A while back, I wrote a post basically stating that decision to send your kids to school or not was so personal and based on specific family needs that it was unproductive to try to elevate one as a better choice. Last month, I got to put my money where my mouth was.
It started off the way it does for many homeschooled kids I know. My daughter, when faced with many of her friends starting Kindergarten, began to show interest in the idea herself. Her brothers went through similar phases, so I promptly did what I did before. I focused on our time together, increased field trips, and read her Learning All the Time every day. Except it didn’t work. She became increasingly insistent that we find her a school, to the point where she was starting to refuse all my attempts to fulfill the needs she was articulating, either through words or through actions. We have always maintained that each of our children is unique, and we would do whatever made sense for each of them. Until now, we had homeschooled them, each in a slightly different way to address their own distinct learning styles and interests. Now, one of them wanted something we had never done before.
As an educator, I have always kept my eye on what is happening in the schools around me. Partly I did this to be able to give educated advice when I am asked by other parents, partly because I find it interesting, and partly just in case we ever needed the information. The upside is this knowledge very quickly narrowed down the schools we would be interested in. We recently moved into what is considered a very good school district, which complicated the decision. As much as I wanted to support my local public school, I also knew it would not be a very good fit for our family’s values around education. A deep, honest, and thoughtful conversation with a friend of mine who teaches at the nearest public school confirmed the issues driving my hesitation. As parents and educators with a very specific view on how children learn best, we would struggle to align what we wanted for our daughter with how the system was required to perform. So, after careful consideration, we started looking at private schools.
In the private school community, there is great variation in approach and application. The word “progressive” is often flown like a banner on brochures and websites but I have found that there are only a handful of schools really doing the work that takes them outside conventional education. Of this handful, we looked at proximity, community, and pedagogy. This left us with three schools to tour. I always advise other parents not to overthink this process, and it was this advice I tried to follow. We were coming in after the school year had already started, and were well aware of the obstacles we might face. Perhaps our first choice would not have any room, the children were already making fast friends, how would we pay for tuition, and what would this do to our already established routine? There is no secret formula I used to get through this other than trust. Trust. We toured the schools, we knew immediately which school would fit our daughter the best, we applied, we (very luckily and happily) were accepted. This was the first year the K class at her school had an open spot after the school year had started, and we joyfully accepted that it must be destiny.
Our daughter did a trial day at the school and when I picked her up, she was full of such joy. “Let’s go home and decide if you would like to come here every day!” I said to her. “No!” she said, “I already decided I am coming back tomorrow and forever!” And she did.
One of the most powerful moments in this process was as we were sitting in the Head of School’s office, telling her about our daughter, our family, and what we believe about learning. We share a deep believe in learner centered, constructivist education and while we agree on approach, she asked us if, since we have been guiding our children’s education up until now, would any school be good enough? I loved that she asked us that. It shows a deep understanding of how committed educators are, and how it can impact the decisions we make. We told her that this was our daughter’s journey. Our job was to find the best place for her, the best community for us, and then let them do their work. We meant every word, and over the last month that our daughter has been in school I have seen her blossom in new ways. Not only have I had more time to work more closely with the boys and our daughter has gotten everything she ever wanted out of this new adventure, but we have gotten an amazing community that adds one more rich dimension to our lives.
If she ever decides to homeschool again, I will be ready and supportive, but I am so glad we trusted and believed that our daughter knew her path.
An overdue update (3/17):
I’ve fielded many requests for how this story turns out. Did we make the right decision? Is she still in school? How do I feel about it now? The answers are yes, no, and it’s complicated.
My daughter’s first year of school was terrific. She had an extraordinary teacher who created an environment of music and laughter and learning. They floated around like fairies everyday, which is exactly what a 5/6 year old child should be doing. This is entirely due to her teacher, who is one of those people that you look at and know they have found their calling. Unfortunately, the transition to first grade was not as smooth.
For reasons that still elude me, first grade became more rigid and structured. As my daughter started to feel like she was not able to play and pursue her own interests , she started to like learning less and less. Then she started to act out at home in ways that were clearly manifesting from the stress she was feeling. The issues were varied- like we started to take exception with the very constructed and directed way art was taught, we thought it was ridiculous that the PE instructor told the kids to get their energy out before coming to class or he would send them back to the classroom, my daughter was well ahead in math and science but they were somehow incapable of differentiation even when I showed them how to do it, and it seemed punitive to tell my daughter that she could research the things she was interested in, but she would need to do it during recess.
While I think the staff meant well, and the director certainly tried to engage and help us navigate these issues, in the end we were unable to craft a compromise that my daughter (or we as her parents) could be happy with, and when she started refusing to go- to the point of working herself up every night before and then waking up to more emotional breakdowns, we pulled her out.
It’s been almost a year since she came back to homeschooling, and my daughter has never been happier. She is currently obsessed with researching pandas and building in Minecraft. She is now very clear about having control over her time and her education, and I am glad she had the experience she did. She says that while she met some good friends, she will never go back. She says she never wants to feel like she hates learning ever again.
But the experience also affected me and my views on progressive education. It showed me how, as a society, are still firmly entrenched in the conventional system of education. That even schools who have the ability to construct dynamic learning environments completely, don’t. They’d like to think outside the box, they are trying, but the box still holds to much power. They are afraid of losing parents, families, the whole school. They are afraid of failing, so they go back to what people know isn’t great, but won’t damage us either. Except it does. So, when I say my views about school are complicated, it’s because I can see the work people are doing. The awesome work educators are putting out into the world. And yet, I feel like we are not even close yet. The best I can do is commit to my part to help get us there.