One of the most difficult tasks I’ve had as a father has been to choose a school for my son. It should be simple. You have a good public school nearby and you send your child there for free. That’s what I did where I grew up in Nassau County. I didn’t like school too much – there was a lot of drug traffic and some violence and I was glad, breathed a huge sigh of relief, when I left High School. I remember two friends burning their books in the school yard our last day. I can still see the flames in my mind’s eye. I loved books too much to burn them, but I understood the significance of their act. I was tired of learning and had been for a while.
M-ito’s last day of first grade at his school was yesterday. There was a small party – his class had only twelve kids – and a meloncholy air. A good third of the children, including my son, will not be returning next year.
For pre-K we sent him to public school, one for which we were zoned. We found it not to be a good fit for M-ito. I’ve learned that fit is important. A good school for one child will not be a good school for another. M-ito got lost in the pre-K in our neighborhood. He follows rules, raises his hand, does what his teachers tell him, doesn’t speak out of turn, and listens to what his teachers say. What happened to him in pre-K? His teacher didn’t pay attention to him. She didn’t know M-ito outside of his trouble getting his coat on by himself. (He liked it when she helped him put his coat on because she paid attention to him and talked to him, listened to him tell her stories, while she helped him put that jacket on.) He knew how to put his own coat on and he also had figured out a way, within the rules set out for him, to get a little attention for himself. In his class there were three other kids who had behavioral problems. The only other way for my son get attention was to hit others, yell, take other’s toys, push kids in the hall or on the stairs – but that’s not his way. The kids who did this took up 90% of both the teacher and teacher’s aide’s time. The teacher tried to shame the children into leaving their stuffed animals at home in preparation for kindergarten. I still can’t forgive her for that. The school had no idea how to use parents to help them with the children. They said they wanted parental involvement but they didn’t. We pulled him out of there after one year. Many other parents pulled their kids out too.
M-ito didn’t get into the charter schools in our area. He didn’t win a seat based on either of the two lotteries we entered him in. We didn’t have any contacts or “know anyone” who could influence our chances either. We looked at private schools. I still can’t believe it. Both Mom-ita and I went to public schools and I just assumed M-ito would too. After one year’s experience with public school as a parent I don’t want to do it again.
So I starting saying yes to every consulting gig I could get. I still say yes to them all. Private school is expensive – but we both think it’s worth it.
In kindergarten we sent M-ito to a local private school and it was terrific. The school seemed good and the kindergarten teachers were excellent. But around the kindergarten class, in the classes above, there were problems with bullies, and there were behavioral problems that we encountered and heard about throughout the year. We stayed in our kindergarten bubble and tried to ignore the other problems. A child was asked to leave the school in the grade above. A younger brother in M-ito’s grade left with him. This happened past the half way mark of the school year. The administration took a long time to act – but eventually did.
In first grade M-ito overall had a good experience. His teacher was good and the small band of classmates created a nice bubble again within which learning could occur. But another bully appeared in the grade above – and M-ito’s class had recess and gym with him. There was an outbreak of stomach aches in M-ito’s class in the fall because of the upper grade’s less supervised and rough play. They were switched to have recess with the kindergarten. Gym was still held with the upper grade and the threat of the second grade bully was felt all year. He made M-ito’s classmates cry, making fun of them or calling them names when the teacher wasn’t paying attention (which seemed often), and the bully’s own grade suffered his behavior too. The last day of school my son had a long discussion with us about whether he could wear a favorite shirt – a tie-dye shirt – or not. Was the bully going to call him names? Make a comment to him? M-ito stopped wearing any colorful shirt by winter’s end. Pink left the list of his favorite colors. It wasn’t worth it to him to deal with the bully commenting about what he wore. It was safer to go below the radar. M-ito knew which teachers were good in afterschool class (ie: kept control of the kids and didn’t allow bullying) and which did nothing and let the kids run riot. I’m still amazed he made it through ballet all year, walking from his classroom to the music room one floor above in t-shirt and black tights – his leotard hidden underneath. He must have really wanted to dance.
