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Private School Angst
I'm a product of public schools.

Now, depending on what you think about my writing you're either thinking, "Well, that certainly explains a lot," or, "Go, Steph!" But my point is, I've always been a firm supporter of public education. If kids with advantages at home are all sent to private schools, where does that leave the public schools? We all know the answer to that. It can leave the public schools with dummed-down academic programs, uninvolved parents, and funding problems.

Of course it was much easier for me to stand on my soapbox and preach The Gospel Of Public School before I actually became a parent.

Before we moved to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, we lived in the City of Falls Church, just outside of D.C. For those of you who have no friggin' clue what this means, we were a short walk from some of the finest public schools in the country. The population of the City of Falls Church is extremely well educated, high income, diverse, and involved. The CoFC also has its own small public school system, separate and apart from the ginormous Fairfax County Public Schools. (Even though the CoFC is technically in Fairfax County.) This means smaller class sizes, a more flexible and varied curriculum, less bureaucracy, and much more parental involvement. In other words, Falls Church is pretty much a parent's public school wet dream.

Of course after we had our first child, T and I, in our infinite wisdom, decided to move several hours away from D.C. in a search for more balanced family lives. We were also looking for a less, um..., cloying neighborhood. We found the perfect house on a 4 acre lot and lots of privacy. We love it.

But we don't live in a very good school district.

Our elementary school is not great. While the high school has a relatively good reputation, it is huge. While this may mean more access to AP and IB classes and interesting extracurricular activities, it can mean less individual contact with the faculty, and less opportunity for my involvement in choosing their educational paths.

A large public school would also mean there will be less opportunity for my kids to be deeply involved in school sports, something that I think is important for every child regardless of ability level. Judging by the athletic talent of T and I, neither of our kids is destined to become the next Peyton Manning, but I'd still like them to be involved in their school sports teams if they're so inclined.
So now T and I find ourselves facing a decision we swore we'd never have to make. Are we going to send our kids to private schools?

I can't say that we have the answer to this question yet. I still strongly support public schools. I still also believe that troubled schools need the involvement of more parents who actually give a damn. And frankly, the private schools in our area are not very diverse and diversity, in race, income, and culture, is important to me. I do not want my children to grow up with a sense of entitlement. I want them to grow up with a sense of responsibility to the community and their fellow man.

That is not to say that all of these things can't be found in private schools, but am I a hypocrite if I teach these things at home and then pack my kids off to an expensive school to play with other kids who have money?

I want my children to have the best opportunities, but that doesn't just mean the best opportunities that money can buy. I'm just not sure yet which route will offer the "best" for my children.

How did you decide between public and private schools or how will you decide? Is cost the only issue?

This post is part of Julie's Hump Day Hmm round table. Our topic for this week was school. This post is also cross posted at DC Metro Moms.

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Blogger Oh, The Joys said...

That's a hard one... striking the balance between your politics and the needs of your kids.

(When you figure it out, I need the answer!)

Blogger NotSoSage said...

Funny, OTJ's post on redshirting sparked this same discussion over e-mail between her and I. I am committed to public schools, too. I don't want to come out as hard line one way or the other and then eat my words later, but I really want my daughter to attend a public insitution, for all of the reasons you mention. Then again, our income makes it so that it's unlikely we could choose a private school, even if we wanted to.

Blogger Syd said...

My opinion may not count for much since I'm not a parent. But it seems to me that you figure out what would be in the best interest of your child. Period.

Fuck being consistent with your politics. Twenty years from now, when your kid is balanced and well educated, he won't care whether you bent a little.

On the other hand, I attended private schools until my Junior year in college. I'm not a shining example of the product they produce. ;)

I JUST had this conversation with someone recently. I told her I didn't ever understand the allure to private schools...until I had my own brilliant children, of course!

I hear ya, sister!

Blogger Julie said...

I swear this comment will make sense in a minute...

Today I did one of these annoying "blogthings" quizzes where they ask you a bunch of multiple choice questions and you answer and they tell you about yourself. Today I learned, for example, that I am not destined for world domination. Oh my god. Now what?

One of the questions was "Are your ethics (a) situational or (b) set in stone" or something like that. And I had to think long and hard about that one. I doubt anyone ever thinks long and hard about a blogthings quiz, they're not really intended to be like that, but I was interested in the question. Are my ethics situational or set in stone?

I think the answer is that I am set in stone on having situational ethics. One of the things I believe in is assessing each situation based on its own circumstances. So it's like my ethic is situationalness.

