Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bust Averted

The Grape is going to Kindergarten in September after all.

And we're staying put in the city for at least one more year.

I wrote last month that the Grape wouldn't be attending either of the two private schools to which we applied, but it turns out the tea leaves changed this month.

Quick recap: one school cut its Kindergarten class with spring birthdays, rendering the Grape ineligible based on demographics. Simply put, we applied a year too early for their profile.

The other private school offered us a pre-K spot after we applied for Kindergarten and stated, both in person and in writing, that we were only interested in Kindergarten. We knew this school's age demographic skewed younger than the first school's, i.e. There was no red shirt birthday cutoff in play.

I wrote last month that the disjointed process left a really bad taste in our mouths.

I suppose we could have tossed the letter regarding pre-K in the trash and left it at that, but R. and I were so puzzled about this outcome, we decided to inquire by phone.

Long story (involving much phone tag) made short: R. called and made it clear we weren't going to send the Grape to pre-K. Then he asked the admissions director, as politely as humanly possible, WTF?

After a moderate degree of ado, a Kindergarten spot materialized. The admissions director noted in an email to us she was impressed with our advocacy for our son. I take this to mean she thinks we are very pushy and demanding people (high compliments, in my opinion).

So why, if the process ticked us off, did we take the Kindergarten spot?

Three reasons.

First and foremost, we really like the school. It features a play based, child centered, Reggio inspired Kindergarten program, and we think that environment will be a great fit for our pensive but social kid. The school shares many of our values, with an emphasis social justice, organic learning, community mindedness, and development of problem solving skills. We know quite a few families at the school who have been delighted with their experiences. The Grape will get to start a foreign language in September. We were impressed by the teachers we met during our visit.

Simply put, there was no reasonable argument in favor of turning down a Kindergarten seat we wanted in the first place, because the process didn't gallop along as smoothly we hoped. Especially since the BPS lottery didn't pan out in our favor.

Second, we may still move to the suburbs eventually, but we didn't want to do so without serious deliberation.

Yes, it would be great to have a yard, a mudroom, a playroom, and some space to entertain. But we still love many things about the city. If and when we move, I want to take our time and get a much better grasp on neighborhood options. Call it moving proactively, rather than reactively.

Third, private school is a product families buy one year at a time.

I think a lot of people lose sight of this fact, because all the schools try to package themselves as long haul commitments. They all say things like, "You join our community." You never hear, "You buy a year of tuition."

But the truth is, you reassess every year. If the system is working for your kid, fantastic. If not, you make a change.

I find that there's always the plan, and then there's what happens. We might stay in the city for the duration of the Grape's elementary school years, or we might still flee to the land of mudrooms, picket fences, and highly desirable public schools.

In any case, we're focused on the here and now, and we're delighted the Grape will be joining his friends in Kindergarten this fall.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

10 Tips on What to Do If You Are a Victim of Debit Card Fraud

I'm veering slightly off topic today, in the hopes that the things I've learned about dealing with banks during the past several days can help other households. And I guess it's not that far off topic, because it's Tax Day, and household funds are on everyone's mind.

Debit card fraud is a major issue for consumer banks and their customers. My comments concern the large consumer banks; small, local banks seem to do better at watching their customers' money, but it's conceivable they face the same fraud issues. Bottom line: you should always watch your accounts like a hawk.

Why? Why can't I just look at the monthly statement?

Great question. Because when someone hacks or duplicates a debit card, the stolen money leaves the customer's account.  Contrast credit cards: when a fraudulent charge posts, the consumer has no liability for the charge during the investigation.

By federal law, consumer banks have TEN BUSINESS DAYS to re-credit fraudulently withdrawn funds, from the date you report the funds stolen. Anyone else think this law is ridiculous? And while we're on the subject of ridiculousness: Since when, in a free market economy, did the minimum level of customer service mandated by federal law become acceptable to consumers?

Anyone else feel they might be inconvenienced by an inability to access funds for ten business days?

Or flat out financially screwed?

And do you think the bank will make you whole, if you miss a mortgage payment, or an insurance payment, or a tax payment?

Will they repair your credit rating when you pay late, because they failed to watch your money? What do you think?

The banks' 800 numbers will never tell you this, but if your debit card bears the VISA or MC logo, the bank must re-credit the stolen funds within FIVE BUSINESS DAYS, due to a contract between the card issuers and the banks. Still an unacceptable inconvenience, but it's a modest improvement on ten.

