The Public/Private School Dilemma

For the past six months, one topic of conversation has dominated over all others at gatherings of our friends with kids in pre-school: “So what are you doing about kindergarten?” Miles is only in his 2nd year of pre-school, and I confess that, until we reached this juncture, I had never given it much thought. I am a product of the California public school system, and had simply taken it as a given that private schools were financially out of reach. And I had assumed that private schools bred a culture of elitism, of which I wanted no part.

But it’s also true that many public schools aren’t what they were 2-3 decades ago. Did I want my child going to a school with no built-in music, arts, or sports? Would independent afternoon programs be adequate substitutes? Do test scores tell you all you need to know about a school, or do the socio-economics of a neighborhood skew scores to the point of being misleading? Are all private schools elitist, or was that just a media-fueled stereotype I had never questioned? Is kindergarten too early even to be asking these questions?

At this point, we’re looking at one public school (not the one we’re assigned to) and one private school (a relatively low-cost cooperative, structured similarly to the co-op pre-school Miles is in now). And I’m amazed to find that I’ve become not only open to, but enthusiastic about the prospect of private school. But much gnashing of teeth still surrounds the question, and we’re not there yet.

Close friends Roger and Paula have been going through similar contortions for months, but have held close to one conviction: The public school system should be great, but it can’t be great if caring parents abandon it. Their final decision to send their daughter to public school is profiled today in the Oakland Tribune.

“I was a complete mess,” Amelia’s mother, Paula Larsen-Moore, recalled. “I was anxious, I wasn’t sleeping, and I’m in a totally different place now.” This month, as she submitted her enrollment card to the district, Larsen-Moore reached the end of a draining ritual in which thousands of Oakland families take part each year.

I know that my parents never went through anything remotely like this. School was school, and you got out of it what you put in. Looking around at people I know and work with, I don’t see a correlation between public/private school attendance and success later in life (though there probably is one, statistically). But I do love the idea that we don’t have to accept the decline of the public school system lying down. It’s something you can fight for, and public school is still something parents can feel good about.

Music: Rickie Lee Jones :: Rorschachs (Theme for the Pope)

4 Replies to “The Public/Private School Dilemma”

  1. In the pre-kindergarten days, I was in pre-school for (IIRC) two years. I believe my parents also had me enrolled in a “local” Orff program to start my music education early. Private school wasn’t in the cards at that time, so off I went to the nearest public elementary school. From what I can remember, we did do art in class (whatever drawing/colouring/crafts project the teacher came up with), but didn’t have a dedicated art teacher – though in Grade 7 I remember making some small ceramic teacups… I’m not sure why the school had a kiln, or if it was just on loan from the district.

    All grades had their required P.E. classes, of course, though team sports vs. other schools were only done for grade 7 (volleyball, basketball, and track & field). Despite being a tall, skinny, nerdy guy, I participated in all of those.

    Music-wise, we played ukelele in Grades 5 and 6, and then had band class in Grade 7. We either had a part-time music teacher, or they covered a few different schools in the district… can’t remember. None of these were very intensive programs, but they covered the basics.

    For most intents and purposes, most of my time at elementary school did not have “music, art, or sports” – at least on the scale that one would expect from a private school. Everything was covered extra-curricularly, thanks to my parents: I took piano lessons every week, enjoyed drawing, and was enrolled in many different types of sports/lessons depending on the season (ice skating, T-ball / softball, soccer, swimming).

    Later on I went to a private high school, and enjoyed that experience as well. Art wasn’t my thing, but music was, and so I enjoyed 5 years of concert band (as a class), and four years of jazz band (which was before school, twice a week). They had many sports opportunities at that point, but I wasn’t really built for it at that point.

    Both types of schools have their place, and I wouldn’t worry too much about it. What matter the most *by far* is the time that you spend with your kids, and the activities that you do with them. I’m pretty sure that you’re not the kind of parent to expect the school to do everything for you, and that you take an interest in the life and experiences of your little one(s). Remember to keep enjoying life with your child, and I’m sure that they will turn out just fine.

  2. I think the key is finding a public school where parent involvement is high. In fact I’d say that’s probably the single most important metric when you’re evaluating a potential school.

    We went through a lot of angst selecting a school for Clara last year, but never really considered private schools because a) we can’t afford it and b) we’re lucky to live in an area where the public schools are good. We wound up sending her to a public magnet-school program, which is a Spanish language immersion school with very high levels of parental involvement, and we’ve been very happy.

    I can see the value of parental volunteers immediately. In a kindergarten classroom of 20 kids, the teacher *needs* volunteers — at least 1, and preferably 2. I don’t think there’s any way she could teach effectively without parental help, at least not without radically reducing the educational component of the day.

  3. Skippy – I also have lots of great memories of art, music, and P.E. classes in public schools – all the way K-12. It’s so hard to believe that’s practically gone now. Or, where not gone, severely cut back, or on their way out. Interesting that you actually found less of that built in to your private school experience.

    I’m pretty sure that you’re not the kind of parent to expect the school to do everything for you

    Not by a long shot. We love being involved in Miles’ life and growth – that’s what it’s all about. We don’t expect everything to come from his school, but we’re also not thrilled about the idea of school as bare-minimum wasteland.

    Dylan, you’re absolutely right – it’s all about parental involvement. You can feel it almost as soon as you walk into a school, or start talking to parents.

    So cool that Clara is getting immersion Spanish in a public school. That’s so rare.

    Keep an eye publicschoolmom.org.

  4. Berkeley public schools have been great for my kids. They were great for me. There is music, sports and art and wonderful classmates for your kids to make lifelong friends with. Of course, there are some horrible ones that my kids have come to deal with and understand.

    Also, the teachers who want to teach in Berkeley, with its mix of affluent kids and less advantaged ones, are often fantastic.

    I can’t say I know many products of the Berkeley school system with books in their home growing up who did not turn out to be pretty happy (unless drugs or booze got them, but that is another story!)

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