Preparing for School

I’ve mentioned in this space before that next year my family embarks on the next great adventure of childhood — my daughter’s entrance into public school. It’s a transition that I, frankly, am approaching with a great deal of trepidation.

For the last 18 months, she’s been attending a small, private school in our town. We put her in there at about 3 1/2 years old because the daycare/”preschool” she’d been going to since she was a baby was seriously underwhelming us as she got older. She seemed lost in the crowd whenever we’d pick her up, and she seemed entirely unchallenged by the environment.

When we picked her current school there was no more space in the 3-day preschool (which would have been their first choice for her given her age), so she began attending a 5-day, half-day program. As a result, we ended up with an amazing teacher who my daughter simply fell in love with. She also blossomed over the course of the next six months.

It helped that her class was only five students. She gots ton of attention and nurturing and that built her confidence tremendously.

When this year rolled around, the school felt it was okay to put her into the five-day, full-day kingergarten class despite the fact that she was only four. We were okay with that because, again, the class was going to be small (8 students) and the new teacher was also fantastic and very fond of Madigan.

To say she has done well would be an understatement. She’s loves reading, spelling, and all the science they expose the kids to. (One thing I LOVE about this school is that they don’t dumb down complex concepts — instead, they figure kids will get as much as they’re able and they’ll be interested in learning more. Since the themes come up again and again as they get older, they’ll gradually expand their knowledge.) She’s less interested in math, but just doing just fine for her age-group.

Her social/emotional development is probably exactly where it should be for her age which means she’s not quite as connected with the older students but it doesn’t seem to bother her so it doesn’t bother us. For the most part, we’re still the center of her universe and the kids at school are these interesting creatures who she gets to observe and interact with every day. That’s fine — she’s got lots of time to make best friends.

Next year, she’ll be old enough for our public school, and a few weeks ago I went ahead and enrolled her. The school has an excellent reputation — and they’re the only school in the county that offers a combined K-1 classroom. I think that will be a good transition for Madigan since it will allow them to more easily meet her where she is in various subjects.

One mom whose daughter is also moving to the new school has been encouraging me to see if they’ll place Madigan as a first grader. I think this is probably not a great idea. The 1-year age difference isn’t a bit deal now but it will be a much bigger deal when she’s a pre-teen or teenager — particularly when you figure that a lot of parents/schools are holding boys back a year. I really don’t want my 12-year old daughter contending with almost 15-year old boys in her class in the future. Yikes.

So our school seems like a pretty good bet. Good reputation. A program that’s more flexible than most. But it has a lot of the problems that a lot of public schools are facing right now: big classes (25+ students); state and federal emphasis on standarized testing (although I’m hoping this isn’t really an issue yet at the kingergarten/1st grade level); and some very serious budget cuts in the county which could threaten music, art, PE, and special activities like field trips.

The alternative, keeping her at her current school, presents it’s own set of challenges. It isn’t cheap and while we could manage it I’d kind of rather take some of that money and put it away in her college fund (assuming that, you know, there will be any colleges when she’s 18). I love the idea of her being in this protected, “safe” space for a while longer, but I know that eventually we’d probably need to transition her and the longer we wait the harder that transition will be on her.

And I’m also cognizant of the fact that I live in a privilaged world where private school is even an option. Public schools need engaged parents who have the time, energy, and resources to challenge inadequate thinking about education. I think I could be one of those parents, and I would want to be a part of that conversation for ALL kids, not just mine.

I’m also a product of a really good, really privilaged public education, and I have a fundamental belief in the ideal of public education. And, for the record, I have lots of wonderful friends who are fantastic public school teachers. My reluctance about this decision is in NO WAY a rejection of teachers as any whole. In fact, my concern has a whole lot more to do with the systems that these teachers are forced to operate within and how little they do to empower the excellent educators who are in the classroom. I want to be a partner with and advocate for those teachers, and I fundamentally believe that parents’ voices are the most important (and, unfortunately, perhaps the most absent) voices in the conversation.

There’s another aspect to this whole situation that is further complicating. My own work in higher education has led me to question the very frameworks of education that we’ve built in this country. And I want to challenge myself to apply those same philosophical realizations to my children’s educations. But I don’t want to do it to the detriment of what IS working in those systems and spaces, and rectifying those opposing views is really hard.

I simply can’t bring myself to reject the institution of public education. Frankly, I can’t bring myself to think of public education as an “institution.” That’s not to say that there aren’t alarming and increasing examples of public schools (K-12 and higher education) that have truly turned education into, at best, an assembly line of content delivery and, at worst, penitentiary-like babysitting. Those are harsh words, but I know that there are some pretty appalling situation out there that students and teachers are having to operate in, and that breaks my heart. BUT I think that grouping all public schools into this pot is dangerous. Yes, school days are long, but, you know what, I spent long hours at school and they were filled with wonder, friendship, play, exploration, and hard work. I never felt like I was being passed along an assembly line. BUT, again, I was lucky. I get that, too.

I know the classroom will be bigger, and I worry about Madigan getting lost.

I know the students will be more varied in their abilities, and I worry that Madigan won’t be challenged.

I also know that I can’t protect her from everything that is hard. I can’t give her a “perfect” education, because that doesn’t exist.

In the end, we’ve decided we’ll move her to the new school and we’ll watch. If we start to sense that she’s getting lost or isn’t getting challenged, we’ll try to move her back to the old school. But even doing that gives me pause, even in those circumstances. I don’t want to turn my back on this.

I NEVER in my wildest dreams thought sending my daughter to kindergarten would be this hard.