Two weeks ago my wife and I went to Kindergarten information night, sponsored by the San Francisco Unified School District.
A quick word about how it works in SF: Parents turn in a request for their top 7 schools. There is a lottery (which is part of SF’s effort to integrate its schools); it is commonplace for families to not be assigned any of their top 7 choices, though sometimes people get lucky. Luck is a big part of the process.
At the information night, it was great to meet the parents, teachers, and principals. After hearing public school parents speak about their experiences on a panel, I thought confidently, No problem, we’ll find a school for Liko.
Then a school district representative stood up to talk about the application process. Here are my notes: The process is stressful and so complicated that even I don’t understand it; we’re facing budget cuts at the same time as enrollment is climbing, both due to the bad economy; you probably won’t get a school in your neighborhood. Also, be sure to bring your application to the office in person, because we might lose it otherwise.
So now we’re also looking at private schools, even as we tour public schools on our list. It’s an eye-opening experience. On Tuesday we visited a public school that is widely considered the best in San Francisco, and indeed, it appeared to be a very good school.
The tours were run by parents, with the principal taking some time to answer our questions, and I saw many parents in the hallways and classrooms. High involvement is obviously key to their success. ("And just in case you're wondering," said a dad, "there are lots of fathers who volunteer.")
But one other thing struck me right away: Things like the large school library, including the librarian’s entire salary, and “extras” like the arts and the computer lab, are totally funded by the parent organization. In other words, the parents fundraise in order to get many programs that were taken for granted when I was growing up.
Yesterday we visited another school, not one of the best in the district. This one also sported high levels of parent involvement, but not quite as much, and they weren’t nearly as organized or affluent.
The difference showed: The tiny school library was only open two times a week (for two-hour blocks), and the school lacked many "extra" programs. The adult-to-student ratio in the classrooms was lower; meanwhile, the school’s diversity, economic and cultural, was much higher.
Afterward, I was talking to a mom who was also a teacher in the district. She told me a story about how one school, facing budgetary uncertainly, sacked all its teachers at the end of the year. They were re-hired by the end of the summer, but many, she said, were demoralized.
I'm not even going to talk about my wife's experiences as a teacher in training; she went through a special program that took her on a tour through the district's lowest performing schools. Liko won't be going to any of them. It's not going to happen.
That's a mantra I keep hearing from other parents: "It's not going to happen."
This is always understood as referring to the possibility that their child might end up at a substandard school. It's our way of saying that we are not going to just accept whatever the SF public school lottery gives us.
The vast majority of parents I know, irrespective of their personal politics, are applying to both public and private schools, with the private ones as backups. If they don't get anything they want, or the financial aid they need, they simply quit San Francisco for a Bay Area city with a better system.
Few people want to send their kids to private schools. They value public education and they want their children to be part of it. Plus, what non-rich person wants to spend 20K or more on their child's elementary school education?
But these are also people (that is, the kind of people who go on school tours) who value education, period, not to mention safety.
For this reason, I find the guilt-tripping public vs. private debate to be tiresome. The ideological presumption is that pursuing what's best for your child involves kicking someone else's to the curb. And to be sure, that's exactly how our society works right now: Some children have more chances than others. America has been kicking groups of kids to the curb since the days of the Declaration of Independence.
We do indeed have a responsibility to each other, for each other. We should all be working for an education system that serves all kids; that's one of 4 million reasons why I voted for President-Elect Obama.
But families are making decisions with in the matrix of a system that is rigged against them; indeed, a system that is at war with itself. The American education neurosis manifests itself on every level of our society, from the way some of our political leaders attack "educated elites" as well as teachers, to the way education is funded to the way it's managed to the panicky ways parents make their decisions.
San Francisco's system is particularly dysfunctional and inhumane. It's gratuitously, even cruelly, stressful for parents, students, teachers, and administrators. If some people opt out, and my family might be among them, will any amount of guilt tripping bring them back?
I don't have any grandiose answers; I just getting used to all this and I'm just starting to learn. I can see that the teachers are doing their best. Many parents are volunteering and fundraising. Many administrators are doing their best; some of their efforts might even be called heroic. Olli and l will just keep going and see how it unfolds; this will become a perennial topic here at Daddy Dialectic.