Loving My Neighbor Through School Choice

Over the summer we were at a family gathering halfway across the country. It was a lot of catching up and conversation about education came up. A cousin asked if ours was a good school and I hesitated. Yes, our school is an incredible school! We love it and our teachers. My daughter is thriving and her curiosity is encouraged. But it’s also a school that recently went on academic probation. Our test scores are low, mostly due to the fact that we have a large immigrant and refugee population – one of the things that drew us to our neighborhood. I laughed and said, “Good is such a relative marker.”

We went on to talk about the point of education. Is it to ensure our first graders are constantly challenged or is it to build empathy? Is it to check off a list of skills our kids need to know or is it to learn to be in community, to love our neighbors? For our family, we knew we could fill in any academic gaps that may arise on our own. But it would be much harder to expose our kids to families whose values, economic capabilities, and cultural backgrounds are different from our own.

When we moved to our neighborhood, our oldest was two years old – not even in preschool yet. We knew we were moving into one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our state and also into a highly respected school district. When we walked to our neighborhood school, just a block away, on the weekends to play, we were greeted with an enormous sign, announcing its status as a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”

Before having kids, I earned a master’s degree in urban education and taught for seven years at a charter school. I had studied the positive impacts of investing in neighborhood education while also working with families who had decided to choice into a different school. I enjoyed my time at a charter school, mostly because my grade level teammate was an incredible teacher. I knew the gift of working with her wouldn’t come often. Our school was a good fit for a lot of families but teaching at a charter was a reminder that there were excellent teachers there and there were people who would probably thrive in a different profession. The curriculum was good but not great. There were highly involved families and families who outsourced a lot of responsibility to the school. What I’m saying is, charter schools are not a magic cure. They have pros and cons, just like public schools.

As attendance to neighborhood public schools dwindles nationwide, my husband and I believed we were brought to our particular neighborhood for a reason. A natural outgrowth of that was to send our children to the school closest to us, where we could walk and meet other families in our area. Going to our local public school was the perfect opportunity to live out one of the Bible’s greatest commands: To love our neighbor.

Our dreams were realized at our school. Our daughter has had absolutely incredible teachers who love her and have poured into her curiosity. She has interacted with students from all over the world – over 40 cultures are represented. Just like my experience as a teacher, there are families who are highly involved and families who outsource responsibility to the school system. And they aren’t always the families you would expect.

Last year, our school went on academic probation. My husband asked if this impacted my love for our community and honestly, it made me value our school even more. When I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom each week, I see teachers who are highly committed to each and every student. When I spend each Wednesday morning teaching English to our immigrant parents, I see moms who are working hard to give their children the best opportunities. I love knowing I am raising my kids among these incredible families, regardless of what a test score shows.

I know school choice is a complex issue. There are as many reasons for choosing a school as there are schools and students. We all want what’s best for our kids. We have close friends who send their daughter to a private school that represents their minority religion and other friends who have chosen a charter school that offers Spanish immersion. We have friends who are as in love with and committed to their neighborhood schools as we are and we have friends who have chosen other options based on a variety of other needs.

As your kids enter school, I’d encourage you to ask: What motivates your school choiceIs it what’s truly best for your child and your neighbors? Is it motivated by fear of the unknown? 

Lean into where God has planted your family – perhaps there’s a reason … I know I have seen God at work in unexpected ways, right here at our neighborhood school and I am thankful I was here to witness it.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/school-choice-questions-ask/

What I’ve Learned By Walking to School

Nearly every school day since mid-August we’ve had the same routine: Get up, eat breakfast around 7:00, head upstairs at 7:30 to get dressed and brush teeth, leave the house no later than 7:50 (but 7:45 is better) to walk and arrive at school by 7:55 as the kindergarten lines up to go inside. It’s a routine that works pretty well for us. If we eat earlier and the girls have time to play a bit before getting dressed, it can throw off our entire routine.

IMG_8633Really, anything can throw off our routine. It can quickly go from a well-run schedule to me nagging and asking sarcastically if Bea has ever seen a pair of pants before and if she knows how to put them on. (Model mothering right there…)

On the mornings that unravel, I’m tempted to buckle the girls in the car and drive. Even with the parking lot chaos, it would increase our chances of arriving on time. But more often than not, we still walk. It might mean we miss the second bell and Bea has to go in through the office. But it also means we have some breathing space between the rushed chaos and the start of school. It means we get some fresh air, a short walk, and time to hold hands and talk about the day.

I have to be intentional about putting aside my frustration on those walks. If I remained upset, they would do no good for a reset. I breathe, too, and remember that starting school excited and calm is much better than starting it with a grumpy attitude. So, I leave my last lecture at the door and as soon as we step onto the sidewalk, we talk about the blossoming trees, which specials Bea will have, and who she’d like to play with at recess. We talk about books and activities and notice our neighborhood.

By the time we reach school, even if we do have to go through the front doors rather than the kindergarten entrance, we are calmer, happier, and ready to give hugs and kisses. Elle and I wave to Bea, play on the slides for a few minutes and walk back home, ready to face the day.

This practice was especially important during those cold winter walks when our five minutes to school was a chance to see the sunlight and get outside. Now that it’s spring, it makes sense and this routine has taken on new life.

It’s reminded me that, even though it may make us late, building in space for pause and recalibration is so important. I know this is nothing new – that pause and rest and breathing all help me make better choices. They give space and perspective – both physical and mental. And yet this is something I forget over and over again.

