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School Choice (or: Rites of Passage in Modern Parenting)

January 22nd, 2012 (02:55 pm)

I have several friends whose little babies have abruptly turned into rising kindergartners, who are starting the process of choosing a school. This is simpler in some areas than in others. There are places where your choice is basically theoretical, like small towns. There are parents who are committed to the idea of homeschooling, or parochial schools, or who have the world's best neighborhood school and no need to look any further. But a lot of parents these days have to choose a school.

We went through this process with Molly in 2005-2006, and I blogged some of it. In the fall, we went to the School Choice Fair, where the school district set up tables in the convention center and all the district schools send school principals, parent volunteers, and kindergarten teachers to talk to the parents of next year's students. (I had a wider range of choices in 2006 than I would have now -- at least if I wanted transportation. The district redrew the busing boundaries a few years back.) In March of 2006, I blogged about my anxiety dreams on the subject. In April, we found out we'd gotten our second choice school, Seward Montessori.

Below the cut: a whole lot of reflections on the process, experience, and problems of Choosing A School.

1. It really is important to pick a good school.

My friend Ann said in her facebook that this feels like a hugely important decision -- even more so than choosing a college, because you're choosing for someone ELSE. I wish I could be reassuringly blase about this, but the sad fact is, she's basically right. And while I'm sure her college short-list was a list of excellent schools, Minneapolis has some genuinely TERRIBLE schools, as well as schools that are basically good but have major problems, schools that offer a good education but in a profoundly unpleasant physical environment, and schools that are an excellent school for some students and a terrible school for others. With the added bonus that nearly all schools have at least a few terrible teachers, and even if the school is generally great, a horrible third grade teacher can really screw up a kid's education.

2. It's incredibly difficult to get useful information from the available resources.

One of the weird things about people is that they want you to make the same choices they made, which is why happily childfree people are so frequently told by their friends who have kids that they also ought to have babies. When my friends make the choices I made, it validates my decisions and makes me feel better about them!

Moreover, if you've made a decision that's difficult to undo, you will generally try to talk yourself into being happy with that decision. Maybe you were undecided between the Toyota and the Honda minivans, but once you make the leap and buy the Sienna, you will quickly find 1,000,000 reasons why it is just plain a better minivan than the Odyssey. Same goes for your child's school.

So, when you go to some parent gathering place as school choice time approaches, you'll hear the following conversation over, and over, and over:

Mom 1: So, how old is your older daughter?
Mom 2: She's eight.
Mom 1: Ohhhh! So... where does she go to school?
Mom 2: We go to Arnason Magnet, which is an Icelandic dual-immersion program with an arts focus.
Mom 1: What do you think of it:
Mom 2: We LOVE it! It's a fantastic school! We feel SO lucky to have gotten in! (More details on the general awesomeness of Arnason may be supplied if Mom 1 looks at all interested.)

It is surprisingly hard to find parents who will actually give you any sort of assessment of the negatives. Even though, at a coffee klatsch of Arnason parents, you'd hear a completely different set of conversations:

Mom 1: So, who are you hoping to get for third grade?
Mom 2: Morehouse or Hulick, for sure. Basically, anyone but Mrs. Murphy.
Mom 1: Really? I heard it was Ms. Morehouse you were supposed to watch out for.
Mom 2: Well, she has her issues, like the whole homework thing, but Mrs. Murphy seems to really dislike boys, or so I've heard.
Mom 1: Are you worried at all about Ms. Hulick's classroom management skills? Everyone loves her but I know someone whose daughter was bullied all year in that room.


To make things even more complicated, it's not JUST the "validate my choices by choosing the school I chose for my children!" phenomenon that drives the positive spin. There's also a calculated reason for doing it: if the parent is asking around, that probably means she's the involved sort, who might volunteer in the classroom and make sure her children come to school prepared to learn. The more families like that at the school, the better the school is going to be. So if she's asking, you WANT to recruit her child for next year's kindergarten class.

When my daughters were enrolled at Seward, I made a really strong effort to give people a balanced assessment and not just "OH, IT'S AWESOME." This was made easier by the fact that we were pretty much always having some issue or other. And yet, I got a call last week from a mom I know whose son is at Seward, who is NOT happy with it, who said, among other things, "We figured it would be fine because you guys loved it so much!" ...so, who knows what she heard me say? Maybe I was more enthusiastic than I thought.

3. All the other information sources have problems, too.

Minneapolis schools expect visits, and during school choice season have a whole series of tours and open houses for prospective parents. In this context, you get parent volunteers who are among the MOST enthusiastic parents at the school. You might also get a few cheerful older students who take you around, and you'll probably get a welcome speech from the principal.

The problem here is that you're seeing a tiny, tiny slice of school life. The rhythms are such that you might see a very chaotic school, when actually you're seeing the results of a single rogue fire-alarm pull at 10 that morning. You might see a very calm school, and never realize that's because the 5th graders are on a trip that day and the hallways are much less crowded than normal. You might encounter a checked-out, clueless principal because she just got a call saying her mom is in the hospital. Etc.

