We have a choice coming up in this house. Faster than I’d like. We have to make a decision about where Fiona will go to school. This is important because school is one of the defining experiences of a person’s life and because a good education sets the foundation for an easier life, but hard because there are a lot of benefits to both.
On one hand, I am a huge proponent of free, accessible public education. I think that it is in our societies best interests for all children to have access to quality education, education that teaches them the skills that they’ll need in the work world, grounds them as members of society, and provokes their curiosity to learn, create, and discover. I also think that when engaged, educated parents withdraw from the public school system it does immeasurable damage to the schools, because those parents are less likely to fight for that universal service if they, their children, are not the ones that need them. The public school system loses out. When that happens we all lose out.
On the other hand, my first responsiblity is to Fiona. It’s to providing her with what she needs to become a happy, successful member of society. She deserves an education that provokes her curiosity, helps her create and discover, and grounds her as a member of society. She deserves an education that meets her where she is academically and emotionally. My job as a parent is to ensure her well-being.
I’m not sure that public school can do that for her. My daughter, right now, knows her alphabet upper and lower case. She knows the connection between sounds and letters. She is beginning to write her letters and numbers. She read her first sentence last week. (“He can go like a train.” – from Mr. Brown Can Moo by Dr. Seuss – Which we had purchased earlier that day) She can add small numbers. She can sort by color and shape and size and make comparisons between groups and objects. She knows more than, less than, and can count objects up to twenty and numerically up to 33 (at which point she usually gets bored and wanders off). If I start her at a higher number she can count higher. She knows that people do different jobs and the names of most common ones and tools that they might use. She knows the difference between (and the words for) diurnal and nocturnal. Yesterday we talked about the difference between birds and mammals. She knows that bees collect pollen and nectar and that hummingbirds are the littlest bird and that they drink nectar. I’m pretty sure she is academically gifted.
However, she’s still not quite four. She tries to color inside the lines and write, but is very easily frustrated because her hand won’t do what her mind can understand yet. She has a short attention span and high emotional intensity and anxiety.
Lately she is frantically concerned with death and wants me to tell her in detail the things that could kill her. She seems especially concerned that she could die if she swallows toys or magnets. If a small toy goes missing she becomes convinced that she ate it and will now die. (This is kind of hard for me because her tenuous grasp of reality and vivid preschool imagination means that sometimes she insists that she did swallow these objects.) Cue hysteria and crying and pacing around the living room.
She doesn’t know how to deal with other children when they don’t act as she expects and constantly wants to play with older children. She struggles to entertain herself and to work independently on anything, though with time and with patience on my part she is slowly building this skill. She is emotionally still just a young preschooler.
Still all this adds up to a concern that our over tested, over worked, over strained public school system may not be able to meet her needs. I think that in a classroom of 30 children, many of whom will enter school unable to count past 10, she’s going to be unchallenged and that she will succumb to boredom and anxiety and act out. Honestly, I can’t blame a teacher who has the responsibility of making sure that all of her students have the skills needed to progress to the next grade, for being unable to devote much time or attention to children who already possess those skills.
However, I may have the option of opting out. There are a plethora of private schools in this area. And it shows in the public schools which have defunded gifted education, art, music, and drama. The private schools offer all these and more. Computer design courses, elective studies for first graders, minimized homework loads for young children, small class sizes, highly qualified teachers. The personal advantages of private school are high.
So is the price tag. Private school education in this area starts at around $15,000 and rises depending on the quality and focus of the school. The schools that would best meet her needs seem to cost around $20,000 per year. That’s a tad outside of our budget. (Did I say a tad? I meant: Holy Hell! How to people afford that crap! That’s more than our car!) I read the financial aid forms and started giggling. They have special lines for extra investment properties, boats, yachts, and a place for you to enter the cost of your annual vacations. I don’t believe that we’re in the right income bracket for this stuff.
The schools where we currently live, though, are… weak. Luckily we rent and can move, but housing in the areas with good schools costs substantially more. Over the course of a year, the additional cost in housing to live in a good school district works out to around $10,000. Which is less than private school tuition, but those good public schools are still struggling. They’re still facing funding and program cuts and those cuts go have to go to programs that focus on bright and artistic children because we have a societal mandate to educate everyone. Which is good for society.
It sucks for us though.
My daughter is not even four years old. Why am I worried about this?
If I want her to go to private school we have to apply this coming fall. That’s right. This fall. And the application process is gruelling. It’s comparable to college applications. And it’s more competitive. One of the schools we’re looking at has openings for 18 children in the entering kindergarten class. They have close to 2000 applicants from around the bay area. It’s a good school.
So, I’m considering our options and I’m leaning towards private school, but I find my inclination distressing. I want her to go to public school. I want to engage with society in a way that benefits us all. I want to be able to help out my daughters public school class so that all of her peers get a high quality education.
I don’t think that I can sacrifice her education to do it.
What do you think? Do you think that public school should be abandoned when it doesn’t meet the needs of the child? Or should we fight to make it meet the needs of every child?