Bullying in a private school is a challenge just as it is in a public school, but the school had and still has no comprehensvie approach to address it. It’s done on a teacher by teacher basis. But not all teachers are good at classroom management. It seems most are not. Private schools also have the issue of dealing with troublesome children whose parents make large donations of money to the school. Behavior that should not be permitted sometimes is. That’s another thing I learned.
And there are good teachers in good schools, bad teachers in good schools, good teachers in bad schools and bad teachers in bad schools. It’s tough to get a match. Friends of ours with kids in an upper grade suffered through a year with an abusive teacher. the teacher will not be coming back next year. There was some disturbing violence done to a teenager in an upper grade also. A teacher was fired. A child was expelled. What is the atmosphere of a school in which all these things happen? How is it taken in and absorbed by my son? Should I pretend that it doesn’t affect him? I know that it already has. But how much? Is he safe in his school? Administration dealt with each problem, but always seemed slow to react. I’ve found that administrators of schools are always slow to react. It’s not easy running a school with all these variables.
It’s been hard to pretend my son’s in a bubble when events happen around him. I can pretend but at a certain point I need not to. I worry what will happen next and whether it will happen to a child I know or if it will happen to my son. I wonder if every school is that way. Many people have told me it is so and that I just need to take the good with the bad and leave it at that. Others say, “boys will be boys.” I hate that. Boys are “boys” because parents and schools allow them to be. It is fostered by the school environment. There you have it. That is part of what is eating at me.
When I was in junior high school my best friend was hit by a train walking home from school in a downpour. I witnessed a kid I played football with – who later overdosed in high school – beat up a bully he’d been paid to take down. I witnessed it and walked away. Many of my friend’s lunches had been stolen by the bully. Many of us had been pushed around in the halls by him and his gang, had our books knocked out of our hands by him. I played football so was exempt from much of it. My smarter friends who didn’t play sports were not.
For this upcoming year, the tuition went up a significant amount. We were notified only a few months ago. We’d already been looking at other options for a school but that was just about the last straw. We decided M-ito would be going to another private school in the fall.
M-ito will be leaving behind friends as will we. Many families are leaving for similar reasons. Many are just tired of fighting and advocating again and again for slow and only partially satisfactory responses. Is this the way all schools work? Does change move so slowly? We’ve tried to find a school that matches the needs of our son. Will it be the right school for him? We hope so. We’ve investigated this new one in depth but the truth is you never know. There are so many variables. There is the school itself. What the school says it does and how it says it functions and how it in reality acts and functions sometimes are two different things. How teachers will be with your child may or may not work. What will be the mix of children? Will there be bullies? Will the staff be capable of handling him or her? How will my son fit? These are the thoughts that wake me in the early morning hours and stare at the ceiling with my heart racing.
We went to M-ito’s last day of first grade with heavy hearts. Other parents who are staying are not happy with us for leaving. Lines have been drawn, pickets thrown up and demilitarized zones created. It’s been lonely for Mom-ita. These are women she has called friends. Now some won’t talk to her. That’s another tricky part of your child’s school. You meet parents and develop new friendships. Your child’s friendships bring on new relationships for you as a parent also, whether you want them to or not.
I’m sure the parents who are keeping their children in the school are questioning themselves just are we are questioning ourselves. Should we stay? Should we leave? They care about their children and we care about our child. M-ito feels it too. He played Uno with his teacher and friends most of the party, smiling and laughing. But he has told us he’s scared about going to a new school and having to make new friends. We’re scared too. It’s a daunting prospect. Change is a scary thing. But sometimes status quo is even scarier.
And change is not only about loss, even if today it’s hard to see around it. It is also about growth. As a parent I have to remember to honor this both for myself and for M-ito. And for us, we hope, it will bring about a better education for our son.