Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Magnets and Charters and Immersion, Oh My!

This fall, Jake will start kindergarten. Yep, he's turning five this summer and is so ready. And I'm so ready for him to go (although I'm sure I'll cry like a baby on the day that it actually happens). So, how does this work? I mean, I just walk right up to my local neighborhood school and sign him up, right? Hahaha, not in Los Angeles. Here we have intradistrict permits, interdistrict permits, magnets, charters, and private schools to choose between. It's a lot to navigate.

I suppose there are a few lucky people that actually like their neighborhood school, and would feel comfortable sending their child there. Even some people that live in the Los Angeles Unified School School District. I am not one of them. I tried to give our school the benefit of the doubt, I really did. I had heard rumors about problems with our schools in Westchester, including bullying and even gangs. And I knew that our local "neighborhood" school is a Title I school, meaning that a large percentage of the children come from low-income families. 56%qualify for free or reduced lunch- and the assumption goes, the less monetary resources parents have, the less likely they are to be involved in their child's school. And I knew that the population of students at our school is mostly Black or Hispanic, with only 11% Caucasian students (which is not respresentative of Los Angeles as a whole, or our neighborhood in particular, meaning that kids are being bused in). And of course, I looked up the school's test scores, and noted an Academic Performance Index (API) of 795 out of 1000, making it the lowest of the five elementary schools in my immediate area (although better than our future middle school with an API of 743, and high school at 629). But I didn't want to make any assumptions. After all, being a Title I school means that you qualify for additional federal funding. And with the budget crisis in California, any school could benefit from some extra funds.

So, I toured the school. And everyone was nice, but I was so disappointed. The school did in fact receive additional funds, which they used to build a computer room for parents of the enrolled kids. Although, my tour guide told me, it wasn't well-used. A nice try, maybe, but I would have preferred something from which my child would directly benefit. And they were very proud that they had received a grant to start a gardening program at the school, which set aside a small plot for each classroom. I am all for teaching my child about nutrition, and the life cycle of plants, etc., but noticed that most of the plots were empty. My tour guide's response was something along the line that some of the teachers weren't ready for the extra work of integrating that into the curriculum. But, she said, there were a few teachers that were so into it, that they "borrowed" plots from the others that weren't using theirs. Which meant that even fewer teachers were taking advantage of this learning opportunity than it originally appeared. When I asked about parent involvement, I was told that they welcome parent volunteers, but that most parents don't really have the time. I think that was what sealed it for me; it was time to move on.

Since then, I've toured numerous other schools, most of them with Chris. We've seen public school options in our district. We've seen charters and magnets. We've checked out the language immersion programs in nearby districts. And we've toured private schools. And I learned quite a few things. I learned that most of the public schools in local school districts use what I consider a "traditional" educational approach. What I mean is, the focus is highly academic and behavioral, with teacher-led instruction, textbooks, cookie-cutter projects, and worksheets with "right or wrong" answers. And I'm not saying that's all bad, and actually I know that was how school was taught when I went. But I also saw the other side of what's out there. We found private schools (and a few public schools with lotteries to get in) that used an alternative approach, with a student-centered, hands-on, experiential, project-based learning. And it just made much more sense to me.

Maybe I should clarify. I think I'm a pretty intelligent, successful person. So apparently, a traditional educational approach worked well for me. And actually, I think Jake would be very successful in this type of program as well; he's a lot like me. But like every parent, I have much higher hopes for him; I think he can do better than me. I believe in the theory of multiple intelligences: that people can be "intelligent" in other areas besides just the traditionally measured skills of reading/writing and mathematics. Some people demonstrate strong visual-spatial skills, physical abilities, music/rhythm, interpersonal or intrapersonal skills. People may be born with strengths in a certain area, but that doesn't mean that such "intelligences" can't be developed, similar to how verbal-linguistic or logical-mathematical skills are taught in school. That is, maybe they can be taught in school, if you use a non-traditional approach. I think that Jake already demonstrates strong interpersonal skills, and frequently working in small classroom groups on various projects would continue to develop those skills. Jake enjoys the artistic projects that he completes in preschool; why can't those continue to be embedded in the curriculum, instead of just a weekly art lesson (at best) by a teacher that comes in for one hour and then leaves?

