Monday, November 17, 2008

"It's not going to happen."

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.


Nat West said...

What are your thoughts on un/homeschooling? Surprised that you don't mention that as an option here.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Funny you should mention that. In the first draft of this post, I included a little anecdote about going into a bookstore to look for books on private schools and seeing a friend of mine there with her toddler. She's a former public school teacher. When I explained my mission, she told me that they were planning to homeschool. I asked why. She just rolled her eyes.

Obviously homeschooling is an option for many people, but I don't think we'll be going that route. First of all, I don't think either of us wants to become our child's teacher. We have other things we want to do with our lives. Secondly, we believe in the socializing effects of mass education.

I know that parents do band together to hire teachers for small groups of children, but I think our family prefers the benefits of institutional education.

Nat West said...

Hmm, interesting. Might I suggest you blow a couple hours one evening doing some research online? You know it's only, like, your son's next 12 years at stake :)

(Did the lighthearted sarcasm come through there?)

I hear anecdotal evidence of many, many public school teachers opting out of institutional schooling.

Specifically, you mention "becoming your child's teacher". I'm pretty much a SAHD, and we're planning to do the unschooling thing, but I would never presume to be my daughter's teacher more in the future than I am now. You're already your son's teacher, and as time goes on, I'll become more my daughter's learning facilitator than a teacher. She's already asking me questions to which I don't know the answer, so we learn together, or I tell her to buzz off and look it up herself.

And about "do other things with our lives" I could not agree more. Do you just have the one kid? There are many homeschooling parents (mostly moms) whose greatest mission in life is homeschooling and "being a mom". I'm not that, and neither is my wife (who is a full-time nurse practitioner). I don't know what you do for $$$, but there are many many career-type-things (or just things to keep you busy during the days) that are compatible with being the primary caregiver for an unschooled child. Instead of being a "supermom" (dad), totally devoted his child, giving up everything in my life for her, we're approaching it without preconceived ideas of how it'll work out. I don't think of us as unschoolers per se, but more as parents of a child who doesn't attend school. She doesn't attend school now, and she won't in the future, and I'll get more and more of my life back the older she gets.

Finally, regarding "socializing effects", there are some really really terrible aspects of that, and I think the socialization argument, so prevalent in the 80s has been effectively destroyed in the past decade, unless of course, you live in boonie-land Kansas. But if that's the case, then you have other problems.

Maybe you've thought about all this, but if not, there you go.

Leslie said...

I live in NC and there are a lot of issues with our public schools. Honestly, the quality is pretty high in the county I live in (urban as opposed to rural)and I am quite pleased with the school we are currently in. The main issue here is that the county is growing so fast that they have a terrible space problem. That has led to things like annual redistricting. There are kids that have been to 4 schools in 4 years because their node keeps getting moved from school to school to alieve over crowding. And, when you are moved there is a good chance you will be moved to a school very far away from where you live since the system is county wide. On top of that, there has been a significant shift to year round schools (4 breaks scheduled throughout the year instead of one big summer break - school is divided into 4 tracks so one track is out while the other three are in). I actually really like year round school (we are in a year round school) but there has been significant resisitance to it and constant fights every time a school is converted. There are a huge number of parents around here that have gotten so frustrated with the constant redistricting and fighting about schedules that they just pull their kids out and go the private route or homeschool.

I feel VERY fortunate because we are in a highly ranked school on the year round schedule that I wanted and on the track I wanted. And, it is close to my house. There was a whole lot of anxiety before we knew where we were going though and what track we were on and I know a lot of people that got nothing that they wanted. And, of course, there is the constant threat of being moved to another school to alieve overcrowding in schools that are as much as 30 or 40 miles from me.

Is there anywhere left that there aren't issues like this? Do smaller towns/smaller school districts have problems like ours here in Wake County or yours in San Francisco?

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Nat: It's interesting to hear your perspective, but again, I know it's not for us.

I'm all too aware of the negative aspects of school socialization. And contemplating them sometimes keeps me up at night, literally. Liko is already bringing all kinds of interesting ideas home from preschool (did you know that girls can't play with trucks and boys can't wear dresses?) and I can't stand the idea of Liko being bullied.

And the same time, however, I know that he will benefit from interacting with the mix of people he'll meet in school, and schooling will provide opportunities for the arts and athletics that he wouldn't have otherwise.

Nat West said...

Roger that. I'm no preacher, so long as you've thought about it.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Leslie: I have the same questions myself. It does seem to be the case that dense population areas have trouble with their schools, but I don't personally have a bird's eye view of any of this. I have a feeling, however, that this might be my next obsession.

Unknown said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention homeschooling as an option. With the way things are in our schools, my wife and I firmly believe that homeschooling is a better alternative for many reasons.
As far as the Socializing affects of mass schooling goes, we believe that what the schools provide is "fake" socializing, because never again in your life will you find yourself in a room with a bunch of people all more or less the same age. We are homeschooling our 4 year old daughter and she has friends age 17 months -83 years old who she plays and interacts with on a regular basis. This seems much more realistic and valuable to the forming of social skills.
Homeschooling does not mean your kid is locked away inside with their parents all day. My wife and daughter are rarely home. They are out in the world doing many many interesting things, most of which would never even be considered in a traditional school.
Being in the world is the real education, not stuck inside some institution that clearly no longer works.
I wish you well on your search.