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/

A Lesson in Language and Empathy

Today I’m over at SheLoves Magazine, as they look at Legacy this month. As I ponder that word, I remember my own experiences of struggling as a cultural outsider and how that has translated into parenting choices we are faced with.

Here’s an excerpt – I hope you click over to SheLoves to read the whole thing.

Sending my kids to the neighborhood school, just a block away, isn’t a simple decision. Because of the way our education system is run, we are able to apply to any school–public, charter, or private—and hope our children are accepted to the one that best meets their needs. We are able to research the highest-performing schools in our district, as well as the surrounding ones. We are able to take the time to drive our children anywhere without worrying about gas money or making it to a job on time. We are able to ignore our neighbors in order to give our children the best education.

But I still remember my own struggles as a language learner. I remember my tongue would get tied and I would stress about not being fast enough. I would worry about grammar and pronunciation and being the dumbest student in class or the last to understand. I longed for a teacher or fellow student to say, “I get it. This is tough. Let me help you.”

I’m interested to see how my bright, eager-to-learn daughter adjusts to kindergarten next year. She has a thirst for learning that is contagious, and I hope it is nurtured, especially during these early years. But beyond being challenged in school, I hope her classroom is filled with kids who might not speak English at home. Who need to take a little extra time as they translate their thoughts. Who are every bit as bright and eager as my daughter, but have the added hurdle of navigating a new language.

How have your life experiences shaped the decisions you make for your family? Go over to SheLoves to join the conversation!

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?