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School: A Diatribe

Ok, so I’ve got one year before Loch starts Kindergarten and it’s already keeping me up nights. You want to do right by your children. You want them to have every possible opportunity. To have all doors open to them and to feel that they can be and do anything. But the reality of the situation is less optimistic. Time Magazine recently ran an article, well, really the entire issue was in some way devoted to, education and upward mobility. The cover read: Can You Still Move Up in America? The answer was, maybe not. America has been billed as, and until recently was, the land of opportunity. A place where, with enough work, anyone from anywhere could succeed. But today’s  statistics are showing us that’s not necessarily the truth. The divide between the have and have nots is becoming increasingly difficult to overcome. Those who have will continue to have, and those who don’t will continue to struggle. It’s the bankers getting their bonuses while the economy tanks on their watch mentality. In many ways this divide is the root of the Occupy Wall Street protests that are going on right now. To paraphrase the 1976 film, Network, people are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it any more.

The thing is, having been blessed enough to be born in a particular socio-economic group, I never really thought about the economy the way I do now that I’m a parent trying to navigate the world for my child.  It’s different than it was when I graduated from High School and, as much as I feel old, that wasn’t that long ago. A subsequent article in the same Time Magazine titled “When will we Learn?” claims that the education system in the US  is, for all intents and purposes, broken. Education, which used to be the foundation of life improvement is now one of the country’s dividing forces. The article begins by referencing the recent death of Steve Jobs and what a remarkable journey he had from the “adopted son of working class parents, who dropped out of college to become one of the great technologists and businessmen of our time.” They go on to say that he was, obviously, an “extraordinary individual” but that his opportunities and first rate public education in Cupertino, CA gave him “a grounding in both the liberal arts and technology” and “did the same for Steve Wozniak, the more technically oriented co-founder of Apple, who Jobs met at the same school.” When Steve Jobs graduated from High School in 1972 California public schools were rated the “finest in the country – well funded, well run with excellent teachers”. These schools were the “engines of social mobility that took people like Jobs and Wozniak and gave them an educational grounding that helped them rise.” ^

Today, California schools rate at the bottom of the country just as the US “sits at the bottom of the industrialized world by most measures of educational advancement.” The World Economic Forum ranks the US educational system 26th in the world. This might hardly be news to some, but to a first time mother getting ready to put her only child into school, it came as quite a shock.

Living in California, particlularly Los Angeles, I always said there was no way my child was going to public High School. Even without research it is widely known that most High Schools are terrible, overcrowded and out of date. The teacher’s unions are incredibly strong and while I’m all for unions, it’s almost impossible to fire incompetent teachers and quality teachers are not supported the way they should be. It is hard not to talk about the issue of educational problems without also touching on the issue of illegal immigrants and the subsequent drain on the school system that directly relates to that. I realize this is a hot button issue but with so many of my peers feeling refusing to send their kids to the local school I know I’m not alone in referencing it. Our local High School is 68.8% Hispanic. Many classes are even taught in Spanish (or partial Spanish) to make it easier for the majority of the student body. It is rated the 700th school in California. In 2000 the student body was 34% white and 8.4% African American and now it’s 19% and 4.7% respectively, with statistics continuing to drop.* With Governor Jerry Brown recently signing legislation that allows illegal immigrants who have gone through the California public system access to state aid for college, what would stop people who don’t pay taxes from continuing to send their children to the local (and tax payer funded) schools? In a world where you can’t even hope to move up without a College Education, your High School education is paramount, and the way things are now it’s put a lot of pressure on the parents to go Private/Independent.

Some light bedside reading...

Now I went to a private school in Canada from Grade 6 though Grade 13. (High School was 5 years back in my day and has since been phased out.) When I started it was around 7-9k a year, when I graduated it was more in the 11-13K range. Today, that same school is 28K a year. That’s pretty much the going rate down in LA too. Seriously?! $30,000 a year!?! That price freezes so many people out. Honestly, if we had more than one child, it wouldn’t even be up for discussion. One of my dearest friends went to my school from PreK through grade 13 and is now the Kindergarten teacher there. She says it’s not like it was. Regular white collar people are no longer the “norm”. It’s not “professional’s” kids so much as millionaire banker and sport’s star kids. It’s a totally different vibe. But with the public education system being what it is, what’s the alternative?