Someone evidently duplicated my debit card and used it at a bunch of liquor stores and gas stations in NJ and Pennsylvania last week. I got the money refunded in one business day, because here's what I figured out:

1. Don't bother calling the 800 number or using the online service center. GO STRAIGHT TO SOCIAL MEDIA. If you tweet your displeasure, you will get a call from the chairman's office. If that doesn't work within an hour, call the 800 number. They are trained to dissuade you  from "escalating" a complaint. They will say it's a routine matter, not a big deal.

Excuse me? It's a big deal, if we're talking about my money. You want your complaint escalated to the highest level possible and you want that done today. Insist.

2.  Once you get a call from someone higher up (often called the Office of the Chairman or similar), have a list of what you want done to address the issue(s) at your fingertips. This includes a list of the fraudulent transactions.

This person will be impeccably polite and trained to make friends with you.

The best way to get what you need and want is to be very firm and professional. The conversation need not be heated, but you are not friends. They are trained to make you feel like you and the bank are co-victims. That's not a correct assessment: you trusted the bank to watch for and report fraud and they failed, yet they still have the power to make it right. You don't.

Insist on the relief you want, on the timeline you want. Remember: you are the customer.

3. Ask what they are doing to prevent fraud, and ask why the frauds weren't flagged, and why you weren't alerted by phone, text, or at least email. I promise the answer will be unsatisfactory, but go through the exercise anyway.

4. When the answer is unsatisfactory, wonder aloud whether the bank's failure to to ANYTHING to detect and stop fraud means the bank is in fact defrauding the FDIC and the IRS. 

You're on a recorded line, so turn that fact to your advantage.

Ask why, if you are in Boston, for example, and the card was used to buy hundreds of dollars of booze in New Jersey, why you did not receive so much as a text, email or phone call?

Here's my theory, and it's just a theory until the great day comes that the Congress subpoenas the records and chairmen of the FDIC insured consumer banks:

The consumer banks look at debit card fraud as a routine cost of doing business.

Why? Because they bank on merchants and customers eating most of the cost of theft and fraud through fees and other charges. They write their relatively minor share of the fraud losses off against their profits on their tax returns, thereby cheating the American taxpayers.

And, in the unlikely event the banks fail, fraud losses undoubtedly will factor into the failure; the failure that the taxpayers will have to insure.

5. Once you have the attention of the rep on that recorded line, insist that they credit the funds IMMEDIATELY, while the investigation is pending. 

Don't believe for a second this is impossible. Your big bank has way more money than you do. If they refuse, or even say they need to get back to you, say you are filing a complaint with the Federal Reserve. Just the threat makes them move faster.

6. Insist on confirmation that the compromised card is cancelled, but continue to watch your accounts. Banks stink at following up, and they aren't on the hook for fraud you fail to catch within 60 days.

7. Insist a new debit card be sent overnight to you at NO COST to you. Otherwise they'll try to charge you for the FedEx.

8. Insist that the rep refund ALL MAINTENANCE FEES on the account for the month(s) during which they failed to catch the fraud.  They can do this without even putting you on hold, and it's more than fair: part of the reason you pay fees is so the bank watches your money. When they fail to make any effort to watch your money, they owe you at least the service fees for the month(s) when they were asleep at the switch.

9. Get the name of the person helping you and his/her direct line. I know you have already wasted a day on this, but you will need to follow up.

10. Write your U.S. Senator and Congressional Representative and demand legislation that puts the burden of debit card fraud on the banks issuing the debit cards, not on the consumer. Because really, why should consumer banks cheat the taxpayers and continue to enjoy sweetheart treatment from the government? Congressional and/or judicial action seems like the only way to make the consumer banks get serious about protecting their customers' accounts.

Think about it: the anti-fraud "chip" technology used in Europe for years greatly cuts down on debit fraud. The American banks have made a business decision that they'd rather write off the debit fraud losses they can't pass to merchants and customers, than pay to implement state of the art consumer protection technology for the benefit of their customers.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Some Not So Modest Proposals for the New Mayor

The Boston Public Schools mailed the results of the kindergarten lottery this week, and the next day, the school department sent out a ridiculous, self-congratulatory email touting the success of the new lottery. They claim that 73% of kindergarten families got one of their top three school choices.

The Grape wasn't among them. Neither were most of his friends. I've asked around a lot this week, and so far have managed to find one neighborhood family who got one of their top three picks (they got their second choice school).

