I wrote earlier how I neverlooked around at other schools before choosing our local school. My husband and I opted out of the elementary school choice rat race early on and stayed out. The surprise expressed by some friends and acquaintances about our lack of obsessive search almost helped cement our decision for us. It gave us our parenting identity that we are still operating under to this day, for better or worse. Since I have started a blog about our school and what the whole choice thing means, without having really thought about the choices, like everyone else did all those years, for fun I just looked up the websites of two popular charter schools attracting away neighborhood kids – Larchmont Charter West (the sister school to the original Larchmont Charter) and Citizens of the World Hollywood and it’s new baby sister, CW Silverlake.
Beautiful websites! I even recognized some of the kids in the photos on the Larchmont Website – all looking very happy, of course! If you compare these sites to the site for our non-charter public school, there is no comparison. The sites from the charters are interactive, more cutting-edge, more colorful, more descriptive and exude wonderful values & virtues. Hands down, they win. If they were each selling website design I would totally buy from them first. I can feel the lure and the pull. One of the things I read on the Larchmont site is that they require parents to put in 50 hours of volunteer work at the school per year (75 if you have more than one kid there). Although we have a core group of involved parents at our school, I don’t think we match even half of that. I wonder if most of the parents even had that many hours in their lives to dedicate to being at the school?
Another attractive characteristic of both of these schools advertised on their websites is that they use “project-based learning.” According to www.edutopia.org (a George Lucas educational foundation), “Project-based learning helps students develop skills for living in a knowledge-based, highly technological society.” Sounds amazing, right? I know that our school has already incorporated some of these pedagogical trends as well (garden science, Writer’s workshop, etc, besides all the great project-based learning extra classes offered through the after school STAR program) but our school is a regular non-charter, non-magnet school within the huge bureaucracy of LAUSD. We have a core curriculum to follow that perhaps restrains teachers’ creativity, not to mention those threatening standardized tests scores that we keep trying to raise (don’t get me started with “No Child Left Behind!). LAUSD has to find spots somewhere in the district for tenured teachers who should probably retire. Young dynamic teachers might get fed up with the yearly pink slips threatening lay-offs and move on. I am sure our principal, although creative and dynamic, still has to abide by long list of rules and regulations that charters may be exempt from.
As I was sitting here writing the above, I got a call from my new mom friend (I will call her mom #1), who moved to L.A. just days before the school year started (surprisingly early in mid-August) and didn’t have time or the awareness of the school choice craze in this town. Her younger son is in my 5-year-old’s class. He is a really nice kid- a gentle soul of a boy who would prefer to play creative fantasy games than ride a bike. He found a friend in the class like him. A kindred spirit. Mom #1 was so happy that her son had found a friend so early on in the year, since “making friendships early on is really a big part of what kindergarten should be,” she said. I couldn’t agree more. Kid of mom #2 didn’t show up for the last couple of days so mom #1 texted mom #2 to make sure all was okay. Mom #2 texted back that they had left the school as they got into Citizens of the World. (Mom #1 didn’t know which one, but I assume the new Silverlake one since it is brand new so perhaps easier to get into). “They can still get together for play-dates,” suggested mom #2. “That’s just not the same as having a good friend by your side as you discover the wonders of kindergarten,” I think, but don’t say out loud to mom #1 as that would just pour salt on her wounds. Mom #1 tells me she has this feeling of being left that she recognizes as what was expressed to her when she left her mid-west hometown last year to move out west to California. Friends feel abandoned and wonder what is wrong with their home town that you would want to leave it? I can totally relate to the reaction she is feeling right now about the departure of her son’s first best friend at kindergarten. I have gone through the same scenario several times with my older daughter over the years as her friends leave and similar situations several times with my younger daughter already, not even a month into the school year. Moms claim their kid is coming to our school but then switch plans when offered spots elsewhere. Kids we could have walked to school with. Kids our 5 -year-old already knows and likes. Moms and Dads we would have had fun socializing with. It feels like a slap in the face over and over again. I really do know it has nothing to do with me and has everything to do with parents having a right and opportunity to get the best education for their kids, but each time I feel it in my gut, conjuring up old feelings from adolescence, of being spurned by someone you thought was your friend who ditches you at lunch when offered a space at the more popular kids’ table.
Why would mom #2 want to take her son away from this new friend? Is his kindergarten experience at his new school going to SO drastically alter the success of his future that it is worth disrupting a good thing when you have it? What ever happened to the idea behind the idiom- a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush??
I offer an ear to my new friend, mom #1, but don’t have all the right words to make her feel better, since I immediately fall into abandoned mode myself. That old Janis Ian song “At Seventeen” starts playing in my head, “Alone again, naturally…” Of course, I am not alone, there are other parents to befriend, but because these moms all lived so close to me, seemed like potential friends, I got my hopes up that we would be working together on school projects together and walking our kids to school together, etc. This “Leave it to Beaver”-like fantasy that I guess really doesn’t exist in Los Angeles. Clearly, none of the departing moms felt good about admitting their departure to me. I actually ran into this most recently departing mom last weekend, and she didn’t mention their impending departure, even though I am sure now she had made the decision. Am I like some kind of Carthay Center school advocate pariah that they are afraid to tell me? Do they think I am going to yell at them? We hadn’t even had a chance to become friends, so it is the loss of possibility that hurts my feelings. I have to stop feeling sorry for myself. No one wants to play with the whiney kid. I need to get thicker skin. Hopefully the kids left behind will survive, adapt, make new friends and take up a little more space on the rug for story time so the rug doesn’t seem empty. If they can do it, so can I.
I suggest a play-date for my 5 year old and mom #1’s son on Sunday. Mom #1 seems open to it. It’s a risky move on my part. With her son’s best friend now gone, will they be the next ones to disappear? Do my daughters feel like their friends are being abducted by aliens? 5-year-olds aren’t going to understand the complexities of this chess game of school choice. I can’t transfer my enthusiasm for our school to other parents. It sometimes feels like a losing battle, but until those other parents have taken the leap of faith like I have, I just have to suck it up and hope my kids don’t notice my disappointment about their disappearing classmates.
I chatted with my sister a little bit today about my blog (which she hadn’t read yet), and about how charters are popular because people have to apply, hope to get in, and then get to make a choice about their kids education. It feels empowering to parents to have had a choice and been granted their wish. If they just go to their local school, it just doesn’t feel as special. A charter is promising an alternative to the mainstream with some different type of cutting-edge vision. How can you turn down such a lucky break to have won the free education lottery that some of these charters provide? Maybe that’s why it seems like some of the most satisfied parents at our school are the ones who permitted in from outside of our catchment area. Since they chose it as the better school for their child than their local school, it feels like they have made a wise choice for their child and got lucky to get in, whereas the families right here in our neighborhood think they might be able to do better. They will consider our school as a temporary solution like a convenient apartment to stay in temporarily, just until their dream house finishes getting built. It was never going to be home for them, because it doesn’t have the same curb appeal (those amazing websites!). Besides, it is a win win situation for them. If they end up wrong about their decision to go elsewhere, our local school will welcome them back because that is what a neighborhood school is obligated to do.
In the meantime, maybe those parents feel like Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”