Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reasons to Give Public School a Chance

This post will seem like it's coming out of nowhere, but in fact, it stems from my family's search for a new home and the discussions my husband and I have had about the schools in the districts around the area we are planning to settle in. Part of this is a bit of a manifesto and part of this is just me exploring my feelings. Bear with me.

I know that many parents choose home schooling and I completely support a family's right to do so. Until the last 200 years or so, home schooling was the norm. Consequently, many, many intelligent and revolutionary thinkers throughout history are products of homeschooling and tutoring. It is a well established and successful way of imparting education for those who choose to devote themselves to it and believe in it. Meanwhile, universal public education is a fairly new enterprise. It wasn't until 1918 that all then existing states here in the US had laws making school mandatory until the eight grade or age 16. So, public schooling is really still a fledgling project. Institutionalizing education has had a profound effect on it and, many critics argue, a detrimental one. You only have to rent Waiting for Superman or watch any investigative report and you know that our public school system is struggling. Currently, even though my son is only two and is likely four years away from any kind of kindergarten decision, my husband and I have been house hunting and struggling to find the school district we feel we could entrust our son's education to and, frankly, the search is enough to drive us both crazy. Meanwhile, I listen with envy to my friends who are home schooling or are planning to home school and absolutely believe that they have made the right choice for their family. I just don't feel that kind of conviction to home school myself. (I haven't completely ruled it out, either. I feel more than capable enough and willing enough to do it in the right circumstances and whether or not my son goes to school outside the home, I am completely devoted to his education.)

The truth is, there is a part of me that still has a soft spot for the great project of public education. Call it patriotism, call it idealism, but part of me (maybe the same part of me that caused me to work in a public school for four years in a low paying paraprofessional position and to ultimately get my teaching license) is still impressed with a social goal of providing education to all children regardless of race, class, "ability," or gender., (I am a licensed (although that license is about to lapse because of my current devotion to being a stay at home mom) special educator, so accessible learning for students of all capabilities is a special passion of mine.) Compulsory, free, public education was a way of making it possible for even children of parents who could not afford for someone to stay home and teach to still learn from dedicated adults. We may not be meeting all of our reading level goals here and we are struggling, but we enjoy a much more literate society than we did one hundred years ago. It was a revolutionary idea to say that no matter what education level your parents or grandparents obtained, we will try to provide an education that will level the playing field and whatever else motivations that caused compulsory education to become reality (including eliminating child labor competition in business), that was still a prevailing goal of compulsory education.

Furthermore, I can't help but think that I would not be the person I am today if I had not gone to school outside the home and frankly, I'm saying that even though the school I went to the longest during my thirteen years was not even that good. Of course, I had parents who read to me, supported me, and encouraged me to learn outside the home, too. (Just as my son will have.) What strikes me most when I think back on my education is the access I had to people and ideas I never would have encountered ordinarily. Many of my classmates are ones that helped me find my way to attachment parenting and whose friendship has helped me immeasurably in my ongoing journey into motherhood. Where would I be without them? School is doorway that opened up new worlds for me. Did I run into people who challenged the world view my parents subscribe to? Yes. However, I think that was a good thing. Because my beliefs were challenged, I had the opportunity to critically decide whether or not they were beliefs I wanted to own and integrate into my life. I feel like they made me stronger, and I would love for my son to have the same experience. I know that if he goes to school, he will be impressionable, at first, and that is why it will be just as critically important for me to be part of his public education as it would be for me to be a part of his home schooling education. He will still need me to help him discern real argument from propaganda and he will need me to model critical thinking. He will also need me to model strength in convictions and a level of participation that is exhausting to even think about, but that will be true no matter where he learns.

I also must admit that general book learning was easy for me and maybe that is part of why I feel a connection to public education. My primary methods of learning (reading/listening) are the traditional and most prevalent methods available in classrooms. However, after sitting in education classes, I know the traditional school environment I went to is not necessarily the one that my child will go to. There has been a shift in most education communities toward more progressive, constructive learning that encompasses more hands on, real world application, and self-directed, creative projects. Am I saying that is absolutely true for every school? No. But a part of me feels like if that is not the case, especially in a community funded public school, than everyone in the community should get involved until it is. Now, I am a realist in that I know there are many parents out there who do not want to have anything to do with their children's education, but for those of us who do, we can make a difference in the education of both those children and our own children if we make our doubts and criticisms heard. I feel like the last thing a school needs is docility in its parents or in its students and a part of me can't help but feel that if I do choose to home school, I'll be absenting myself from the fight. One of my main reasons why I feel I want to give public schooling a chance is because I do not want to accept the idea that the public school project should be abandoned. Call me vain, but I don't want my family's educational beliefs, our social beliefs, our environmental beliefs, our religious beliefs and even our parenting philosophy to be absent from the lives of the children in our community. I want my son to share his life, his philosophies, and his ideas with people I would never even know to introduce him to and I want it to be while I am still in a position to defend him and to help him stand his ground.

Thanks for reading,



Tara said... [Reply to comment]

Why label parents who chose home schooling "crunchy"? Why label parents who make certain choices "crunchy" at all? And what exactly is "crunchy"? A wide variety of people choose to home school and a wide variety of people choose to send their kids to public school.

