Wednesday, November 13, 2013

School Daze

We can walk a few blocks from our front stoop to an excellent public elementary school.

Another exceptionally good public school sits less than a mile away. Its neighborhood is dodgier and its enrollment higher, but the school is a great choice nonetheless, based on the strength of its academics, tremendous parent involvement, and the diversity of its student body.

The Grape's chances of being accepted to one of these public elementary schools: about seventy per cent, probably a bit less, according to the communications office of Boston Public Schools.

Our city's school assignment system, a relic of the days of forced integration and busing, plays out like a kind of Reverse Hunger Games every winter. Parents put in their ranked choices and hope their kid's number hits. BPS announces lottery results in March, around the same time private schools mail their decisions.

Last night, I attended a meeting to learn how our city's New Lousy Lottery System (touted in the planning phases as a Quality Choice Plan) differs from our city's Previous Lousy Lottery System.

Answer (for me): our picture grew slightly grimmer. There's a great public elementary school, arguably the crown jewel of the entire elementary BPS system, for which we cannot submit the Grape's name, because it sits outside our new zone.

With the new system, the computer takes our address and generates a list of about a dozen schools from which we select our lottery choices. Proponents say the new plan levels the playing field a little, and perhaps it does, because every child's list must include at least two schools with MCAS (standardized test) scores in the top quartile of the city.

To be fair, the news isn't all terrible. Boston features quite a few good public schools; many American urban areas have none.

But still: Neither R. nor I must live in the city for work. Neither of us puts in eighty-hour weeks in a downtown office building. Because if we did, I'd pony up for private school to hedge our lottery chances and keep a hairy commute off the table.

City life costs a lot. I love urban living, and have been a devoted city gal since I fell in love with London as an exchange student at age 19. Yet Brookline, a mile or so away, offers some of the very best public schools in the nation, in a very cosmopolitan town. Their schools, and those in nearby suburbs like Wellesley, Lexington, Weston and many other towns, could probably go toe to toe with the best elementary schools in the world.

Here's the bottom line, for me, and you can call it snobbery, or white privilege, but it won't change my mind: I will not send the Grape to Kindergarten at eleven of the thirteen schools from which we must select our lottery choices. 

Yes, I know one of the very nearby underperforming schools just got a boatload of "turnaround" funds and a snazzy new principal. But even the most adept captain cannot turn a faltering barge of that size around by September. I understand that pockets of excellence exist in the schools ranked in the nondescript middle.

I *want* to believe in the public schools. I believe the government has an obligation to provide all the nation's children with a quality education, so that they can grow up to be productive citizens who get good jobs and pay into Social Security. I'd rather pony up to build preschools than prisons. And I believe that if privileged people don't use the public schools, those schools will never improve. On a personal level, I also know the Grape will be a good reader, wherever I send him, because he gets that at home.

But, when push comes to shove, I'm not willing to throw my only child to the wolves, by which I mean, he's not going to a less than excellent kindergarten if I can help it. (Maybe if I had six kids, I'd send a few as test cases, but I digress.)

Last night's panel on the new lottery was quite tame, largely because the panel was hosted and moderated by a wily and clever local realtor. You could see him counting the commissions as many well-meaning, progressively minded moms and dads did the same math I did after hearing the lottery details, and walked away saying, "Maybe we should high tail it to the burbs after all."

A move looks likely for us, and we'll be looking at a few private school options here in the city as well—something I swore I wouldn't do—so yes, Boston girlfriends, I'll take that helping of crow now, with a good sported smile. Maybe I had my head in the sand. Maybe I thought the odds were better, or that the wait lists always panned out.  But I can't justify counting on "a seventy per cent chance of getting one of my top three choices."

This isn't rash thinking. I've gone to enough of these meetings, and read enough, over the past year to know that nothing changes fast, and that BPS is a large, intractable beast with great glimmers of hope around certain appendages. So if, in the words of Charles Dickens, these shadows don't change, the Grape probably won't start kindergarten at Boston Public.

We could wait until March to do anything, see how the lottery goes, and then make decisions, but I feel the need to at least research other options now. So that's where we stand: Research phase.