And it seems like you're facing the same question: are your beliefs about public school set in stone or situational? If they're situational, then the decision gets so hard. So messy. So set in mud. Or jello. Or something very un-stone-like. : ) But if that's the case, then I wish you and T the best of luck with your decision. I know that whatever you choose, it will be the right decision. It's like the Itty Bitty Yoga book says: "You are the perfect parent for your child." You will make the best decision and because you decide it, it will be best.

Blogger flutter said...

It really has to be personal. It's important...no it's essential to do what is best for your kids, always.

Blogger InTheFastLane said...

I went to public schools and it worked fine for me (academically, socially and athletically). My kids also go to public schools, but in this area there really isn't a choice. It is either public schools or catholic schools. Being in education, I have many frustrations with public schools, but my kids have had good experiences for the most part. But, my biggest issue is that our educational system is set up to teach average kids. And then lower level kids get lots of extra attention to make sure that school meet their annual progress on the almighty standardized tests, while the kids who are above average, or heaven forbid "gifted" in one area or more, tend to just coast along through school, never really challenged until maybe middle school or, more likely high school.

Wew... you got me going there. I would say that if you have a choice, you do what is best for your children, even if it doesn't advance the greater good. Off my soap box now.

Blogger jen said...

what OTJ said. seriously. i have no idea. i am a public school girl now, but i hear you.

Blogger Moondance said...

I hear you, sister!

I went to public school in NJ, a state consistently known for spending more $$ per child than most states, having the highest graduation rate in the country, the highest percentage of seniors going to college, and awarded "best place to get a college prep education." I was happy, felt prepared. We were living in New Orleans when Owl was born, and I knew I could not stand by my convictions to avoid the class structure, the exclsionary nature of private school if we stayed there. So, we came back to NJ after almost 15 years.

But even here, it is, as someone said above, a great place to be if Owl needs remedial education, or if he's the average kind of kid who needs a good education and a push toward college. But what if he's gifted? Will public school challenge him enough?

Well, hell, if he's going to private school, I'm moving back to NOLA!

Seriously, I moved to stay with my convictions, but that was when I was the parent of an infant. If kindergarten does not impress me this year, I don't kow what I'll do.

Blogger Snoskred said...

After reading this, I've decided to homeschool my kids. Of course, they are of the feline variety, so it's a different kettle of fish ;)

I went to public schools and based on my experience if I had children they would be going to private Catholic schools. I think the religion aspect is something I could have used as a kid. My parents weren't religious and I sought out church myself.

I was a teachers aide for a while in a private, quite strict, Catholic school and what I saw going on there completely broke my heart - if only my parents had sent me there. Kids were nice to each other. The teachers were fantastic. Once a week they had mass all together as a school and it was wonderful. I wish I could have had that as a school experience.

Compared to my high school which had 500 students in my year level and I was a very small fish in a big pond?

Lawyer Mama - I *passed* exams I did not even show up for in year 11. They never noticed I was missing for six months. I would go to school, sign in, then walk to the train station and go into town, spending my day at the museum, art gallery and library. None of them knew.

If your choice is a big school with a lot of students vs a smaller school I know which one I'd take every time.

I think you have to forget the "private vs public" aspect, and look at what school is going to give your kid the best experience.


I don't envy your position--best of luck with whatever you decide.

Your recollections of FC made me smile. When we were looking at houses a few years ago, I was adamant: I wanted to move to Falls Church (city proper, of course, so we'd get the schools) or the place we currently are. (And yes, I, too, am a product of public schools. High school, undergrad and law school: all public.)

Blogger Gwen said...

I have no real experience being a student in American public schools, only of teaching in the urban ones, so perhaps my position of ignorance provides me the bliss of being a public school kind of person. And it's easy for me to be one, since we have a very capable public elementary school 5 minutes away. Is the school perfect? No. Is it good enough? Yes.

Am I in any position to tell anyone else what they should do with their own children? Absolutely not.

However. Here comes my daily submission to the controversy files: a recent TIME magazine cover touted "The Genius Problem" in American academics, and I really wanted to slap the title writer silly. Are there really enough geniuses around for their lack of structurally academic challenge to be termed a problem, one worthy of the cover of a national news magazine? It reminded me of something Po Bronson wrote once about how the "problems" of American parents that are written about in the media are really only problems for very few people, relatively speaking (this goes directly to the issue of diversity in the blogosphere, too, I think).