Never mind that the school department's idea of "success" hinges heavily on families having three actual choices. (The new lottery has geographic zones. Based on your address, the computer generates a list of about a dozen schools from which you must pick at least three.)

Like so many friends, we put the two "good" schools in our geographic zone (for Boston readers, we chose Hurley and Quincy) as choices one and two, and for the third mandatory choice, we selected the next nearest elementary school, which is underperforming (Blackstone).

R. and I knew when we entered the Grape in the lottery that we wouldn't send him to the third school, if that's what he got. We were prepared to either move to the suburbs, or kick the can down the road, and send our summer boy back to preschool for another year, in the event the lottery assigned us our local underperforming school.

Some of my mom friends told me they would have taken the underperforming Blackstone school, for three reasons: it has a great principal, it is receiving an infusion of "turnaround funds," and it's in the neighborhood.

I salute these moms, who were ready to band together and roll up their sleeves, to show up in that school every day and work to turn it around. I think, given enough years and enough invested parents, the Blackstone school could be turned into one of the showplaces of the school system. But my view, and this is admittedly selfish, is that there's no way even the best, most hardworking people can turn that place into a top tier elementary school in time for the Grape to reap the benefits.

What I wasn't prepared for—and I've spoken to several moms in the same boat—was that the lottery system assigned the Grape, and many of his friends from the neighborhood, to underperforming schools in other neighborhoods.

I understand that not everyone gets into the "good" schools. There aren't enough seats. It's basic arithmetic.

But an underperforming school in another part of the city? That's a hard stop for even the most diehard supporters of public education in our acquaintance pool. 

This idiotic system drives too many families out of the city. Families who love the city, who want to stay and raise kids here. Families like ours.

There is no way on God's green earth that I would ever bus the Grape to another neighborhood to go to a bad school.

And I'm far from alone in thinking this way. City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley tweeted a lot about the failure of busing earlier this winter. This article about how busing ultimately hurt the cause of integration is well worth reading.

And any attempt to discuss real change is always rife with platitudes about how all the schools should be great. Which would be nice, but this is America. And in America property taxes determine the resources of a school district.

R. and I came up with a few proposals that could be implemented in the near term.

1. Let's ditch the bulk of the lottery and have a city-wide lottery for seats in the half dozen (give or take)  top performing schools ONLY. This would keep the spirit of the laws that got us into this quagmire without putting thousands of kids on buses. Every kid gets their name in the hat for the top schools, thereby ensuring that every kid has an equal chance. No zones. No nonsense.  I know many parents in wealthy neighborhoods have been agitating for an all neighborhood schools model. I doubt that's politically viable. But why should the city go through the time and expense of holding a lottery for the underperforming schools?

2. Let's treat twins as a unit. I know a family who had one kindergartener assigned to a local school, while her twin sister is looking at an hour long bus ride, each way. This is crazy, and also, no kid should have an hour long one-way commute.

3. Every family who loses the lottery for seats in the handful of top performing schools get assigned to the nearest other public school. Kids go to school with their neighbors and friends, and the entire neighborhood feels invested in the school. This makes parent involvement easier for all parents, in all neighborhoods, because there's no commute to the school.

4. Stop busing the vast majority of students. Bus only the winners of the lottery for the top schools who live more than two miles away, and any students with physical handicaps. Everyone else walks. The money the city saves on busing could be put back into the schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

5. No more unfilled slots at top performing schools. A seat at the highly sought after Hurley went unfilled last year, according to the school's principal. Evidently a BPS official named Glenda was charged with filling it, and she didn't. I don't know the reason, and I imagine her job is awfully thankless. But still. This is nonsense. Why not publish the names of the parents/guardians who have kids on wait lists for sought after schools, in order of wait list number? Seems like an easy way to keep everyone honest.

6. Get a superintendent who knows Boston and who has some skin in this game. Why waste taxpayers' money on nationwide searches? On importing leaders who never stick around? Boston is a higher ed mecca. Surely there's some educated professional here who's up to the task of leading the school system. Preferably one with school aged children.

7. This last idea isn't PC, but: Let's have a conversation about why the school of last resort for kids with serious discipline problems is in one of the highest rent neighborhoods in the city. This seems like a misappropriation of resources. BPS could relocate that very dated, run down facility, build something much more modern and welcoming elsewhere, and make a fortune off the land the current building occupies.