I've learned to recognize the types you normally encounter at meeting regarding the Boston Public Schools. Since some of my girlfriends found it funny, I'll share:

  • Charter School Guy or Lady: Avante garde looking industrialist who thinks the answer is privatization, largely on the taxpayer dime, of course. The jury is out nationally on charter schools; they rise and fall an awful lot on the strength of principals. Many seem like cults of personality. Some outliers outperform public schools and get spots on 60 Minutes, but too many don't even do as well. Teacher burnout is WAY HIGH, and many charters lack veteran teachers. Still, I'm not going to sit in my South End condo and tell a mom from Roxbury that she shouldn't have charters as a choice. I just don't think we need to go so far as to have "Third Grade Brought to You By Bank of America." Expansion of charters is an area that needs further discussion, and it's not a magic bullet fix.

  • Union Buster Dad: Thinks complaining loudly about the "lazy, entitled, underperforming, pension grubbing" teachers will make the citizens rise up and drive the union away with pitchforks. Never going to happen in this town, buddy. Whether teachers should have a union is a fascinating academic question with arguments on both sides, but the fact is they do, and constantly pissing off the people who spend thirty plus hours a week with our children seems like a lousy approach to public policy. 

  • Matron of Teacher's Union: Old battle axe who has seen it all and thinks (rightly) that time in the trenches is worth something. I agree, but I don't believe it's worth everything. Could totally take Union Buster Dad in arm wrestling. Wary of giving anything because of concerns about flood gates opening.

  • Those Who Believe A Longer School Day Will Fix Everything: I personally hold these in the highest contempt of all. They are less belligerent that Union Buster Dad, but they share some of the same ideas. Often includes pandering politicians running for office. This group also overlaps a bit with certain Harried BPS Reps. For what it's worth (not a lot): I am a hundred plus per cent AGAINST a longer school day, and if BPS lengthens the elementary school day, that will be the final straw that sends our family packing for the burbs for sure. Finland, with the best elementary schools in the world, has a WAY SHORT early elementary school day. (Their high schoolers put in much longer hours.) But I'm sorry. Six hours is enough for a five year old, who probably has a bus commute to boot. I have trouble focusing after six hours, as do most people. If you're telling me a five-year-old will do better with six and a half or seven hours of school, I'm calling bullshit. Total bullshit. Now, if you want to lengthen the day with outdoor recreation time, and/or to serve as day care in addition to teaching time to help working parents, I think that's a totally reasonable idea. But longer hours does zero to fix the basic issues: The barrier for entry to the teaching profession in America is way, way too low; most teachers don't have enough time or resources for meaningful professional development; it's too hard to cull bad teachers; too many kids enter kindergarten already way behind because of the socio-economic gap in this country; and good teachers aren't valued as professionals on our side of the pond.

  • Clueless Guy: Asks whether there is a lottery for private schools. Somehow this is always a guy. Answer, per R.: Dude, that one's called an auction.

  • Harried BPS Reps: Field impossible questions from nearly hysterical parents about why schools continue to underperform, and why many kids get assigned to underperforming schools. Offer flustered advice like, throw everything at the wall, and something acceptable will (probably, maybe, hopefully) stick.

  • Nun Dressed as Lay Person: Wears clunky cross, smiles smugly, and quietly hands out brochures on local parochial options. Again, I'm not going to tell a mom from a tough neighborhood not to look at parochial schools, because many parochial schools offer a decent basic education, along with the usual sexual repression and backward ideas on women. But the Grape will go to the nuns/brothers over my dead body. Not even then. I'll put something in my will to make extra, super duper sure. Hey. It's my blog. I'm going to tell you how I really feel.


  1. Good luck with all this! The school "thing" can seem to take over every conversation, right? It's all anyone talks about here in Minnesota, it seems. We have open enrollment, which has its own strange side effects like totally ruining any feel of neighborhood kids going to the same school.

    Love the clever list of parent types. Too true.

  2. I WISH that, given the 1.25% in property taxes we pay, we could utilize the local public schools. Hell, one of the charter schools is at the end of our cul de sac. But, no, the city I grew up in so bastardized the school system in the 1960s that they are still trying to turn it around today.

    Our older son is now at his 2nd private school (he did pre-k and K at a K-6 school but we moved him in 1st grade to a completely independent of religion K-8 school. I still lament not being able to send him to public school).

    Good luck and report back. I find it fascinating.