Here's something that I saw in every one of the "traditional" public schools that I toured: some kind of behavioral chart posted inside the classroom. One was a chart with each child's name, and popsicle sticks next to the names. If the child was "caught" doing something good, then he would get a stick. After a certain number, he could redeem them for a prize of some sort. For example, if the teacher saw him helping a friend on the playground, he would get a popsicle stick. So, wait, his motivation for helping people is to earn popsicle sticks? And this is only useful to do when an adult is watching? What happened to developing intrinsic motivation, or just feeling good about helping someone else to feel good? My "favorite" behavioral tool was a pocket chart that I saw in one classroom, labeled, "How am I doing today?" Each child's name was labeled below one of the pockets, and in each pocket, there were four cards: green, yellow, orange and red. Honestly, I may have forgotten the colors and their exact meaning, but depending on which color was showing, that was the indicator of how the child was behaving. Green: Good job. Yellow: Warning, watch your behavior. Orange: Needs to change. Red: A note is going home to your parents. Seriously, it was like terrorist alert levels, orange=high alert!

Last week, private school acceptance letters were mailed. Yep, we applied to three private schools. Yes, we pay ridiculous taxes here in California, some of which go to our public schools, and yet we're still considering spending over $20,000 per year to send our son to private school. Seriously. Actually, the most expensive one that we applied to would run us about $25,000 for a year of kindergarten. And that's not even including before/after school care, field trips, summer school, or the numerous fundraising efforts throughout the year. So, we also applied for financial aid. Because who can really afford that? I heard somewhere that if you have two or more kids and make less than $200,000 per year, you may qualify for financial aid. So we applied, and you know what we found out? It turns out that if you make a decent amount of money (not necessarily enough to be able to manage private school tuition), but you live within your means, you don't qualify for financial aid. What I'm wondering is, if we lived like many do in Los Angeles, in a house we can't really afford, with credit card debt and car payments due on our BMWs, then would we have qualified for financial aid? Or who does? Do I sound bitter? I don't mean to imply that there aren't people that genuinely deserve financial aid. And if the private schools really wanted to have the multicultural community that they all claim to strive for, then they would recruit children from different socioeconomic statuses, but I didn't see evidence of that.

Okay, maybe I am bitter. Our letters came. One acceptance. Two wait lists. Not a rejection per se, but more like, "You're not our first choice." After all of those tours, applications, interviews, screenings, open houses, etc. How could they not want us? It can't be Jake; he's a genius. No really, maybe genius is a bit strong, but he did great at the kindergarten screenings, at least at the two that we were allowed to observe. All the schools really did stress their goals of "diversity"; Chris says maybe we were waitlisted because he's a white male. But they had to admit some white males. Just not ours. At least, not in the first round.

So, here's my current situation. We have an acceptance from one school, no financial aid. And the only way we could afford to send Jake there would be for me to go back to work full-time. Which is not what I had planned to do at this stage in my children's lives. I want to be able to spend time at home with Brody while he's still little. I want to be able to volunteer time in Jake's classroom once he starts kindergarten. But I also don't know what our other options are at this point, because we most likely won't hear from our public school options until after the $2500 non-refundable private school tuition deposit is due.

Yes, we applied to several public schools. Eight, to be exact. Sounds excessive? Well, they're all lotteries, and our chances of getting accepted depend on the number of applications. We're only allowed to apply to one magnet school, and the one that we chose had 767 applications last year for 125 spots. That's a 16% chance of acceptance (or an 84% chance of rejection for one less optimistic than me). Actually, less than that since some people are almost automatically accepted because of sibling preferences. So, I figure, if we applied to eight public schools, that gives us 128% chance of being accepted somewhere. What, now you're questioning my mathematical skills? Must be that damned traditional public-school education that I received!

Some people would say, save your money for college, when it's really important where he goes to school. Or, Jake's a bright kid from a good family, don't worry. But I do worry. I worry about the safety and emotional well-being of my sweet, sensitive boy, especially with every report of school violence or bullying. I worry about him not enjoying school or not being challenged adequately in order to develop self-initiated, life-long learning skills. And I worry about not tapping into all of those things that he could have really excelled at, if only he was in the right environment with the right teachers and tools. And I worry about making the wrong decision, when there are so many choices and possibilities.

I don't know what the answer is. But for now, I wait to at least figure out our options.

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