What do you think, Mr. Mayor?

Monday, March 24, 2014

So Maybe It's Bust

Middle March has passed with no news from the public school lottery. I wanted to wait to have the whole picture before writing about this again, but it may still be many days or weeks, and not because I've got the world's slowest postman. The Boston Herald reports that Boston parents face a longer wait this year.

What we do know is that the Grape won't be entering kindergarten at either of the private schools to which we applied.

Our first choice school sent the nicest rejection letter I've ever seen in my life, gushing about the Grape's attributes, and what a great fit our family would be for their school. I kind of wish Stanford and Harvard had sent me letters like that, back in the day. But I digress.

More importantly, we knew that particular ding letter was coming.

After we visited the school twice (and starting crushing on their gorgeous facilities), the director of admissions called and asked if we'd consider a pre-K spot.

(For the uninitiated, pre-K used to be another term for a four-year-old preschool year. Many of the kids these days are five/turning five early in pre-K.)

I said absolutely not. Although accepting the pre-K spot would have guaranteed us a seat in the school through grade 9, I felt loathe to reduce the Grape's school day (and my work day) by more than three hours (while paying double—literally double—for the shorter day and much messier commute).

Besides, we love our preschool. If he's going to do another preschool year, the current system is not broken and I'm not about to fix it.

Back in January, the admissions director at our first choice private school walked me through the birthday demographics of their incoming K and pre-K classes, based on current students' siblings they had in place.

I realized two things. 1. The Grape wouldn't have a contemporary in K. 2.  He'd be the old man of pre-K.

I said I still wanted the Grape treated as a kindergarten applicant.

In hindsight, perhaps we should have withdrawn the application when we realized the demographics weren't going to work.

I wasn't going to change the red shirting realities of a private school whose youngest incoming kindergartener has a birthday several months before the Grape's.

After the much-expected rejection letter arrived, the admissions director and I had a lovely follow up exchange. He encouraged us to apply again next year. For kindergarten.

I was so impressed with the way the whole process was handled, and the time they took getting to know us—and explaining the ins and outs of the realities of private school demographics—that we might just do that.

Much further into the process, during late February, the other private school also asked if we'd consider a pre-K spot.

We again said absolutely not. R. and I both spoke with their admissions director. We clearly stated that we wanted the Grape to be considered only for Kindergarten.

So R. and I were a bit surprised to receive a letter offering a pre-K spot.

We know several kids at the school, and we know that their rising Kindergarten class, unlike the Kindergarten class at the first private school, includes a number of kids with summer birthdays.

The Grape would have had contemporaries in their kindergarten.

It's too bad it didn't work out.

We selected this school, because its curriculum is largely play based. I felt like we were on the same page in terms of our basic educational philosophy. We were blown away by some of the faculty we chanced to meet—especially those teaching in the middle elementary grades.

But the pre-K offer is a non-starter.

It would feel punitive and demoralizing to hold the Grape back in a school where he'd see his friends—including some kids he's known since age two—moving ahead, when they're in exactly the same place academically.

The Grape recognizes words in two languages and adds and subtracts numbers up to about 15 in his head. His preschool teachers think he'll read by end of summer, without any nudging from anyone. There's no way he's "behind" his age contemporaries, especially in the eyes of a school that doesn't begin to push on reading until the first grade.

And of course, their tuition was also nearly twice what we pay at our beloved preschool, albeit for a day of similar length.

The other big clincher here was that we know a number of families with older kids in this particular private school who declined to put their younger kids in the pre-K class there.

One big reason: cost. Another: the pre-K kids don't get out and about in the city much. Rumor has it they rarely venture further than their own playground, which to me, defeats the purpose of an urban campus setting.

I should note that the school does a great job of getting their older kids out exploring the city—one of the reasons that attracted us in the first place.

R. and I were left with the feeling that the admissions committee had a lot of applicant families they liked, and they were trying to push some of the younger kids down to pre-K to make room for everyone. Again, just a hunch.

We turned the pre-K spot down, even though if we'd taken it, the Grape would've had a place at a progressive, play based institution through middle school.

The way the school handled its communications, and the way they dismissed our wishes as the Grape's parents, when they didn't have a class age demographics reason for doing so, left such a bad taste in our mouths that we definitely will not apply again for kindergarten there next year.

So here's what we've learned:

Whether we like the idea of red shirting or not is irrelevant. The only relevant question is whether we want private elementary school, and all the bells and whistles and extras such an education offers, for our summer boy.

