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.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New Year's Wishes

Happy new year! I won't bore you with an endless list of tired resolutions (Blog more regularly! Lose five pounds! Organize closets!), but I will offer an apology for the stubborn radio silence in this space in recent weeks. I will try, new year or not, to do better.

We had a great holiday season, but it kind of kicked our tails, and I spent at least a week of December as a "professional kindergarten applier," meaning I filled out essay questions concerning R., myself and the four-year-old Grape as if it were my job. Sadly, I did not get paid for my troubles. (You can read about how R. and I, both strong believers in public education, fell down this rabbit hole here.)

Who knew my preschooler was supposed to have "civic involvement" at this tender age? Does turning his back to the crowds to do nature pee in the park count? Or tagging along to vote? He sure likes those flag stickers.

I had to write  about his hobbies and interests. I mean, sure, the Grape likes music, playing in the snow, going to the beach, toy trains, picture books, play dates, and many other things.

Seriously, though: What four year old doesn't like these things?

Do people actually put, "Junior enjoys cooking with organic vegetables from our garden, ashtanga yoga, visiting art museums, studying Chinese, and volunteering at the local soup kitchen." Wait? I was supposed to put that? Can I have a do-over? No?

All joking aside, one good thing about the rather surreal kindergarten application paper chase is that it forced me to think about what I really want for my kid. Those things can be boiled down to three wishes for him. (And since I'm not doing resolutions, I may as well do wishes.)

First, I wish him health. Many people take good health for granted, but if you don't have your health, you're kind of screwed.

Second, I wish the Grape will always be intellectually curious.

I feel like the Grape has the rest of his life to sit at a desk, and for the next few years, he should do what little kids do best, namely, play a lot. Blame my Scandinavian upbringing (where kids don't head to the classroom until age seven), or my own innate inability to sit still and/or indoors for long spells, but I've become obsessed with letting him be little. I believe imaginative play forms the foundation for lifelong creativity and love of learning.

Little kids have an innate wonder about the world, a desire to learn, a thirst for new experiences, that I fear too many adults lose. And that's a shame, because if you're not interested in the world around you, chances are you aren't terribly interesting to be around. So of course I hope the Grape grows up to be creative, well-rounded and thoughtful, and that he will eventually pursue a field he loves, but I think all those good qualities stem from intellectual curiosity.

Curiosity also drives people to constantly re-think things, to have not only the courage of their convictions, but the courage to change their convictions when new information becomes available (thereby avoiding the ancient and all too common you-can-be-certain-and-still-be-wrong conundrum).

Third, I wish him to grow up with empathy.

Empathy drives charity, of course, but it also makes people smarter. People who grasp where others are coming from make better leaders, big picture thinkers, and decision makers. In a society obsessed with the allure of the rugged individual, I hope my son grows up aware of the lot and welfare of others; his eyes wide open to social justice and injustice around him; and grateful every day because he is one fortunate kid.

How about you? What do you wish for your little ones as they head off into the world of formal education?