Something that feeds into the notion that we even have a "genius problem," that, as someone said above, the gifted children aren't always adequately challenged by public school education, is the idea that all our children are gifted. They're not. Statistically speaking, they can't be. But I know many parents, so many parents, who push and push for their kids to receive the gifted label, and why? There's this idea that gifted means "better" when really gifted is an educational designation for a certain kind of learner; it's about special ed funding, not about getting into Harvard. I find myself tamping down on my impatience with parents who believe their school should be all things to their children, that schools should provide enrichment programs for the five year olds who "just don't need to play after school." (that, by the way, is a direct quote) Newsflash: that five year old does not exist. Enrichment programs can be done at home, in the backyard, with some baking soda and water, or at the local library or at one of our many museums. Or even in the kitchen with pie dough and a rolling pin. I find our reliance on traditional educational structures to challenge and direct our kids (while we denigrate and degrade the many teachers who work their asses off at low paying, difficult jobs) slightly maddening. As the parent, I think that I am ultimately responsible for making sure my child is adequately educated, both inside and outside the school system, and that responsibility can be fulfilled in either public or private school. The end.

Whew! That soapbox was getting awfully tottery there .... and now you know why I didn't write my own blog post about this--I just commandeered your comments instead for my nefarious purposes.

Umm, sorry.

Blogger Joy, of course said...

My older two (15 and 11) children go to public school. We have had many struggles over the years though and the situation with my son in highschool sports is what you described. He's a very athletic kid who didn't start in organized sports young enough and consequently can't get a spot on one of our football or basketball teams because our school is superfreakinbig! And it's a good school, but the personal touch isn't there. It just can't be.

So my younger two kids (3 & 1) are going to private school. Is that a better choice. I don't know. Ask me again in 10 years.

Anonymous mayberry said...

This reminds me a bit of the uproar when the Clintons decided to send Chelsea to Sidwell Friends instead of the DC public schools. I think you just have to be a little selfish and do what is right for your kids even if it isn't what you may originally have planned. You have to pick your priorities (quality of education? sports? diversity?) and go from there.

Blogger Jen M. said...

We've always interviewed at public and private and charter schools wherever we've lived. Our kids have done all three. The very best school they ever attended was a public school.

Now they're all in a charter school that is a close second. We usually talk to the principal, prospective teacher, and take a look around the school. Being there in person made all the difference as opposed to getting a spreadsheet and seeing which school had better Iowa test scores.

I wish there were an easy formula for this one.

Blogger slouching mom said...

The public schools in our district are quite good -- lucky, because there are only a couple of private schools in our area.

But the high school, while excellent, is huge. And that worries me. A lot.

Blogger Shannon said...

It's definitely going to be a tough call. I have been a public school proponent as well, but while working in recruiting, I definitely observed an advantage that was gained in some private schools. It's not just education. It's social education and connections. In the end, the activist in me may want to send my children to public school, but the mother in me will insist on whatever is "best" for them, even if it means we are not as involved as we possibly could be in our local community. Of course, you can never say for certain until you are there.

Blogger GHD said...

I was a product of private school-- Catholic private grade school and high school, no less-- and loved it.

I thrived on the individual attention my teachers gave to me, especially since I wasn't the best at math and science. I got the help I needed, as well as a great deal of family support and a strong foundation in the community.

Being in a faith-based community was also a really positive experience for me as well. So much so, that I also choose to go to a small, private Catholic university.

I would send our son to private school in a heartbeat, but probably won't be able to afford it. We don't have a choice but send him to public school. At least, we live in a great district.

You're fortunate to get a choice... Although it is a very difficult one.

Blogger ALM said...

I think about that all the time. (Ok, sometimes I think about other things... but...) I'm very lucky to be in Forest Hills - and actually luckier that I moved here 6 years ago - because I probably wouldn't be able to afford it now.

Forest Hills is one of the few (relatively) economically and racially diverse communities left in the metro NYC area with good public schools.

I feel the same way about public schools. But, I often ask myself... if I could afford it would I send my kids to the really progressive, very good Kew Forest School? Siiighh. I just don't know.

Luckily I don't have to make that decision.

Blogger Ruth Dynamite said...

I'm all for public schools depending on (a) where you live and (b) the specific needs of the child. Luckily, you have some time to get to know the district. If you start with public and you grow disenchanted, you can always switch, right?

For me, the "challenge" with many private schools is homogeneity. Not all, however. You'll figure it out and do what's best for you.

Blogger Ali said...

I'm really glad my children had the public school experience for primary school (Age 5 - 12). They have made friends with children who they would never meet at a private school. They have learned that children who swear are not necessarily bad, they just have rough edges that they have learned from a rough home life. They have learned that our homelife is envied by those who are not loved and valued - something private school children often take for granted. They also know that some children have no food in their cupboards and that schoolyard tough 12 year old boys love to visit to cook from our well stocked pantry.

My children know that the friends they make at private high school are materially wealthier, but are not better, nicer, or even brighter, than their public school friends.