If the answer is yes, then we need to wait a year. The Grape's wonderful preschool will take him back, so that's not an issue.

And if we wait a year, R. and I agree that we will definitely re-apply to the first private school, because we thought they handled our differences of opinion with a tremendous amount of class.

We would also apply to a few others whose deadlines we missed, because R. and I were new to, and  more than a little agnostic about, the whole private school possibility this past fall.

We get that if we wait, we roll the dice again. The applicant pools could be different. The Grape could behave like an ass hat at his interviews. We could receive a stack of ding letters, which would mean we'd be suburbia bound for sure.

If the answer is no, we want public school, because we fundamentally believe in the importance of  public education, then we have two basic options, that will hopefully become clear in upcoming days. We either take what the Boston Public Schools lottery gives us, or we move to the suburbs, like so many of our friends have done.

Some close friends have remarked that I'm remarkably Zen about this whole mess, particularly after spending what amounts to two weeks of my life as a school applier.

Maybe so, but here's the thing. A lot of parents feel like the ding letters hit them out of nowhere. We knew that first rejection letter, from what became our first choice school, was coming, because the admissions director was so communicative and open throughout the process.

I'm still a bit stunned about how much time this man invested in the Grape's file.

We also know the chances of getting the public school we want in the lottery is somewhere around 1 in 5. At best.

R. and I are warming to the idea of a move, but neither of us is chomping at the bit to leave the city this minute. And I'm not being facetious. With the South End real estate market lacking inventory, I'm confident our apartment would fly off the shelf. We can't list it until we have a plan, or else we'll be camping illegally in Titus Sparrow Park.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Kindergarten or Bust

It has come to my attention that the Grape has an August birthday.

Kidding! Of course I've known my only child's birthday all along. More importantly, the Grape knows that this August he will turn five, and in September, he will go to kindergarten, as will all his friends.

I know age cutoffs vary from state to state, but in Massachusetts, the cutoff to enter kindergarten is age five by September 1. This is a clear, unambiguous rule that gave us no trouble while registering for the Boston Public Schools lottery.

Because the lottery is indeed a true lottery, we hedged our bets a bit and applied to a couple of private schools. Since we think all kindergarteners should still get to play most of the time, and we find the popular push to turn kindergarten into de facto first grade totally and completely wrong-headed, we applied only to "play based" programs.

During that process, R. and I were more than a bit flummoxed by the number of people who think the boys of summer, should be kept back—red shirted, in private school parlance.

We've been equally confused by the number of people who wonder why on earth we wouldn't want to grab the chance to make the Grape the oldest in his class, instead of the youngest.

It would be easy to accomplish: his fabulous preschool would gladly take him back for another year.

I admit a strong personal bias against the entire practice of red shirting. I was among the older end of the students in my class, and I was bored—dead bored—for at least fifty per cent of elementary school and middle school, in what was considered a good school system. But of course, this isn't about me; it's about the Grape.

On a broader level, I think we as a society should stop and consider two questions. First, if we parents as a group red shirt lots of boys, but not many girls, how thrilled are the parents of fourteen-year-old girls going to be, when their daughters attend high school alongside (and let's not sugar coat it) lots of actual adult males?

Second, the impassioned argument I hear from parents and school administrators in favor of red shirting, is they want the kids to feel "successful."

"Successful" is a very big thing with elementary school admissions types.

Everyone likes success, but, and perhaps this is a cultural thing for me, if I have to choose, I'd rather have my child feel academically challenged than have him feel successful all the time.

If that veers me into tiger mom territory, so be it. I knew I had that in me anyway, when I expressed dismay when the Grape's teacher in the two-year-old room posted his first-ever painting. I told her, a) it wasn't very good, and b) the bold mark on the paper resembled nothing so much as a commonly known sex toy.

Despite my harsh critique of his first art effort, my kid is confident enough; he exhibits near Napoleonic tendencies from time to time.

There is no way on God's green earth that his father and I are going to set him up to be the class over-achiever, by mere virtue of advanced age. If the Grape is going to achieve academically, it's not going to be because his parents threw him a meatball.

The Grape has three years of preschool under his belt, which is at least one year more than the average kid gets. He goes four days a week for six hours a day. And the school is fantastic. They play, they build elaborate long term group projects, and they troop all over the city of Boston. Today, when I dropped him off, the kids got busy peering at cadaver photos of the digestive system. Why? Because they've been asking questions about what's inside the human body.