Lately I’ve been trying to navigate (read: understand) the exceptionally complicated Magnet and Charter schools that are in my vicinity. They are essentially public schools with either a hard focus on particular subjects like computers, pre-med, or preforming arts; or they are schools that have petitioned to be able to deviate (even slightly) from the standardized education mandated by the state.  They can, for example, add a second language class or a drama class if the board agrees, and as long as they still hit all the decided upon benchmarks. These schools are considered exponentially better than “regular” public school and they’re mad tricky to get into. There’s a lotto based on a point system that I am still trying to comprehend. The benchmarks are essentially from the Bush implemented “No Child Left Behind” mandate that tied school subsidies to student scores on standardized testing. It’s forced teachers to teach towards the tests but it’s not really helping our children’s minds grow, or fostering a love of learning. If you focus only on tests you miss out on so many other fascinating things to learn. You create teachers that can’t implement their own ideas or use their strengths or imaginations to expand their curriculum and you create students under a constant state of stress who lack creativity. A recent article in Parenting magazine called “Is your child creative enough” claimed that in the world of standardized testing (which now more than half the states begin in kindergarden) “learning becomes about following instructions. Children aren’t given the opportunity to express their own ideas or come up with their own way of doing things. Instead, the answer is A, B or C. There is only one answer.” ** The Parenting article stresses that limiting thinking like that will be detrimental to our future generations. Our children will face “a universe of rapidly evolving technology, an ever shifting global economy and health and environmental challenges that will require plenty of creative thinking” *** If our schools are teaching the opposite, we will only continue to underperform on the world stage. And please, for the love of God, stop focusing only on Math & Science to the exclusion of everything else. Creative and divergent thinking is the backbone of entrepreneurial ship and it’s the entrepreneurs that will help raise the country back up.

I read an article last year about how boys are falling through the cracks in many public schools because of the absence of recess and the phasing out of Physical Eduction to make time for more study. Due to the fact that boys brains mature slower than girls, they are unable to sit and concentrate at the same level as their female peers until around 3rd grade. They need more time to blow off steam. They need to move around more. They need breaks. With recess missing and the emphasis on focused study starting in the 1st grade, research is finding many young boys acting out. Unable to concentrate for as long as expected they cause disturbances and are often pegged as “bad eggs” or “problem children”. Many are even dubbed ADD/ADHD and are subsequently medicated for it. By the time these boys get to the age to really sit still and study, they are already “over” school. They are disinterested or disengaged. They don’t like it, and who can blame them?

Knowing all these facts I am determined that this will not be my son’s fate. I want him to love school. To love learning. To feel from the beginning of his scholastic journey that he wants to be there, and subsequently be able to get the most out of it he can. He might not even be conscious of it, but if he likes going to school he’ll most likely thrive. I don’t think he’ll feel like that in a school where he’s one of 38 kids in a class. Or when his teacher isn’t speaking his language. It can’t be at a school that prizes standardized testing above real learning and I don’t want him at a school that, like my local school, looks like a prison of grey cinderblock and almost no windows. He needs to be in an inviting, positive environment that teaches how to do what’s expected of you but also rewards out of the box thinking. He needs enough time to stretch his legs and his mind. He needs every opportunity we can give him.

This book is giving me palpitations. I need to know more senators for recommendation letters.

So, we’re going private. We talked seriously about picking up and moving just to get into one of the quality elementary districts (there are some) but we’d have to buy a house that we currently can’t afford. As it stands right now I’ll have to pay, essentially, a college tuition per year to ensure my child can compete. In the hope that he won’t get lost. So now, he has to be accepted (with interviews, observations, parental interviews, letters of recommendation from your pre-school director and any one else important you could get) and we’ll have to figure out how to pay for it. You’d think in our current situation we would qualify for financial aid, but in some schools having limited funds isn’t the only requirement. Some schools require you also be in a large and unmanageable amount of debt. In that case, We’d be better off buying a house we couldn’t afford or buying cars we shouldn’t, just to qualify for aid. That, or be a single parent. As one of my happily married friend’s said, “I’d be better off getting divorced and doing this as a single mother or putting on that renovation we wanted but couldn’t afford. I feel like I’m being punished for not screwing up my life.”

As an alternative, I went to look at a more reasonably priced private school that’s subsidized by the church. It was good. Nice. It was a place that, should I not qualify for financial aid or should Loch not be one of the 34% (!!!) accepted to private school in LA, I could see him going. The sad thing is, it wasn’t special. It’s 10K a year for what I remember public school being like 20 years ago. What you would expect from a school. Good, basic classrooms (maybe a little tired). Middle aged, female teachers (also maybe a little tired). But, generally, a welcoming, kind place for your child to go. They also seem to have good placement in quality (private) High Schools which give your child a better chance of getting into a quality college.

The bottom line is, it’s a cluster f^#@. America has made a major mistake somewhere. California has made major mistakes. And I know many in Canada might feel the same. We seem to protect the rich and aid the poor but I think we’ve forgotten about the middle. Quality education is the cornerstone of improving your situation. But if we’re not rich enough to afford the good schools and not poor enough to qualify for financial aid, where does that leave us?

I know I’ll eventually find Loch a terrific school to stimulate his mind, but really, it shouldn’t be this hard. My child is 3 1/2 and I’m panicking about his path to college.

The sad thing is, it’ll make a difference that I did.

