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Monday, October 04, 2010

Families Struggling with Choices

There was a question from a reader, Sara, who asked:

My husband and I are at a crossroad trying to decide to go private, homeschool, or stick w/ public schools. We check your blog frequently, but what we are seeing at school, media, and on the blog makes us pessimistic or at the vey least full of doubts re: public education. So we are trying to figure out if there is a way for you bloggers, the board, the teachers, and the district to be innovative, work together, and find solutions while incorporating some of the reforms we seem to be heading.

That is a big question. I don't know how many children you have or your financial situation so keep that in mind.

First thing, off the bat, I support public education and so does Charlie. We would not put our own children in public schools and go to meetings, etc. and write day and night if we did not believe in public education. To me, it is the backbone of our democracy and it cannot be allowed to fail. That said, it also cannot be under the dictates of a small group of people with an agenda.

So, my very first instinct is to tell you that for elementary, I would go public. We have a lot of good/great elementaries in SPS including alternatives. Check out what your options are for your neighborhood. Go to the open houses in January. Better yet don't wait, call the school in advance, say you would like to come and sign in at the office and just walk through the school on a regular school day. (This shouldn't be that big of an issue as long as you promise not to stick your head in classrooms. It's more a way to get a feel of the energy in the building.)

I would not spend the money on private for elementary unless class size is the most important item to you and your husband. For many of the good/great elementaries, you are unlikely to get a small class size (by that I mean 15-20 for kindergarten). This might matter more if your child has had no pre-school or daycare experience. Save your money for middle school if you think you want to go private at all.

Homeschooling is a big endeavor. There is a good SPS Home School resource center. Call them, talk to them about what they can do to help you and what you may be facing in making the homeschool choice. There are more resources than ever out there for homeschooling but it is really a job. You need to think of it that way and keep very good records on what you are doing. It's a pretty long slog so you and your husband should have a real philosophical reason to do it.

Working together. I think we all truly want to work together to achieve great things for our district. The Board has some decent, smart people on it and I think especially Director Smith-Blum wants to try some innovative thing. The problem is we have a Superintendent that is not interested in what the Board wants or what parents want.

When I step back and look at her job, I can see where she can't just be going in all directions at once. There does have to be a strategy and a focus. But I can't see that she gets to make the call in a vacuum. For example, over in Bellevue, they had budget meetings that included parents and their priorities and those priorities were compared with their superintendent's and included.

The Superintendent is on a mission and apparently no one in power (Board, City Council, etc.) is going to check her. It's easy to be large and in-charge if no one challenges you.

So next fall we can attempt to elect new Board members who will listen. I have tried this before (and, I thought successfully) but something seems to happen when people get on the Board and they don't stand up to the Superintendent and staff.

We have many good education organizations in this town but they aren't united. Some do represent parents but most are more for the business/community interests and tend to have the most influence. You would think that the PTA and the Alliance for Education would be working to unite these groups so we could get our legislators, School Board and City Council to listen to what citizens want in public education.

But again, there are agendas. It's funny because someone said something about Charlie and me having an agenda. I had to laugh. Not really. I'm not going to say I know the best thing for public education (and one reason is because I don't think there is a single thing but we need multiple things to be happening).

We have an entrenched bureaucracy in our district. This is not a good thing. It is one of the reasons we keep getting bad audit results. It is the main reason that despite being a great city, we are moving at a glacial pace in our academic efforts. I know the City Council and state legislators feel a lot of frustration over our district and confusion as well. "What will it take?" is the big question.

I personally feel it is going to take a BIG event to shake things up. I don't think the district and the Board understand that if they don't have the support of teachers and parents in their efforts, all the "reform" in the world isn't going to work. The Superintendent and the Board have been silent on the 99.8% vote of no confidence in the Superintendent's leadership. If the people who stand before our children every day aren't motivated and inspired by the Superintendent, how will they motivate and inspire our children? If parents aren't certain of what the district is doing and how it will help their child, why support public schools?

That the Board and the Superintendent seem to not care about these fundamental and basic questions is deeply troubling.

I do have some ideas for the future but I'll leave it here now.

No matter your decision, Sara, please know that we have good things happening in our district. I am proud of the education my sons (both graduated, one from Hale and one from Roosevelt) received in Seattle public schools. Even if you and your husband don't choose public education right now, please consider keeping it open as an option for your child.

17 comments:

jd said...

FYI, if you open yourself to an "unpopular" elementary school in your cluster, you may well get small class sizes as well. Our kids have never had more than 20 kids in their class, and have been thriving.

The key is to assess why the school is unpopular. In our case, the other schools in the cluster have higher test scores, largely because they are serving a much more uniform and affluent population. So, by staying in our local school, we're getting a private-school sized experience, coupled with the diversity we want from a public school. Couldn't be happier!