R. and I are completely confident that there's not a pre-k program in the country that offers anything above and beyond what he's already had for years. When we toured a couple of pre-k's, R. and I both came away saying, they're perfect for him today. Not a year from today.

Aside: Obviously, if I'd had the Grape home with me all this time, I'd be all about sending him to a pre-k/preschool year before kindergarten.

The Grape, being a seasoned preschooler, makes friends easily, has figured out how to extricate himself from bad situations, and is about as street wise as a four-year-old can be.

He's a pensive kid by nature—something that maybe makes people find him babyish at first glance—but as one of the school administrators we've met during this process observed, "Only the fools rush right in."

Like the preschool director at his current school told me, when I was nervous about dropping off my newly minted two-year-old for the first time, some one has to be the youngest.

Even the private school admissions people we've spoken with readily agree, that academically, the Grape is ready for kindergarten. He adds and subtracts numbers up to about 12 on the fly and while he can't read yet, he recognizes words in two languages.

It seems they're hung up on the fact that he's physically little. We're hung up on keeping him academically on his toes, and socially among the kids whom he identifies as his peers.

Which means, even with the carefully selected private, play-based kindergartens to which we applied, I'm afraid we may be at a stalemate. They don't want the boys of summer, and they make that clear during the get-to-know-you part of the process.

We will find out soon enough: both private school decisions and public school lottery results become available this week (or maybe next).

Suburbia, here we come?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Selling Out?

I'm sorry to have gone incommunicado in recent weeks. I've been in fiction mode, making massive edits to my novel in progress.

The book follows three very different women. One is a well-to-do Boston lawyer who puts the brakes on her own career to support her husband's (he's a celebrated humanitarian/physician). Another is a young doctor who grew up in one of Boston's poor neighborhoods and who never had anything handed to her in life. The third is an African teenager the doctors hire to work in their Malawi clinic.

I've had their voices in my head over the past month (or so) to the extent that it's interfering with my actual, live friendships. Please don't write and suggest I seek psychiatric help. I know the characters aren't real. They're just loud and insistent.

I've also had schools on my mind, as regular readers know. Next week, or the week after, we should hear from the BPS lottery and from the private schools to which we applied for kindergarten. More on that in upcoming posts...

Today I've got other matters on my mind. Namely, is my (extremely recent) itch for space a middle age hormonal thing? A part of the natural aging process?

Or is it—somewhat ironically— a fear of social isolation? I was among the last of my good friends to procreate, and many of my daily accomplices in city life have already fled to the burbs with their broods.

Rational minds might agree that it seems counter intuitive to move to a less densely populated area to reboot our day to day social life.

Yet suddenly I find myself looking at houses on Redfin.

Not apartments. We've got one of those already, and it's lovely. We have a fantastic kitchen and private outdoor space and great condo neighbors.

I'm talking about houses with space to entertain, where every room isn't a minefield of toys. Houses located within the confines of solid public school systems where the Grape could attend a neighborhood school. Houses with trees and grass and pools and bathrooms. Horses and skiing hills nearby. And mudrooms.

If we leave the city, my first wish is to have a mudroom. I suspect R.'s is a fenced yard for Lila the Dog.

At moments like these, I remind myself that I hate driving and that the Grape is an only child. We aren't technically out of space, despite the fact that our apartment is basically one big playroom. We cannot afford to up-size within the city limits.

I'm sure it will pass. Probably. Maybe.

My fellow city slickers will grow less cranky with the spring thaw. Everything will be sunshine and daffodils in the park across the street. The Grape can run with his scooter gang once more.

And people will start cleaning up after their pets again. (I will never understand why so many people labor under the illusion that snow melts dog waste. It doesn't and you are not a good neighbor if you think it does.)

I sent R. a link to a house today. Subject line: Should we buy this?

Maybe my characters have hijacked my brain after all. Who is this woman?

Monday, January 13, 2014


Allison Benedikt wrote last summer in Slate: "You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad."

Her article pulls no punches and is well worth reading in its entirety, but be warned: if you suffer from liberal guilt as I do, it will make you squirm.

