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?