I thought that the tours would at least give me a sense of the flavor of the school, but honestly, comparing notes with other parents later, I'm really not sure how useful they were. They'll at least give you a look at the physical environment, which is something.

Finally, there's test scores. Test scores have been vastly overinflated in importance by NCLB. However, there are some schools in Minneapolis where I look at their test scores and say, "what the HELL do they do with those kids all day? Apparently 'teach students to read' is not on their to-do list!" I would not send a kid to those schools. On the other hand, comparing the scores at Seward or Dowling to scores at Lake Harriet and Burroughs will mostly tell you the following: the students at Lake Harriet and Burroughs are, on the whole, much wealthier.

4. The district deliberately obfuscates the process as much as possible, which increases the stress.

Here's how it worked when I was doing it: you got a card. On the card you could list two schools. If one of them was your neighborhood school, you were guaranteed to get one of your choices. If you lived in a part of town WITHOUT a neighborhood school, you got to list three schools.

You filled out this postcard and dropped it in the mail. If you missed the deadline, you were screwed, but there was no notification of whether your postcard had arrived or not and you also couldn't call and ask.

Exactly how this whole process worked was completely unspecified. It clearly wasn't done strictly by lottery, because you were guaranteed that neighborhood school placement. Because the district wouldn't give you any information, there were all sorts of weird rumors among parents about how to increase your shot at your first-choice school; I knew someone who wrote Barton, and ONLY Barton. (And got it! though whether that was because she was smart, or because she was lucky, who knows?) I knew someone else who obediently listed three schools and got NONE of them.

We listed Dowling and Seward. Some people who listed two magnets and no neighborhood school got a call from the district saying (in dubious, slightly accusatory tones) that they were GIVING UP their guaranteed placement and were they SURE they wanted to do that? I had a response all prepared ("I didn't list the neighborhood school as an option because I DON'T CONSIDER IT AN OPTION") but they never called me, making me even more paranoid that my card was lost in the mail.

We did finally get a letter telling us she'd gotten into Seward. You're automatically waitlisted for your first choice school. Molly started K in the fall of 2006, and sometime in the winter of 2007 I realized that some mail had fallen down through the back of our mailbox and gotten lost in the snow. In one of the weirdest "road not taken" moments ever, I discovered that sometime in late summer of 2006 we'd gotten a letter from the district offering Molly a spot in the First Grade class at Dowling in 2006. What the HELL was up with that, I'm not even sure. (She could have done it. Her Kindergarten teacher at Seward actually tried to have her moved in to an E1 class, when she realized that I wasn't exaggerating when I said Molly could read; the only reason Molly didn't get this abrupt promotion was that there was no space in E1.)

5. So given all that, what exactly am I advising?

It is possible to pry useful information out of parents, if you're persistent. Some questions you could try, when talking to people whose kids go to the school you are considering:

a. Can you tell me what you like the most, and what you like the least, about this school? (Note: if you're talking to the parent of a kid at an early-start school like Seward, the answer to that second question will always be something like, "waiting for the bus at 6:45 am." Laugh and say, "OK -- second-least!") Alternately: Can you tell me what this school's weaknesses are? (Or "Strengths and weaknesses," if you don't want to sound relentlessly negative. It's just that positive comments are much easier to come by.)

b. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your child's teacher?

c. Has your child experienced any social problems like bullying? How was that handled? If your child has ever been in trouble, how was THAT handled?

d. What is the classroom management like in your kid's classroom? How much time does the teacher have to spend getting kids to sit down and listen?

e. What is communication like? How often do you get a letter from the teacher about what they're working on? If you need to ask the teacher a question, does she get back to you right away?

f. What do you think of the math curriculum? (Math curricula: whoooooooole different rant. But for the most part, if all the parents hate the math curriculum, it's not because they're just a bunch of ignoramuses who can't be bothered to understand a new way of doing things; it's because Everyday Math is a really SHITTY curriculum.)

g. How did the transition to first grade go? (This can actually be a bigger transition than starting K for a lot of kids.)

Some questions to ask on the tour:

a. What is done for kids who are struggling in a subject? Can they be given extra help as soon as they start to struggle, or is an IEP required?

b. What is done for kids who are way ahead in a subject?

c. How is writing taught in the upper grades? Is the work posted on the walls representative of what these students write, and how it's assessed?

d. What math curriculum is used? (If the school is a K-8) Is Algebra offered in 8th grade? (If likely to be relevant) Can kids who are ready younger, take it younger?

e. Do the kids get daily recess unless it's freezing cold? How long do they get for recess, and for lunch?

f. If there is a kid with really high behavioral needs or serious behavior problems, does the school have aids that can be assigned, or does the teacher have to cope by herself? (NOTE: If you yourself have a kid with high behavioral needs, you need to ask a lot of additional questions. This isn't a "how will you meet my child's needs" question but a "how will you meet my child's classmate's needs." A kid with hard-core needs that are not being met can completely derail a classroom.)