Everyone has an opinion on how best to educate the Grape. Many acquaintances are stunned R. and I would even consider Boston Public. "You cannot send him to Boston Public," my veterinarian, himself a father of two boarding school high schoolers, said with great conviction. We were making small talk at Lila the Dog's last appointment. I had just rattled off a quick summary of our school search (public, private, move to town with nicer public). He reacted to the idea of sending my only child to Boston Public Schools as if I'd suggested setting the dog on fire. Which, I must say, seemed extreme.

Today I took the T (Boston's subway) up to Roxbury Crossing to register the Grape for the Boston Public School system's kindergarten lottery.

Clutching my documents, I took a number (203—not encouraging), grabbed an empty seat in the busy but not packed waiting area (more encouraging), and took out the book I'd brought. Every few minutes, the administrative assistants would call a number (encouraging) but almost as frequently, they'd review a parent's required documents, declare them insufficient, and send the parent home to retrieve the missing item (less encouraging). 

I saw one woman in a fast food uniform, who obviously couldn't read, burst into tears when the staff told her they could help her fill out the paperwork, but she'd have to get the required documents on her own and return at a later time or date. There was a loud and weepy exchange about her missing too much work, which led the staff to attempt to cheer her by saying that she could put off registering until the next round, several weeks ahead, but then her kids pretty much wouldn't get their top choices (depressing).

My turn came in under an hour (massive win). A personable, capable young man reviewed and copied my forms, had me sign them, and issued me a blue folder declaring my eligibility to proceed to the next step, which would require another wait in a different seating area. After another short wait, an equally personable, capable young woman gave me the forms to fill out my school choices for the Grape.

The new crappy lottery that this year replaces the previous crappy lottery provides each family with a list of a dozen schools from which to choose, based on residential address. The public school R. and I like best isn't on our list. 

Two high performing elementary schools are, along with one severely underperforming one within walking distance from our apartment, and nine others of middling to low performance, that would require a car or bus trek. R. and I agreed before I set out on this errand, that we'd only send the Grape to our top two choices. 

It's those or private school or we move, we decided late last fall.

"We recommend you pick at least five, but you need to pick at least three," the woman informed me as I surveyed the form: our list of the dozen schools, which I had to rank in order of preference. She repeated a statistic I heard in November: "You have a seventy per cent chance of getting one of your top three choices."

I picked three. 

She didn't push the point. She's seen me before: an educated white woman from a nice neighborhood, the type who resorts to white flight when things don't go her way.

I didn't see the point of writing selections we wouldn't consider. I didn't honestly see the point of listing a third choice we also wouldn't accept, but I saw no point in trying to buck the system.

Within minutes, I was on my way back to Roxbury Crossing T Station, cheerful plastic souvenir WELCOME TO KINDERGARTEN backpack in hand. Total time for adventure: just over two hours (massive win).

So why did I feel so lousy on the way home? 

I feel guilty for having choices, choices that I'm certain virtually no-one else who happened to be in that waiting area during that same moment in time, has. 

If R. and I don't like the Grape's school assignment, which we learn in mid-March, around the same time private schools mail their decisions, we can move to a town with better schools. And if the Grape gets into private school, we can choose that option.

But what if he "wins" the lottery and gets a coveted place in one of the two high-performing elementary schools near our apartment? What's the right thing to do? Is it wrong for us, with the other choices summarized above, to take up a place in a high performing school that could go to a child who has, because of socio-economic circumstances, no options besides Boston Public? 

Or is it preferable to heed Ms. Benedikt's advice and put our money where our mouth is, or at least has been, until recently? Should we send the Grape to public school, because we believe that an excellent public education should be the right of every child, and that if all the "privileged" families opt out of public schools, the schools suffer? 

After all, the two high-performing schools on our list are high-performing in large part because of extremely high parent involvement. We know several privileged parents who chose the public option, who expend a great deal of time and cash on making the public option better for everyone. That's commendable. It makes me want to stand up and cheer. I love that because of these parents, more kids have great playgrounds and music instruction and better selections in their school libraries.

But sadly, the high level of parental participation does nothing to allay my concerns that even the best, crown jewels of the public school system ultimately spend an awful lot of time "teaching to the test"— a practice that makes my blood run cold. Or that even the best public elementary schools offer nothing in the way of advanced work until the upper elementary grades. 

Even the most innovative, energetic, dynamic principals tout their test scores proudly and stammer a bit when asked about other measures of achievement, which is understandable when you consider  the gargantuan nature of the task of running a school in a socio-economically diverse urban neighborhood.

I don't know what we'll do, come the Ides of March. 

For now, we wait.