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.

9 thoughts on “Preparing for School”

  1. @Steve — yeah, I get that. I don’t want to overanalyze this. (But it’s probably too late for that.)

    That said, I think that there are formative things happening at these ages, particularly if you have a child who could be prone to tuning school out, which I worry Madigan might do. She’s got a lot of type-A (Me) in her, but she also has a lot of march-to-her-own-drummer in her that she gets from her father. She craves challenge and she’s a bit of a daydreamer. I also think she’s pretty sensitive, and when she’s uncomfortable or uncertain, she’ll just put up walls.

    Okay, that may be more analysis than any five-year-old deserves, but I can’t help it. Heck, it’s my blog. I’ll overanalyze my kid if I want to. :-p

  2. Don’t forget that kindergarteners are supposed to daydream. If you can’t do that when you are five, when are you supposed to? IMHO, the unstructured time, the freedom to create and socialize on their own is as important as the readin, writin and rithmatic. (at least for now)

    There is a saying that I learned as a soccer coach for my kids. It goes β€œlet the game teach the game.” It means, do less instruction and focus on putting the kids in a game situations and they will learn to play. I believe the saying applies to kindergarten as well. Put the kids in an environment where they can learn how to interact with one another, toss in some numbers and letters ( and of course the creative wisdom of a good early childhood teacher) , and they will have a great year. The challenge for a kindergartner should be to get through the day learning how to make freinds and having fun so they want to come back next year. My $.02 .

  3. Martha,

    Fact is Antonella and I are going through this very struggle right now with Miles, and to be honest I never thought I would turn my back on public education. Especially when, by all accounts, Fredericskburg has a decent elementary school in Hugh Mercer, but I’m also increasingly skeptical of the assumed mindset of school in general, and public schools more specifically. I’m not sure think the public school I went to necessarily exists in the same way anymore, and when you factor in the fact that testing has become the raison d’etre of these schools, and the 8 hour work day for kids is the accepted norm, the whole thing kinda kills me.

    Part of me just wants to say fuck it, send them to public school because god knows we can’t afford private, and how bad can it be? But then again, I have bi-cultural kids who speak both Italian and English, and they will be learning two sets of grammars, writing, literature, history, etc. Any public school going to work with us on that? Of course not, you have to build it yourself. And I think we are gonna try and do just that. I need to home school now like I need a hole in the head, and I know that it is the social scene at public school Miles will miss greatly, and I am really gun shy of the home school options, but at the same time I’m increasingly fascinated by the idea of deschooling from institutions a bit, and I guess maybe it is time to embrace some of that fear and uncertainty and see what comes of it. And if nothing else, it may make for some interesting lesson plans for the bava πŸ™‚

    Fact is, what I really want to do is start a communal alternative school of volunteers—so both the customized curriculum and social aspects of school remain, but I’m not so sure that can happen in so little time. But it is something to shoot for by the time Tomasso is 5 πŸ™‚

    In other words, I feel your pain.

  4. @Peter — First, what are you doing here? πŸ™‚ Second, thanks for that advice. I think I’m losing site of some of that simply because seeing Madigan begin to come into herself academically has been so mind-blowing. As a result, I’m probably too focused on what kind of academic experience she’s likely to have in kindergarten next year as opposed to what she’s had this year. But your comment reminds me that there are all sorts of ways to support kids this age and that the daydreaming/play component is probably the single-most important aspect. I *think* her current school does a good job of balancing this, and I’m hoping her new school will, too. One of the challenges is that when I ask Madigan what she does at school she tells me, “I don’t know.” (That’s actually an improvement over six months ago when I’d ask and she would just growl at me.)

    @Jim — I know you guys are struggling with many of the same issues, so it’s useful to hear how you’re navigating the experience. To be honest, I’m a lot less concerned with the 8 hour day aspect. Madigan’s been in a full-day program this year, and I’ve seen no problem with the length of the day. I’m hesitant to identify that issue as a problem in and of itselft, because I think the bigger issue is, of course, what they DO during that 8 hour day. I’m sure she’s spent some pretty uninspiring 8 hour blocks hanging around the house from time to time (shame on me), and I know she’s had fantastic days at school in the same amount of time.

