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Making the difficult decision of where to send my child
By Jeff Woodburn
This fall my youngest son starts kindergarten. Turning six this month, he’s old for his class and already has two years of schooling under his trim, little belt – one year in a public preschool program and another in a private Montessori school.
My wife and I have been in a quandary about where to send him. My heart said public school; my head said private school. What does a good parent do? Should my ideology handicap my child? What about the deck that I planned to build with the saved tuition payments? I realized to worry is a luxury – one that we couldn’t fully enjoy years before.
At his age, I had been few places without my mother and didn’t step into a classroom until a year later, when I was 7 and entered first grade. My parents hardly seemed perplexed by their parenting choices or duties. More or less, they followed the course of their parents at home and trusted the public school system to educate their kids. Life was simple and choices seemed few and could be figured out under an established, simple value system (one being the teacher was always right).
But now things are different -- complicated and competitive with supposed doors closing every minute on our little ones. My wife and I bucked this trend by leaving suburbia (and one of the state’s best school districts) and moving to the rural North Country. We did it so our children would be near family, nature and the exposed to the intimacy of a more wholesome place. In exchange we accepted economic hardship, long, harsh winters and struggling schools. In time, we more or less figured out the first two out, but the last one weighs heavy on our minds.
Last year, rather than repeating the same public preschool program, we enrolled our son in a small, private school. Initially, I didn’t buy into the loose structure, student-centered approach, but it grew on me and worked for our son. I also liked the community of parents and priority they place in education. Most, I’m sure, struggled and did without certain luxuries to pay the tuition. But, in my mind, the Montessori school was a temporary, enriching stop along what would be a public school education.
I’m a product of the rough and tumble public schools. It prepared me well for the challenges of life and instilled an egalitarian chip on my shoulder. At its best, public schools are the place that nurtures the hidden genius in every child. It is easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way; my grandfather was a prolific reader and writer, but never had the luxury of a high school education. He lived a content life as a factory worker and maintenance man, but I wonder what he could have done.
Even as a teacher and all the disillusionment that comes from this experience, the system has a romantic, if not realistic hold on me. I am drawn to the toughest kids and love the challenge of getting through to them. Around 30 years ago, our schools changed and began to take serious their responsibility to educate less fortunate kids. This, by the way, is the crowning, yet quiet achievement of the public schools during the last 50 years. But no one likes marginal progress or limited resources being shifted away from the quiet, less problematic majority of the students. How do we celebrate steering a kid away from prison and toward a life of numbing drudgery and occasional decency?
Of course, this logic is theoretical; good from far, but far from good. Like military services, it’s good for other people’s kids, but not my own. I want my children to learn to love to read, write and wonder, not witness the unfolding social drama of our society. We must do better. My critique of public education is akin to John Steinbeck’s democratic treatise -- “hate all government, but love all nations.”
A few weeks before school started, we leaned toward the ease of the public system. In a school mailing, we learned that my son’s Kindergarten class would have 22 children – nearly twice the school’s average. We went to the open house with skeptical minds and looked around. We tried to assess the teacher and our son’s classmates, many of who seemed much younger and considerably less independent. Beyond the pleasantries, the hushed talk was about the class size and how much learning could possibly sneak through the chaos of it all. Everyone seemed to have a sense of dispassionate acceptance about it. It was just one more thing, like the weather, that no one could control.
My wife and I left without uttering a word about it, but as we left, I knew a decision was made and where my son was going. Yet I remain troubled by it.Jeff Woodburn, of Dalton, is a writer, teacher and Executive Director of the Council for Children and Adolescents with Chronic Health Conditions. He can be reached at jeff@WhiteMtNews.com.
Last updated by Morgen Thiboult Sep 29, 2011.