Greg said...

I sympathize with Sara. I have the same thoughts. I was educated in public schools, benefited tremendously from public schools, and am a huge supporter of public education. But the turmoil and administration problems in Seattle Public Schools are trying even to the strongest supporters of public education, especially when it is their children exposed to the chaos and they have the resources to go elsewhere.

One thing that I have found that helps a lot is that, at the individual school level, things often run quite well. The teachers and principals are excellent for the most part. And, I can and do have an impact on our specific schools with volunteering and donations.

Where things are more problematic is helping public education for all children of Seattle. The lack of attention to the low market share, dismal performance of some schools, poor condition and overcrowding of many buildings, bloated and self-serving administration, shuffling of student populations to hide rather than fix problems, and lack of accountability, all of these make me wonder if we should leave in frustration like so many others have. But, if dedicated parents like us all give up and opt out, who will be left?

SE Mom said...

I would say to visit schools and go on tours to get your own feel for each school. When we were looking for kindergarten for our kid, we heard many stories and opinions about different schools. It was surprising to find that we more often than not had very different responses to what we had heard or read about particular schools, both negative and positive. In our case, we decided that an alternative K-8 would best fit our needs and it turned out to be a good choice!

kellycar said...

I would agree with Melissa that there are good public elementary schools in Seattle, but they may not be available to you depending on where you live, now that we have the NSAP. Our neighborhood school is not a good school by any measure and we were number 18 on the waiting list for the closest alternative school that we liked We felt we had no option but to go private. We considered moving, but the housing market made this a bad year for that. All the kids we know in our neighborhood go to Shoreline, alternative schools or private. I have to say we're delighted with our choice so far and that our kid will get real math instruction, but it's not right that high quality eduction is not available to all Seattle kids.
It's a hard decision.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Melissa. Financially we can swing it, but it is a MAJOR hardship. We volunteer every week at our school. Over the 5 years, we have written over $8,000 to the PTA and school. We are not rich, but value our children's education.

In the 5 years w/ SPS, we have experienced a wide range of teachers from the two disinterested veterans (who did no harm), one new, inexperienced teacher but w/ promise, and 2 very senior but very skillful teachers. We are constantly amazed how short the academic instructional time is at the elementary school, especially from 3rd grade up. This year, the principal has reduced math instructional time by 15 minutes to an hour. Why?

We feel like we are running out of time waiting for meaningful changes. We don't embrace the Reformers. But if that is the way the wind and $ blow, can we make some of their ideas work for us.
i.e use of TFAs.

what if we change directions from how TFA is being used by reformers. Recruit TFA people with math and science degree (they can be older, starting a new career) , aptitude for teaching, idealism, and give them the teaching experience. Yes, it is expensive, but we are spending that money now w/ RTT at the national level and for MAP at the local. Can we find better use of the $$ out there?

These TFA people are degreed, they are willing to teach and we can give them the experience and the reason to teach (and stay in teaching). If it is more palatable, can we look at this as an apprenticeship where in return they are expecte to work for X number of years or pay back in $ like student loan if they choose to leave early? Similar to the US National Health Service Corp.

We do need to start recruiting our best and brightest into teaching. I can tell you as a nurse (w/ advanced degrees), there are 2 year trained RN out there that I will take over a BSN because they have the practical hands-on experience to match the learned theories.

Sara

Melissa Westbrook said...

Sara, the issue for TFAs is a whole other discussion but I don't think they would come in as IAs.

My mom was a registered nurse and so I have a special affection for all nurses. I understand your point.

Jet City mom said...

Keep in mind that most families in Seattle at some point participate in the public school system.

This site has broader education info inc homeschooling etc. resources.
Schools in Seattle

While I appreciate that our govt funds schools- we stayed in Seattle for the past 27 years DESPITE the public school system, not because of it.

Charlie Mas said...

It is important to keep the schools and the District separate in your mind. The schools, for the most part, are good to very good. The District, for the most part, is dreadful.

Fortunately, kids don't go to class at the John Stanford Center.

At times, the gulf between the schools and the district headquarters can actually be a good thing. This is one of those times. Despite all of the bad decisions made in the District headquarters, the schools had continued to do good work.

Don't judge the schools based on what happens at the District headquarters. Consider the school on its own merits. And remember that the primary determinant of your child's academic achievement will be your own involvement in their education - and that is the same regardless of which school you choose.

Unknown said...

We know a family who pulled their daughter out of APP because of the stress that the school district's handling of that program and lack of clear vision for the future caused. When the district wanted to split APP and to send the north end parent even farther south than Lowell, and to put them in the same school as economically disadvantaged students they felt shocked and betrayed. They left Seattle Schools because they didn't feel that the uncertainty about the APP program just wasn't worth dealing with any more.