    The testing thing is WAY more concerning for me as is the idea of a strictly regimented classroom environment. Her current classroom can seem a bit chaotic at times, but that’s okay because there are only 8 students and the teacher doesn’t have to be in constant classroom-management mode.

    As for the testing, I have a lot of fears about this but I think I need to better understand what the issues are and what the impact is at her school and on her school experience. But I’ll definitely be watching all of these issues closely and, as I said, if we feel she’s not thriving we’ll just see what we can do next/instead.

    Interestingly, before I had kids I was really intrigued with the idea of homeschooling. But there are a variety of factors that make this pretty much impossible for us.

    The other thing I want to say is that I really don’t believe that there is one answer to this. You and Antonella have some factors in your lives (particularly the bi-lingual, multi-cultural dynamic) that isn’t really on our radar. On the other hand, we have the factor of living in a fairly isolated, rural location that pushes me in certain directions.

    I don’t think that education for kids should be one-size-fits all, and, certainly, one of my concerns is that public schools don’t really have the luxury to imagine anything else right now. I guess we just have to find out if their size fits us.

  5. I think you hit on the most critical thing when you said you would be watching her throughout the year. Being in tune to how things are going for her is the most important thing you can do.

    From my viewpoint, admittedly biased and from the perspective of a fabulous elementary school, public schools work really hard not to do one-size-fits all. I could share many fabulous schools with Jim that would be thrilled to have his kids and help them continue to grow in both languages, both cultures, and in ways that respect their family’s values.

    That said, testing and funding issues are huge factors right now. And factors over which we have limited control.

  6. @jenny — THANK YOU for this comment. I worry a lot that because of the space I work in (which feels like it has limited vision into K-12 realities), my impressions may be based more in fear and anxiety than in any reality.

    Certainly, I’ve seen a share of University students who seem to be embodying less-than-stellar academic histories, however it’s important for me to realize that there is more to this story.

    What role have parents taken in these stories? I, for one, plan on being pretty actively engaged in watching Madigan (and Graeme) develop in their schools. I plan to make noise if I see something I’m uncomfortable with. And I hope to make myself available as a resource for the teachers who are interested in parental involvement.

    Also, as Steve mentions, how much of what I’ve witnessed is a result of middle and secondary school when academics begins to compete with increasing number of other influences in students lives (some good, some not) — and again what role have parents played in helping their children to navigate these experiences?

    Knowing teachers like you is the reason who I’m okay with the decision we’ve made for next year. Meeting folks like those I met at EduCon was a reminder of how many fantastic public school teachers are out there and how hard they are working to take care of our kids.

    To a certain degree I also have had to be honest about how much of my anxiety about this situation is about ME not Madigan. *I* like the “safety” that I associate with her small, private school. *I* like the community of parents and teachers I’ve met there. *I*, like many parents, worry about how a little kid will adjust to big changes. Part of this is about me growing up as a parent as much as it is about her growing into a kindergartener.

  7. Thanks so much for this post, Martha. I’m sure I’ll revisit it in a year when it’s time for us to enroll Lucas in kindergarten. It’s very clear to us that he needs to wait another year–he’ll turn 6 in September 2011–before entering the kindergarten classroom. Where you fear that Madigan won’t be challenged, I worry that Lucas won’t be able to keep up with the other kids.

    Part of me is grateful for not having to worry (yet?) about the challenge. As a Davis parent, I’m supposed to want my child to be academically gifted, and as someone who was in gifted programs from 1st through 12th grade, I know that I had the best teachers at the schools I attended. At the same time, I know gifted children often learn from these environments to compete with one another and they put tremendous pressure on themselves to achieve at high levels.

    I don’t want Lucas to go through that. I doubt he’ll be (merely) average, but I’m kind of grateful he’s not showing early signs of giftedness, aside from perhaps some artistic skills.

    I hope you’ll blog about your experiences with schooling Madigan, as I expect I’ll learn a ton.

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