5. If you can find parents whose kids have moved to or from the school you're considering, get their opinion in detail but take their negativity with a grain of salt.

(If you're at a party with a bunch of other parents who are still at the old school, you may need to step outside or exchange phone numbers for the full scoop.)

Note that the same "grass is greener here! RIGHT HERE!" phenomena will apply, but simply the fact that they can offer specific comparisons will be useful.

6. If you know any parents whose kids have moved on from the school -- not out of dissatisfaction but because they grew up and went on to high school -- they will also be able to give you a different perspective.

Ask them if their kid wound up with any deficits. How were their writing skills, when they arrived at high school? Their research skills? Were they ready for high-school math and science?

7. Remember that this is not an irreversible decision.

If you decide you've picked the wrong school -- or if you realize you picked the right school for K-1 but the wrong school for 2-4 -- you can move them. Minneapolis schools are in general really high-mobility. If you really wanted to send your kid to Barton and didn't get in, stay on the waiting list and if you're willing to move, you'll eventually get a spot. If you have a spot at a school with a waiting list and your kid is miserable, but you're worried if you move them things will be even worse (and you won't be able to get back in) ... just move them. YOU'LL GET BACK IN. Maybe not instantly, but eventually.


Posted by: Magenta (magentamn)
Posted at: January 22nd, 2012 09:32 pm (UTC)

I love the idea of Arnason Magnet an Icelandic dual-immersion program!

The whole process sounds screwy, but I have heard friends talk about it in the same terms. A friend loved the idea of a Montessori school, until she realized it would be the worst thing for her son, who needed more structure.

Posted by: Cyllan (lilisonna)
Posted at: January 22nd, 2012 10:38 pm (UTC)

School selection really REALLY stresses me out. There's got to be an easier way.

Posted by: Chrysoula (chrysoula)
Posted at: January 22nd, 2012 11:22 pm (UTC)

This is really interesting. We haven't gotten any kind of 'pick a school for your upcoming kindergartener' stuff here and I don't know if that's because Robin, attending a special needs public preschool, is considered to be enrolled in the kindergarten at the same school or because we just don't have nearly as much choice here. I know Renton has a ton of neighborhood elementary schools and some other kinds of schools.

OK, I apparently lie. Everytime Kevin talks to the teacher she makes hopeful inquiries into whether or not we've considered homeschooling Robin and she's worried about him being bored in kindergarten (because he too can read already). And it's definitely something we're thinking about-- the Renton school district supports homeschooling with this seems-awesome a la carte class selection system-- but not for kindergarten.

Posted by: Naomi (naomikritzer)
Posted at: January 25th, 2014 04:16 pm (UTC)

I just pulled this old post up to link Jo and Jen to it and found this comment. And am now going to say: ha ha ha ha ha ARGH sigh.

Posted by: Chrysoula (chrysoula)
Posted at: January 25th, 2014 05:28 pm (UTC)

Sometimes going through old journal entries I come across me fretting about Robin and possible autism, which we discussed long before he was diagnosed at almost 4. But I kept rejecting it because 'he was just like me as a baby/small child, as far as I could tell'. Yeah....

Posted by: Naomi (naomikritzer)
Posted at: January 25th, 2014 05:32 pm (UTC)

Oh, ha, yes. I've found old posts about Molly that are similar.

Posted by: tragicoptimist.wordpress.com (tragicoptimist.wordpress.com)
Posted at: January 23rd, 2012 03:04 am (UTC)

Thank you! It's quite nice to read that the process is obfuscated, and that it's hard to get useful information. That's exactly how I've been feeling, except that I was certain that everyone else was I had to laugh at your note that the negative would be the early start. I talked with our neighbor whose daughter is at our community school, and he said he loved it, except for the early start.

The process now is pretty similar to what you described except that there are no longer any places with no neighborhood school. And you can submit your choices online now, which after reading your story, I'm pretty sure is what we'll do.

Are you willing to write more about the math curriculum? The one negative comment we heard at the school choice fair was from a parent at our community school, who said that the only thing we'd hate was 5th grade math because every parent hates it (she didn't say whether the kids hate it).

Posted by: Corinne (corinnethewise)
Posted at: January 23rd, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)

This is really interesting. We didn't have school choices when I went to elementary school. (Well, you could choose between public school or the Nazarene school or the Catholic school). We had a limited program called "special permission" where if your parent stood in line early enough, you could get one of maybe 100 slots to switch to a different school (but transportation was not provided). We did that when they built two new elementary schools - my sister and I were able to go to the new schools (I had been redistrict-ed out of the school I was currently at, and they didn't have any openings for me to stay).

It sounds really stressful though.

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