Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Get Your Kindergarten On!

Okay, some of us are starting to get our kindergarten on. And our kids aren't even four yet.

Today I received an email from a dear friend who typed "Neurotic" in the subject line. Inside the email was a link to a site which helps to best gather and assess information from the schools they visit, so that they can make a more informed decision. Here in Portland, I understand why parents need help. Some of this is fallout from the GWBush Era's No Child Left Unabused (oh, wait, I meant to say "Left Behind") policy, which opened up the entire PPS system to a world of now-overwhelmed parents. Instead of fixing failing schools, parents can just (hopefully, via lottery system) transfer away to something better*. What sounds like a solution only causes more problems as successful schools struggle to keep their classrooms of children adequately staffed and funded. Adding to the confusion are all the specialized magnet schools: the environmental school, the arts schools, the vocational schools, independent study schools, language-immersion programs... And then add in all the parents who are educated and feel entitled to their child also receiving a top-notch education.

And I haven't even touched on the charter schools.

No wonder my peer moms are sweating this one. Some of them don't care for their neighborhood schools, and understandably. Some are, or will be, working parents  and will need a school which provides before-and-after care programs. And some just think that there's a better match out there for their young one. Thus, we are left with a situation of So Many Choices~So Little Satisfaction. Not enough to go around, anyway.

I'm skipping out on all of this, for the time being. Kiddo might be predisposed to public engineering (or a career in sanitation) with all of his wonderment at fountains, storm drains, all things water, and recycling trucks galore, and while I think my son is absolutely grand, he is perfectly, averagely perfect for our local neighborhood school. He is not a budding Picasso, so we don't need to sweat the Buckman lottery. We keep a garden here at home and are environmentally aware, having thoughtful conversations about those sorts of topics no matter where we go, so I don't know that the extra time walking to and from Sunnyside Environmental School is going to feel entirely necessary. Being the person that I am, I'm not interested in spending my next 8 years in committees and fundraising, so while a second language would be nice, I think that can wait until middle or high school for a more intense course. We are fortunate (yes, I am aware that this is a question of "Fortunate") to live in a neighborhood that hosts a top-notch academic school, and one which rates above average in the state. So, even though people tell me that the kindergarten building looks like a bunker, I'm not just looking at his kinder-year, I'm looking at the following eight years as well. (It's a K-8 school.)

What do I see for my son's future at the neighborhood school? Strong academics, and I'm guessing I'm going to be spending a lot of afternoons at the kitchen table, helping Kiddo with his homework. But that's not just what school is about. It's also the connections we make when we're there. I'm hoping that Kiddo will have Neighborhood friends to play with. Other kids to walk to school with. I'm looking forward to having a neighborhood community of parents whose kids can come over and play and who don't live crosstown. When I was a kid, I attended 14 schools. I recognize how important a sense of community is, and this is something I want to give to my son. We'll likely pay out separately for specialized music lessons or whatever other thing he wants to learn or do, but so do many families. I don't expect the neighborhood school to accommodate the interests of each child and support their growth in areas outside of academia. I personally am more intent on Kiddo's school providing recess times, not band. There's only so much money to go around, and the schools cannot be all things to all people. If I were the type of parent to expect school to fit my child's interests, I'd be over there today, lobbying for a large, deep sandbox and access to water and hoses.

I think it's the parent's responsibility to encourage, nurture and provide opportunities for their kids outside the school setting. Just like I think it's a parent's job to teach children about morals, sexual health education, hygiene and so much more. Teachers can't do it all, nor should they.

And I'm going to stick my neck out here to say this: I have noticed a trend over the past several years in how some parents perceive school. Even in solid neighborhoods, some parents are hell-bent to get their kids into the more 'hip' schools, some for no other reason than just because their friends' kids go there. I have heard grown adults talking about the 'cool schools', because they liked the 'kind of parents' whose children attend the school. I feel like sometimes sitting them down and telling them "Hey, listen, this really isn't about YOU." School should be where our children go to get their needs met, not the parent's. I'm not saying we shouldn't advocate for quality education for our kids, but this doesn't need to be an extension of our own ego trip. Portland is very into it's own stratified "hipness" in some insecure way, sometimes, and I consider these comments as a byproduct of that odd quest for being part of Portland's Coolest, not as a thoughtful conversation about education. Nonetheless, the thought of considering schools while using the same vocabulary as one would use while window-shopping on some trendy neighborhood makes me cringe.

I'm fortunate, too, that I only hear those inane conversations from people I see in passing, not the core group of parents that I know. They are all wanting the best for their kids, and trying to figure out which packages it might come in. I hope that one day, we will live in a Portland where all the neighborhood schools are academically strong, diverse, well-staffed and well-funded. That wasn't the Portland I lived in during high school, though, and it's not the one I've inherited as a parent. A lot of folks have a lot of thinking to do, and they're being responsible, taking their time. I'm just glad I'm so blessed. Maybe considering less choices will make me more happy... I won't really know until a couple years from now, though.

*Isn't this how ghost towns are created, better opportunities elsewhere?

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