A gentle reminder ...

The goal of this blog initially was for Mr. Mc to show his students and friends what he doing while in Pennsylvania and DC in 2011. Now it's being used as a place for him, travelling colleagues and former students to discuss edumacation and history related "stuff" as well as ... well, anything which pops into his head. Mr. Mc would never knowingly embarrass either the school he loves or the family he is devoted to. By joining in the discussion, he expects the same of you.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Why I put my kids in private school...

Source: Louisiana Historical Society

A friend tweeted about this article in Salon. As a parent who did the opposite, I have a different perspective.

Last year, we moved our two sons to private school; one as a freshman and the other as a junior. In addition, I have three older kids who graduated from two different public schools. Even as a private school teacher, my feeling was that, as long as the public school served my kids well, that is where they could stay. They had excellent elementary experiences and positive middle school careers. Some of my private school parents asked why my kids weren't with me and sometimes it got awkward. But my wife and I had a sense of peace about the decision. Until about two years ago.

We took them out of public school because my students were getting lost. The writer of the Salon article talked about her son getting "lost in the system." She viewed it as something of an aha moment. So did I, but for different reasons.

Let me back up a bit. As a parent, I have one job: to help my children navigate the minefield that is growing up. To help them become adults who can function on their own and contribute in a way that is unique to their skills and callings. Public school was making it harder for me to do my job.

My sons were getting lost and it was taking longer and longer for teachers and administrators to notice and respond. A counselor made an academic assessment about my son after one five minute conversation and one 'drive by' conversation in the hallway. That was all he could spare in his schedule. He was supposed to be my son's advocate at the school and I don't think he could pick the boy out of a line-up. There were several exceptional teachers at this school. However, there were also teachers who locked their door after school, rather than help students. The Salon writer suggests that that environment forced her child to be their own advocate. My son tried to be an advocate for himself as well, but how do you advocate to a locked door?

The Salon writer talks about her kids developing a thicker skin and being expected to be a part of their own "education equation." She said that her son is in middle school and is a rising freshman. (I am not sure of the daughter's age, but, looking at the extra-curriculars she can take, my guess is middle or upper school.) As a middle school teacher, I would respectfully offer that the transition she is writing about is the move between lower and middle/upper school, not the move from private to public. At the secondary level, we try to instill a sense of identity and ownership in our young charges. It is their education. I can be a champion, but I can't want it more than them. I would argue that the same thing would have happened at almost any college preparatory private school. One of the challenges of teaching middle school is that there is also a learning curve for parents-from being the homework police to letting your child founder a bit so the student can learn how they learn best. Again, respectfully, this is what I think the writer is encountering, not a fundamental shift in private and public school rationales.

I would also argue that some of her concerns about public and private feel more suited to a larger school versus smaller school discussion. A school with seven high schools, fifteen middle school and dozens of elementary is a different animal than a K-12 school feeding into one high school--public or private.

From the sounds of the article, her kids are doing well and that is cool. It sounds like the decision was a good one for them.

I can say the same. My sons have gained a sense of identity that I think would have been missed in public school. One of the things about being in a smaller school is that it is hard to hide. The inability to hide can have its shadow side, but it means that your teachers know you in a way that is, quite simply, impossible in a class or 30 or 40. My son was enrolled in an AP science course based on his transcript and previous math/science grades from public school. During the first quarter of the class, I would have said it was a mistake. However, his teacher saw my son as someone to encourage and invest his time in. My son learned dogged determination and that he was someone worth investing in. After two years of barely being noticed, that was a revelation.

My sons also have had a chance to explore things that they never would have tried at a large public school. The Salon writer suggests "...if they (students) want to be perceived as extraordinary in the public school system, they had better be extraordinary. The school will not create extraordinary for them."  Again, I would suggest that this isn't a private to public school assessment, but one of development from lower to upper school. Participation ribbons pretty much ends when you get to middle school. We do give a student as many opportunities to try new things as we can, but there are winners and losers at football games, scholar's bowl and spelling bees.

Please note that I am not suggesting that private schools have it all figured out. There are private schools that are exceptional, and some that are jacked up. There are public school that are equally exceptional and some that are equally jacked up.

As one of my sons maneuvers his way through the last few weeks of his senior year, I am thankful for the teachers, both public and private, he has had in his life. We have been blessed. I hope the same for the Salon writer.
Source: Kansas Historical Society

As my wife and I wrestled with the move from public to private, this is what was on the table for us:

Academic--the Salon writer is correct about the academic levels being very different. Our average ACT (remember, I'm a Midwesterner) is about six points higher than our public school counterparts. We tend to have a higher percentage of National Merit Scholars than public schools. Our AP scores are higher and we offer more AP courses per capita than public schools. If you have a gifted student, is it worth the money to put them in an environment like ours? You have to decide. If you have a gifted student with a learning difference, the smaller class size and more 'nurturing' (the Salon writer's words, not mine)environment may mean the difference between thriving or getting lost in the shuffle. The cliché "A rising tide lifts all boats" applies as well. I can think of countless kids who weren't stellar students who worked harder and challenged themselves more because they were in an environment where they said, "it was cool to be smart." I have no doubt that served them well as they moved from middle to upper school (and then college).

Financial--the move was (and is) a significant financial struggle. Even with tuition remission for both boys, we spend a lot of time eating Kraft Dinners and managing a budget tighter by half. The Salon writer had to have a second job and I agree that one of the tipping points between private and public school as a parent is how time should be allotted. Do I work a second job to give my child an opportunity or is that time better spent actually with that child?

Time--our commute was fifteen minutes to public school to less than five to the private school. A few years before me moved closer for that very reason. We found that we were spending more time in the car than anything else, and that wasn't working for us.

Social (Parents)--This one is tricky for me for two reasons. As a Midwesterner, private schools here are different than on the East Coast. We fit different molds. We also were founded by someone who wanted to offer a private school education at as reasonable a price as possible. As a result, we charge half of what a private school on the East Coast does. That means our parents are more PTA than Real Housewives. It is also tricky because I am an employee of the school. I like my boundaries in that regards. I will be an advocate for my kids, but its 'bring your child to work' day everyday for me. I have a solid working relationship with parents, but its a different relationship. I image that is the same whether public or private.

Social (Students)--For me, this one is tied to the academic category. Is this a place where my student would thrive? Is it too big or too small? How does my student do socially--you may determine that public or private is a wash on this issue. BTW-Please don't let movies about private schools define your worldview. We are as varied as public. There is a gifted school within a school in the area whose students who are as full of themselves as any private school I've encountered.