My family’s public school era is coming to a close.
My youngest will be starting high school next year, and not at our town’s public high school. She’ll be joining her two older brothers at one of those “elite private schools” one reads about. You know, the places where so many politicians, wealthy philanthropists and assorted academics choose to send their kids, the implication being that those who are most vocal about what public education should be rarely choose it for their own children.
Others have already written about the difference between choosing private school precisely because it provides the education you think all children should get, and choosing private school while advocating something very different for other people’s children in public school. Nevertheless, there’s a certain amount of guilt that comes along with this decision. If my kids leave the public education system, don’t I lose credibility as an authentic parental voice on public education? Does my ability to afford an alternative education make me more of a dilettante than an advocate? Am I just a coward who’s fleeing instead of fighting?
I suppose those doubts will be my cross to bear. I do truly and deeply believe that the high school my kids will attend adheres to an educational philosophy that would benefit all children, and that it is possible to implement it in the public education environment. I also know that my kids only get one chance at high school. The way things are going in New Jersey, these next few years are going to see far too many negative changes in public education that would have a terrible impact directly on my kids, like more high-stakes testing; the loss of great, experienced teachers due to the insane pressures of test-based evaluation and other state mandates; and more time spent on things that make the school look good in the data game as opposed to things that actually educate kids.
Anyway, as I said before, others have gone into all that in great detail, with greater expertise than I have.
Instead, as my family embarks on this new chapter, I’d like to offer two lists: The five main things we hope our kids will get in the high school we chose, and the five main things we’ll regret leaving behind in the public school system.
WHAT WE HOPE OUR KIDS WILL GET IN PRIVATE SCHOOL
- A rich, diverse curriculum with a good balance between learning information and learning critical thinking, communication and reasoning skills that make information meaningful.
- Small class sizes and plenty of opportunities for kids to work closely with teachers.
- A school that devotes significant effort to promoting a sense of community and teaches the responsibilities and benefits of being members of that community.
- Goals set high, with every individual encouraged to aim for excellence and not settle for mediocre proficiency.
- The opportunity to try new things and get out of one’s comfort zone without being discouraged, labeled, or bullied.
WHAT WE REGRET OUR KIDS WILL LEAVE BEHIND IN PUBLIC SCHOOL
- A truly diverse student body, and all the deep understanding of our community and our world that comes from broad human contact. Private schools try, but there is no substitute for the true cross section of humanity that walks through the doors of a public school every single day.
- Music. This seems counterintuitive, with everyone lamenting cuts to the arts in public education. Who knows? Our district could very well suffer the same fate in the coming years. But up until now, we’ve been privileged to be part of a district with an excellent music program, and our kids have benefited enormously from it. A large school with many kids can offer so much in the music department: marching band, jazz band, orchestra, choir, etc. A smaller school simply doesn’t have the deep well of talented kids to draw on. Yes, their new school has a music program, but it lacks the depth of the public school offerings.
- Some of the most inspiring teachers you’ll meet anywhere. Sure, we’ve encountered plenty of mediocre teachers in public school, but some amazing gems as well - highly experienced educators who draw great achievements from their students. What I’m about to say is conjecture on my part; maybe I’m overgeneralizing. But it seems to me that, because public school has traditionally provided a high degree of job security, benefits, etc., a person who wants to dedicate him/herself to a career in education - who has a fire in the belly for teaching and wants to remain in the classroom - has been likely to make that career in the public school system. Unlike what the anti-union crowd would have us believe, tenure and strong union contracts can enhance the quality of education by making teaching a viable career choice for the long haul.
- A school community that is also a geographic community. Kids benefit when the people they live among are also the people they learn with.
- The fundamental sense of being part of the social contract; kids knowing that everyone in their community is chipping in to educate them because they are valued members of society, and that we are all obliged to serve each other as citizens of a democracy.
Sigh. Nothing is simple.