I love May for many reasons but a big one is that it feels like a walk to school. After tax season and winter and going into head-down, hibernation mode, we’re coming up for air. We have a chance to recalibrate before summer when our schedule changes again. We are still in the school year routine but with all the hope and promise of dinners eaten outdoors and playtime extended after homework is finished.

This is the last week of Eastertide, this season of celebration. We are entering into Ordinary Time soon, which I love as much as any feast day. This year, I’m giving space between these seasons. I’m remembering to celebrate, yes. But I’m also remembering to look forward to a season of rest and recentering.

What ordinary habits have taught you extraordinary lessons? How do you pause and breathe during the changing seasons?

Small Actions Take Courage

I had the honor of writing about my experience in our school’s Family Literacy Program for the MOPS Magazine. They’ve republished the piece over at the MOPS Blog today so I thought I’d share an excerpt. I hope you’ll head over to read the rest!

nordwood-themes-179255-unsplashWe sat together, sipping coffee. She asked how I took my coffee and I replied, “Usually black.” She told me she was the same. Back home, they grew and roasted their own coffee, which she would drink black. But here … We smiled and rolled our eyes toward the cream-filled mugs.

We talked about family and I asked her if she had plans to go back to Ethiopia to see her mom. She said, “No.” Last year, her father had been brutally killed, their house burned down, and her mother and siblings went into hiding. Now, they’re able to talk on the phone sometimes, but it’s hard. She doesn’t want to go there; they can’t come here.

When I signed up to be a tutor for the family literacy program at my daughter’s school, I hadn’t anticipated these stories. Stories of leaving children behind; of worrying about policies impacting their families here. Stories of loss and hope and struggle; the reality of living as an immigrant or refugee in America.

My first thought was that I had absolutely nothing to complain about. My life seemed easy, privileged and unreal compared with my fellow moms. Who was I to feel tired or annoyed with my kids? Who was I to question my next steps or identity as a stay-at-home mom? These women were working multiple jobs! They really knew what stress and work-life balance (or imbalance) looks like!

But that’s not fair – not to them or to me. I’m learning to stop and listen, but not to let the stories of others overwhelm my own journey. Maybe I don’t have to decide to move my family to another country, but I do have to make small decisions that will impact our future. Read the rest over at the MOPS Blog!

What are ways you’ve been gusty lately? How do you remember that your own courage matters, without comparing your journey?

Public Schools and Redemption

We are currently in the market for a new house. We finally decided our little ranch is getting too small and we want to move before we actually outgrow it. So, we’re getting ready to sell this one and are looking at a variety of homes across Denver and even in (gasp!) the suburbs.

Looking for this next house has been interesting. We could potentially remain there for the next twenty or so years, through our kids’ schooling, and it’s been interesting prioritizing what we want and what we need. It’s brought about some feelings about how privileged we are and how we best want to spend our money and use our resources as wisely as possible. (This means we won’t be looking in the cool, sexy neighborhoods of Denver but in the quieter, more family oriented ones…)

One thing that has brought about a lot of discussion is schools. Frank spent all twelve years in a private Catholic school. In fact, the three oldest siblings in his family were privately educated through high school. His youngest sister attended the local public schools and traveled a rougher road, which is often blamed on the school.

I grew up attending all public schools. In California, I was in bilingual classrooms before bilingual education became what it is today. Back then, one teacher would give instructions in English and an aide would repeat them in Spanish. Needless to say, progress was slow in those classrooms because instruction took twice as long. When my parents moved to Colorado Springs, they chose a house in a monochromatic neighborhood based on the high quality of the public schools. While I had an amazing education, I regret that my classmates mostly looked alike.

Bea is ready for school!
Bea is ready for school!

We’ve been grappling with what the best school looks like for Bea and our future kids. My Master’s degree has an emphasis in Urban Education, so I always assumed my kids would just go to the neighborhood school – if it’s good enough for the kids around us, it’s good enough for our own kids. How will we even begin to change hundreds of years of exclusion based on race and income if we don’t start with our own kids? Besides, if we feel comfortable enough to buy a home in a certain neighborhood, I’d like to think that I’d feel comfortable doing life and education with those neighbors.

Frank is worried that we’ll sacrifice our own children on the altar of change, rather than doing what’s best for them. I see it less as a sacrifice and more as bringing redemption to a broken system. How will any change occur if we leave it to others to enact? And, in my years as an educator, school success is based less on skin color and economic level and more on parent involvement and support. It’s not that parents have to stay home and volunteer in classrooms, but as long as we find a community where parents do what they can for their children’s education, the school will (most likely) be successful. (We also got into a big discussion on success: Is it just based off of test scores or is it more than that?)

Plus, my big picture view is that a school can quickly change in three years, ten years, twelve years… (And, since Colorado is a choice state, if we don’t like our neighborhood school, it is not uncommon to choice into a different school.) It’s so hard to predict what our child’s specific needs will be, but I do know that wherever we end up, I want Bea to learn empathy and acceptance as equally as she learns traditional academics.

We’ll see where we end up – both in neighborhood choice and in where we send Bea. One of the top house contenders is about a block away from the elementary school and within about a half mile of the middle and high schools. I love the idea of walking to school, knowing our neighbors as school friends, and really investing in our community.

Are you a public school kid or a private school kid? Did that influence where you sent your own kids? Do they go to the neighborhood school?