That uncertainty and rudderless leadership was a major factor in why we decided to send our daughter to private school. We would have loved to be able to send her to public school but our NSAP school wouldn't be a good fit, and the uncertain future of some of the alternative schools in our neck of the woods was a level of stress we didn't want to deal with.

Patrick said...

I'll echo that while there are some serious problems with the district leadership, there are also lots of teachers and principals who are doing a great job in spite of the district. Try to get to PTA meetings or curriculum nights to see what the atmosphere is like in the school. The tours can tell you something, but not as much as a whole school event, I think.

ParentofThree said...

Private school is not the be all end all of education either. They come with Their own issues, starting with the rigorous application process that typically includes essays,interviews and in some cases testing. It is likely you will need to commute, and create carpools. Friendships are scattered all over the city. Your child will hob nob will many wealthy families. There are also private school politics that you will have to play. And remember when you volunteer in a private school classroom you are only helping a thin slice of society. In a public classroom your reach is far and wide.

seattle said...

Right, Parent of three! And, honestly, when we looked at private school we found that a high percentage of kids at those schools seemed to have behavioral or social issues. Their parents thought they would be labeled "problem kids" in public school, and sought the refuge of private school.

Then at high school,drugs and alcohol play an even bigger part in teens lives in private than they do in publics. Private school kids have the means and they have access to drugs. Private school families don't have to deal with drop outs, violence/gangs, low test scores, and the like, but they do have to deal with drug an alcohol issues in a big way.

Anonymous said...

My kid is now out of SPS. He went to alternative schools and then Nathan Hale. All were a good fit for him. Our local neighborhood school, as good as it allegedly was, would have been a very bad fit for him. We felt lucky to have a choice.
All through his years of school I was happy with the mostly innovative curriculum that he subjected to. There were many years of parents fighting downtown on many issues. Especially money. It seemed that downtown barely tolerated the alternative schools and only put up with them because they thought we would go to private schools.
As the years went by the district started taking best practices from our alternative schools. The innovations were working. And raising test scores. (Always more important to the district than the parents.)
But now I fear that the things that were the best in alternative schools--innovative curriculum, site based decisions that included parents and other things are being washed away. Standardized curriculum. No substantive role for parents. Top down management.
This seems like a giant step backwards for these schools.
~CE

seattle citizen said...

ParentofThree, while I agree with some of the problems with private schools you mention (carpools, friends scattered, etc) I think it isn't always true that "[y]our child will hob nob will many wealthy families."

Many middle class families manage to pay for some of the less-expensive private schools. Not all private schools have Bush, Lakeside or Northwest tuitions.

But your points otherwise are well-taken.

ParentofThree said...

Ok. Potentially hob nob with some very wealthy families who will spend vacations jet setting.

GreyWatch said...

I would disagree with Melissa on the "wait until middle school" approach for private.

I would encourage starting out in public and see how it works though. My personal opinion is there is too much pressure in the early years for kids to perform at too young an age (would love to see trend reports on people holding kids back because of this).

Our very bright child started calling himself stupid which is when we decided to move on. He had no interest in the lesson, that was for sure, but he was far from stupid. We went private for a few years, something we thought we'd never do, and are now back in public. All is good.

With private, I was stressed about money and the many hours of volunteer work and other in-kind donations you must contribute (depending on the school of course). However, I could pick up the local paper and feel delightfully removed from any central office shenanigans that were being covered.

I, like other others, thought private would be a dumping ground of people with too much money on their hands and kids who didn't fit in anyplace else. As my kid turned out to be the latter, I was very glad the option existed, and that we could afford it. Most of the parents we met were just getting by financially, and made sacrifices elsewhere to make it all work.

Unknown said...

I'm a single mom and I opted to go with an online public school (Washington Virtual Academy). We just started our second year. It is like homeschooling, but has a public school curriculum, the support of a public school teacher, group discussions, activities, field trips, etc. Many people still aren't aware of this option, but it is just another public schooling option available for free to anyone in the state.

It isn't the easiest option and definitely takes planning to utilize our time efficiently, but I couldnt be more satisfied with the decision. My son is now succeeding where he had major challenges before (gained 22% on the state test in math in 1 year), motivated to learn, and in my opinion, getting a more comprehensive education than was possible before.

I believe in the absolute importance of our public (brick and mortar) schools and still volunteer in them, but believe major institutional reforms are needed. The online public school option (which is actually only online about 1/3 of the time and has audio, art, books, labs, manipulatives, etc.) has been wonderful and effective for us, and I would highly recommend it for others.

You can find out more about online public school programs on the State of WA OSPI Digital Learning Department website at digitallearning.k12.wa.us/school_programs .