What we learn at school

While I wrote about the preschool application process yesterday, these days I spend more time trying to figure out what we’re going to do about elementary school in a year and a half.

As I’ve written before, we’re probably going to start out by sending D to the local public elementary school, which is exactly 2 blocks from our front door.  I’m a big believer in public schools, and it would make our life immeasurably easier to send the boys to a school that’s so close, but this is still not an easy decision.  Even though we live in a pretty affluent area, this elementary school serves an overwhelmingly low-income population — about 85 percent of the kids qualify for free lunches*. Free, not free or reduced price.  As is the case with most schools serving low-income kids, the test scores have been atrocious.  So I worry about teaching to the test, I worry about whether D (who is already starting to read) is going to be bored, and I worry about whether there’s going to be peer culture that says its uncool to be good in school.  I also don’t like to think about the arguments we’re going to have when many of his classmates’ parents allow them to roam around the neighborhood without adult supervision at what I think is absurdly young ages. 

But I like the new principal and I’m impressed by the teachers I’ve met.  We went to the open house a couple of weeks ago, and we practically had to carry D home because he didn’t want to stop exploring the classrooms.  The kindergarden classes only had 13 kids per class this year (with a teacher and an aide), which is a big plus.  And they’re talking about trying out multi-grade classrooms for the K-2 students to allow for more individualization of the curriculum.  So I think we’re going to give it a try.  But I second-guess myself on this all the time.

Bitch PhD wrote an interesting post yesterday about the life lessons she learned from attending academically mediocre inner-city schools:

"I learned how to be comfortable with people from the wrong side of the tracks, to think critically about race and class and how they play out in subtle ways, and that there is a really major difference between intelligence and privilege, though the two are usually confused."

Those are lessons that I’d like my kids to learn, but not at the cost of academic skills.  Dr. B argues that she got those at home regardless.  I think that’s probably true of most of what kids learn in elementary school, but I’m not convinced it’s the case in the upper grades.

Toronto Mama has also been worrying about schools, and she points out that the safety issue can be the trump card when looking at urban schools:  "I do not want my babies to be afraid to go to school."  Fortunately, I don’t think that’s an issue here.

* The houses here are small, and the upper-income residents typically don’t have kids, or move further into the suburbs before their kids hit school age.  And many of those who do have school-age kids send them to either private school or the "traditional" magnet school.   

5 Responses to “What we learn at school”

  1. Laura Says:

    I grew up in a similar situation. Even though I lived in an affluent neighborhood, the dividing line for schools put me in elementary school with kids from the projects. I definitely got a great education there in the ways that Dr. B mentioned and academically. I have the same problem about putting my kids into not so good elementary schools. We thought about living in the city. There are some up-and-coming neighborhoods there and we could have gotten a pretty decent house. But the schools stopped us. Most of the people moving there don’t have kids, so there hasn’t been much incentive to improve the schools. I was not just worried about my kids’ academically, but worried about what they’d be distracted by or afraid of. Some of these schools have a lot of gang activity. Am I willing to sacrifice my kids’ safety and future just to prove a point? Not really. Then again, my older son said, “All the African Americans live in the city.” Ugh, that just killed me. It’s true their school is not very diverse. None of the schools around here are. It really bothers me, but I’m at a loss as to what to do about it.

  2. bitchphd Says:

    From what you’re saying, it sounds like a good school. I’m torn on the question of whether one sacrifices one’s kid’s safety and future: I keep thinking of the Little Rock Nine. Black parents and black children made *enormous* sacrifices to integrate schools; part of the reason integration hasn’t been as successful as it should have been is because white parents didn’t.
    As to upper grades: for high school, I went to Catholic school. First, b/c it was near my house; second, for the reasons you’re saying (academics matter more). For what it’s worth, I think that the diversity lesson had been well internalized by then. My best friends in high school, the ones I hung on to, were the ethnic minorities, the scholarship kids, and the “troubled” kids whose parents put them in Catholic school to keep them away from bad influences. When I went back for the h.s. reunion many years ago, it was also the kids that were my friends who were doing the most interesting work. All the popular, rich, middle-class Catholic kids were basically working for their dads.

  3. bitchphd Says:

    Oh, just wanted to add that I’m not dissing Laura by any means. These are tough choices. But I do think it’s important to keep in mind that even the best-intentioned of us white people does tend to exaggerate the “danger” of poor/brown schools/neighborhoods. It’s impossible to approach these things free of cultural bias.
    FWIW, the schools I went to were considered very dangerous indeed–and yet, for me, the gang members and drug dealers were usually really nice people who just slotted me down as “the brainy one” and left me alone. If anything, they tended to protect me because they viewed me as slightly hapless.

  4. Jennifer Says:

    Interesting. We’re facing that dilemma, but fortunately only for high school (from age 12). In primary school, most affluent people seem to be happy with the government school; it’s only in high school that they all go private and the government schools are left with the poor and the ideologically sound.
    Only 13 kids in Kindergarten sounds fantastic! Unless you’ve got a lot of non english speakers, surely that has to be excellent no matter how advanced D is?

  5. Eve Says:

    Sounds great – that 13 kids in a class with a teacher and an aide thing. And individualized instruction! Woo! Here in our small Bay Area California town it’s all about teaching to the lowest rung, so that everyone will be able to pass the test–the test! All the children in all 30 or so kindergarten classes in the district are supposed to be doing the same worksheet on the same day. It doesn’t add up at our school, where about half the kids have years of preschool behind them and are already reading and the other half are second-language learners or from less affluent families. It’s weep-worthy, but we will persevere with public. –eve

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