We ask our children not to call each other names - why role model such behavior? Labeling and pigeon holing people doesn't serve anything except to polarize and divide.

I too received a pretty great education from the public schools, but it didn't take much research into the public school system (or one reading of Diana Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System)to realize that the public education I received in the 70s & 80s is not the public education being offered now.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

Once again, I do not speak for those who have a conviction to home school and I can not speak for everyone in every part of the country. I don't even know that I will not home school at some point. I meant the term "crunchy" as a self-deprecating term. The whole blog is just about exploring my options and choices as a parents and my educational beliefs. I didn't say that all people who home school are crunchy and I never defined what I meant by that. I just meant that it seems that on most of the blogs I read the prevailing theory is that people who even considering schooling outside the home are lazy and less dedicated than parents who home school and this is a (somewhat defensive) responsive to that sort of thought. I was not labeling or pigeon holing and my intention was not to divide, but rather the opposite. I wanted to point out that people choose public schooling and homeschooling for a variety or reasons. I am sorry if it ever seemed I was writing otherwise.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

By the way, the public school education I received was really quite bad and I would not want it for my child. If I felt my child were receiving the kind of education that was offered to me for seven years in my old school district, and I felt my efforts to change his schooling were unsuccessful, I would immediately pull him out and home school him. I just currently feel like I want to try to make a difference first.

Kayce Pearson said... [Reply to comment]

I love this post Shawna. We are homeschooling only because I don't feel Glade would do well in a public school because of how she learns. If she didn't have that hang up? I would send her to school in a heartbeat.

I loved public school. I loved learning. I truly think there is nothing wrong with public school, just that it has some issues, same as homeschooling does. There is no perfect option (though if there was, that would be amazing :))

Seriously, great post :)

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks, Kayce! I removed the one time I used the word "crunchy" and I hope it reads a little better now!

MissB said... [Reply to comment]

I think it's a lovely, thoughtful post, Shawna. Words are just that...words. I use the word crunchy all the time and don't mean a single hurtful think by it! I think it's important to teach our children to be kind, but also to teach them that words only hurt us if we let them...

PS...this is an impossible topic ;) The decision to use a private school for our children was intense and difficult. Fortunately, we are very happy, but in reality we may not be able to do it for all of the kids. I ALWAYS appreciate another point of view--thank you for taking the time to post!

Mandi Spencer said... [Reply to comment]

Writing this took a lot of courage, and I respect that. Hopefully your efforts will pay off and public schools will change for the better. The kids that succeed in any environment are the ones with involved parents, and you're obviously giving your son that, so kudos to you.

tasialue said... [Reply to comment]

I taught at one of the schools you attended, and I must say, even though resources were practically non-existent, students at that school received excellent instruction. I have yet to meet a graduate from that school who hasn't become a pretty sophisticated critical thinker. Heck, the students felt confident enough to protest a decision they disagreed with as a whole, connected student body recently.

I've taught at a total of four very different districts, both private and public, and I've subbed at many, many more. The current paradigm of student-directed, project-focused, brain-based learning is still in its infancy. Until standardized testing is removed, teachers hands will be tied. So much of the school year is lost to those tests, which mean so little in the grand scheme of education.

If you find a good school, grab it and hold on for dear life. I still regret leaving the school you attended while I was there. The pay was abysmal, the resources paltry, but ye gods....that tightly-knit community was HIGHLY involved in ensuring the students received a good education, even if it wasn't as experiential as current educational theory desires.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

I was not referring to Newburg when I mentioned that. I only actually went to Newburg for three years. It was another school that I went to and I hope things have changed for the better, so I do not want to mention that school's name here.

Anastasia said... [Reply to comment]

Shawna, this is such a great post. We send our son to public school (and our daughter will soon follow suit), but it was a decision that I honestly agonized over for a long time. We homeschooled for a time before Alex started pre-K, and though it was a fun experience, I don't have the chops to do it permanently.

We are extremely lucky to live in an area that boasts the top two schools in our district (though that can mean different things to different people, as everyone has different priorities). So, that made the decision a bit easier for us. I was afraid that Alex would be "broken," or that he would be lost amongst the 1400 students that attend his school, but thankfully, neither of those things has happened. He has been very fortunate to have had wonderful teachers thus far--and his teacher this year has worked especially closely with him, honing in on his challenges while still respecting and honoring who he is, and praising him for his positive achievements.

I realized a few things thus far--one, a lot of what Alex learns comes from us (duh). He does spend a lot of time in school, but my husband and I take great pains to teach him important lessons at home--and when he receives conflicting information, he always lets us know and we temper what he's learning outside the home with what we teach him. So, I no longer fear that he's going to become someone unrecognizable simply because he's in a public school environment. Two, and this is obviously different for every child, Alex is extremely social, outgoing, and confident--and so he is thriving in his public school environment. I don't know if all my kids will be the same; and so, I would definitely not say that public school is one size fits all. Third, and this is something that was really hard for me to come to terms with, I actually prefer that he have some other authority figures in his life, other than myself and his dad. I appreciate the teamwork that comes from teachers, tutors, etc., working with us to make Alex the best human being he can be.

There are definitely things I would change about Alex's school if I could, but thankfully they are minor complaints and nothing that I can't correct at home with him on an individual basis if I need to.

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