^ Time Magazine, November 14, 2001 “When Will We Learn”, Fareed Zakaria


** Jennifer Keys Adair, Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin in Parenting Magazine, Dec/Jan 2012

*** Carolina A. Miranda “Is your child creative enough?” for Parenting Magazine, Dec/Jan 2012

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sarah White #

    Wow. I recently watched a documentary that is very similar to what you describe. Only it was on private pre-schools in the NYC area. Crazy what those people go through. I’d definitely high-tail it to the ‘burbs!
    And even if he does not get into a premier school- you are more than qualified to teach him at home and at least supplement whatever public education he’s getting.
    I went to all-private schools too though (well until college), so I understand your plight.

    November 21, 2011
    • Nursery University. Hideous right?! NYC and LA are pretty much the same and it ain’t pretty. The thing is, I don’t want to teach Loch at home. I’d like to keep up on his studies but I don’t think I should be responsible for them. I’d like to work.
      Thanks for reading.
      Hope all’s well.

      November 21, 2011
  2. It is COMPLETELY insane. I went to private school for kindergarten through second grade (on financial scholarships because my family was on welfare) and then spent the rest of my time (with Jamie by my side in EVERY class) in public school. Was it the greatest school? No, in fact our middle school was so terrible that there were people dealing drugs in the hallways, we didn’t have text books for most classes, the sports teams did not have uniforms, the average kid in the school lived in public housing. However, Jamie ended up just fine 🙂 with a totally successful and amazing life. I went on to get into a private college that I paid for myself with loans and then went and got a Ph.D. that I paid for in loans. I have never really thought of myself as extraordinary, and I have always held this tough-minded attitude that my future children will have to grin and bear public school and work hard like me to make it. Like you, I have been horrified to learn more and more about the failure of our public schools and the outright insanity of private costs and expectations. I now realize that my future children would be hard pressed to follow my path in the current landscape, and that Geoff and I will probably have to find a way to afford private school. It makes me more anxious than anything else about the prospect of being a parent. It is SO unfair, and I feel your frustration and anger within me! Thanks for writing about this very important topic! x0 Alyssa

    November 21, 2011
  3. Ajna Burke #

    I recognize one of those quotes! This has really become a hideous experience. On Saturday we sat at an open house for a school that is 22k a year. As I watched the kids perform on instruments followed by singing and dancing I had tears running down my face. It was really the first time since becoming a parent that I mourned the fact that I can not give my child what I think would be best. Tomorrow we will be off to a private school to observe the day and decide if we are handing in our application with $250 app fee. Really what choice do we have. We are in the lottery at two charters that will require a ton of time in the car but really they have 50 spots and 1000 applicants so chances are slim.
    This experience has been making me ill.

    November 21, 2011
  4. margot #

    Leigh, once again you write an excellent and stimulating article!

    November 21, 2011
  5. This post makes my teeth hurt.

    On a similar note…when we were calculating our credit scores, we were penalized for not having any debt. If you carry a balance every month and pay the minimum payment, your score is higher than if you pay your bills in full every month like we do. So essentially, in order to be on the high end of an excellent score, I’d have to pay interest to a credit card company every month. ???
    I also recently heard a story about a man who has no debt, owns his house outright and pays for almost everything in cash. He wanted to get a loan to do some home improvement and he was denied because he has bad (no) credit.
    It does feel like we get punished for doing the right thing and that extends to almost every facet of American life today, home ownership, education, pensions and retirement, health care. Blech. It’s so depressing.
    This is a great country if you’re really wealthy or really poor.

    November 22, 2011
    • Ridiculous. You’re the third person I’ve heard about that is being penalized for having no debt. That’s absolutely absurd. I don’t envy your school search in NYC. Love to you all!!
      xo leigh

      November 22, 2011
  6. desi83 #

    Wow, you nailed it! I taught high school English in the public school system for a year. It was in a small town, so it had different problems than, I’m sure, schools in California do. However, I still struggled to teach creatively and to the test to children who couldn’t even pass the 9th grade diagnostic test that I administered to them in the beginning of the year to see where I needed to start in the curriculum. This was tenth grade, and they were supposed to have mastered grammar by that point, but I was teaching them grammar lessons that were on a middle school level, and they were struggling. I quit after a year because I observed that most teachers just handed students worksheets and taught out of the standardized test workbook. I wasn’t getting anything out of it, and neither were they. So, I ran away from that career and am never going back. I will definitely send my future hypothetical children to private school. Sorry, tangent, but yes, I agree with pretty much everything that you’ve written here. You seem like an extraordinary mom, so Loch is very lucky to have you.

    January 11, 2012
  7. wow! I’m Canadian and I have two boys – I’m sending them to an independent school for many of the reasons you’re talking about. We are having similar problems in Canadian public school – especially depending on what area you live in.. Interesting – you would think by the sheer fact that this society is so much more educated than our parent’s time – yet we face so many issues…

    January 12, 2013

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