option. And happily, it mostly meets the needs of the kids. But what if it doesn’t? Until about 10 or 15 years ago, if it didn’t meet your child’s needs, tough luck for you. But that has changed!

If we didn’t like our public schools, we would look around. What are the other public schools like? Is there a charter school? Do we need to do a co-op with other parents? Our kids crave social stuff, but could we do online school and have them get social interaction via extra curricular activities? I know I have options.

In the schools where we live now, there isn’t a ton of funding, so every school can’t provide every program. One high school has a marching band. Another high school has an orchestra. Straightforward options like that can help you choose the right fit for your child. So think about what your child needs. A small class size? Indiviualized attention? A chance to be a leader? Special programs for special needs? A campus garden? A school music program? A Latin and Classics program? A wood-shop on campus? Would he thrive with a diverse group of friends? Don’t assume the best rated school is automatically the best choice for your child.

Can’t find a school that fits your child’s needs? You can make your own education options as well! Maybe you can attend half a day at public school and have a tutor in the afternoons — it would be way less expensive than the typical private school and could be ideal for some kids or families. Does your child crave lots of music education? You could have him attend a decent public school and save your money for piano lessons.

4) I believe in public schools and free education.
My default is public school. I start there. I assume we’ll like whatever school we’re assigned to, and if we don’t, we’ll look at other options. But there are parents that don’t feel they have options at all. Maybe because they don’t speak English well, or are working two jobs and don’t have time to explore the schools in the area. Or maybe they feel like money is too tight and assume that the nearby public school is the only free or affordable option. But their kids deserve a great education just as much as my kids do.

Is public school a fit for everyone? Nope. But for most kids, public schools work, and it’s worth investing our time in them. Because most children in our communities attend public schools, and it’s only in our best interest to give those kids the best educational experience we can.

I know from experience the instinct is to look out for our own kids above all else. And that feeds into our worries about finding the best possible school for our child. The school with the best ratings, or the best reputation. We want to give our kids every chance at success. And we assume the better the school, the more opportunities. It seems like the best school we can find is the ultimate gift to our kids, right?

Well, I actually disagree. If we are so concerned with our own kids that we put them on an elite track, and make sure they’re only rubbing shoulders with the most successful families in our city, while ignoring the needs of other children in the community, that’s not a gift at all. Giving your kids special status while the rest of the world struggles and crumbles is no gift. You’re giving them a worse world instead of a better one.

If we want to give our kids a better world, the most effective way of doing that is making sure every kid in our community has the best possible chance at success. We need to make sure every child in our community has access to an excellent school. And supporting your local public schools is a great way to do that.

Here’s a way to look at it money wise: Our public elementary school raises approx $75,000 per year and that money pays for a choir program, school band, an art event, a campus garden, and more. These programs benefit 300 kids. In comparison, if Ben Blair and I put Oscar, Betty & June, our elementary school aged kids, into the nearest private school, we would be paying $90,000 per year in tuition ($30,000 per student). And that money would benefit only our 3 kids. Of course, we don’t have that much money to put toward tuition, but if we did, I would much rather see those funds go toward a public school, where it could improve circumstances for a hundred times as many kids.

It’s the same with donating time and volunteering in the schools. I think the parents and community members who get involved with public schools are doing amazing work, because they’re not just providing a good educational experience for their own child, they’re also building the entire community.

I believe in public schools and free education.

(That said, I also completely understand there are reasons parents choose private schools as well. Olive will be in public school for 8th grade this fall, but she was enrolled in a private school for the last two years. So I get it, I promise. And in another post, maybe I can talk about how we made that decision. My intention isn’t to shame anyone for not using public schools, I’m just trying to express why I think public schools are so important.)

5) YOU can change things.
When I first wrote about our Oakland public elementary school, I received an email from the woman responsible for transforming it. Not a school employee, she’s a parent in the community. And yes, it really did start with ONE person. In her email she said, “My work at [elementary school] over the past nine years is one of the things in my life that I am most proud of. I don’t think you would believe the changes that have taken place in a relatively short time.”

Be confident you can change or fix things. You like your school but it doesn’t have a strong STEM program? You (yes you!) can make it happen. You are empowered! You can improve your school. You can provide what the school can’t provide until the school improves. You can do it. Parents do it all the time. Sometimes they have no choice but to dive in and improve the situation.

You can volunteer in the classroom. You can organize a group of supportive parents. You can organize a schoolyard clean-up day. You can do it!

6) Worrying about school is a privilege.
Realize that if you have time to think about these things, and have time to explore options, then you, like me, are very privileged, and that many parents don’t have the luxury of worrying about which school will be best for their kids. But even if they can’t worry about it, their kids deserve a good education every bit as much as your kids do.

I think anytime we find ourselves saying that a certain school is fine for other people’s children, but our kids deserve better, that there is a problem. Providing great education for everyone in the community, helps EVERYONE in the community — even those that can afford to opt out.

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When we announced we were moving to Oakland, the main message of emails in response to the news concerned schools. Be careful of the schools! You can’t use the middle or high schools! The schools are awful! It’s hard to find a good school! It’s too late in the summer to get a spot in the good schools!

Ugh.

It was New York all over again. But I was determined not to worry about it.

So I did my best to ignore the passionate school-related conversations and knew we’d figure it out when we got here. And that’s what we did. A few days after our move, we visited the district office and registered the 5 oldest. They were all put into the geographically assigned school for our address — no surprises.

Did we know we would like the schools? No. We had no idea. But we chose to assume that we would like the schools. And if it turned out we were wrong, we knew we could try another option. We’ve been here for two years, and still have people raising their eyebrows at us that our kids are enrolled in Oakland public schools. But we continue to love our public schools. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing a great job for our community and they continue to improve.

Now it’s your turn. What’s your take? Do people stress out about schools where you live? What have your experiences choosing a school been like? Do you have a preference for public or private schools? Or maybe you favor homeschool? Do you live in a place that has lots of choices, or do you live in a town where 90% of the kids go to the same school? Do you think we’re crazy that we didn’t give a single thought to the school district when we bought this house? Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

P.S. — Want more education related posts? Here’s a link to all the posts about schooling in France. Here’s a link to all the posts about schooling in Oakland.