My compliant children have both been used by the public school to 'babysit' difficult children and to 'be a positive influence' on behaviourally difficult children. Sometimes too much has been asked of them, but I like that they were able contribute to their school community.

Yes, I've jumped ship to the private system and I feel guilty about it because I NEVER thought I would do so. It's tricky, very tricky.


Blogger InTheFastLane said...

re: comment about parents expecting too much from schools...

The problem with parents "enriching" their child's education is that then they know too much. And sometimes they know too much without trying and you end up in a classroom like my daughter did in 5th grade when she aced the pre-tests and the beginning of the week and then learned nothing new all week and got to go to the library and read during the tests on Fridays. She loved it, but her test scores showed that she stagnated and then when it came to advanced classes for the next year, I had to fight for her.

Anonymous Arlington Mom said...

That is a tough decisson but as a Mom in Arlington we are lucky to have some wonderful schools. 3 of our 4 high schools are ranked in the top 50 in the country.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Julie - I inhabit a world of grey. I'm all about situational ethics. I don't see the world in black and white so, of course, that makes everything more difficult.

APL - I'm guessing Arlington!

Gwen - Thanks for your comment. I've actually had the "gifted" discussion with friends in the past and with my parents. I agree that not every child is "gifted" and many parents refuse to believe that their child isn't a "genius."

I, while a product of public schools, was also in several gifted programs in our travels around and out of the country. Where a gifted program wasn't available, I was skipped ahead in certain subjects. So my parents worked with what was available to make it work for me.

I think my parents also understood that school shouldn't be all things to all people and where it couldn't be for me & my brother, they supplemented. Art museums and math and word games were a routine part of my childhood. We played Boggle and Scrabble for fun. My mother taught my brother to read when he was struggling in the pulbic school system. Of course, my mom was a public school teacher, so I think she understood instinctively what you are saying.

And yes, my particular private versus public school angst is a lucky problem to have. I know that. But I also want my sons to know that as well & therein lies my dilemma. There is no doubt in my mind that my kids could get a good education in a public school. What happens at home is just as, if not more important than, what happens at school.

But there are certain benefits to private schools and not just in social networks and college applications. Smaller class size, individual attention, knowing the administration, and being able to be more involved in a smaller school.

Public school also has its benefits as well. Sigh.

It's not like I have to make a decision tomorrow, but this discussion has been really enlightening and informative.

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments!

Blogger QT said...

I have to laugh at some of the comments about private school being full of kids that are not diverse,who don't swear, and are all incredibly wealthy.

I went to private, Catholic school through 8th grade. My classmates all came from working class homes with a few exceptions. We were all little shits. Unfortunately, I was one of the people making the school "diverse", so that wasn't very much fun. But the better I got in school, the more accelerated the teachers were able to make the classes for me. By junior high, I was separated (along with a few others) from the rest of my classmates for 1/2 the day for advanced classes.

Public school emphasis is on not leaving anyone behind, which I think is great for those that need things slowed down - not so great if you have a smart child who is hungry to learn.

I played all sports until high school, when I decided to concentrate on my studies. There were plenty of opportunities to play sports at private school.

By the time I got to the huge, impersonal high school, I was kicking ass and so far ahead of everyone I actually skipped some "freshman" level classes. I graudated from a public high school in the top 20% of my class and got a full academic scholarship to a private college.

The main difference I could discern between my peers in high school & college who attended private school vs. public was study habits. We all know that the first few years of college is about how well you can jump through hoops. I feel like private school gave me a little bit of competitive advantage here - many of my freshman peers bombed out completely the first semester due to their unfamiliarity with handling that size workload.

Ultimately, you have to do what works best for your area. Some people may have great public schools available that are on par with a private school. Some private schools suck. I think establishing good habits at an early age are what is important ( I am an all knowing non-parent, dontcha know!)so wherever that can be accomplished, go for it!

Blogger Julie Pippert said...

Hi Gray, Gray here. :)

My top obligation is to my kid. If that meshes with certain other expectation, groovy.

But I agree it's no easy choice. We agonized, not over supporting the public schools but over financial ability. How to do the right thing, even if really we couldn't afford it.

I say take a shot. I know we have two other options around us if this gig isn't right for Patience.

Good luck. I am there with and for you.

Ravin' Picture Maven

Anonymous Emily said...

I'm a gonna look at the kid, look at the schools, and decide on a case by case basis. I am all for public schools, but I sure ain't about to send my kid to a school where he will be miserable. You do what you gotta do, sister. If your schools aren't right for your kids, send 'em on to one that is.

If private school was good enough for Chelsea Clinton, you can send your kids, too.

Blogger M&Co. said...

My husband and I are both the products of a public school education. The GirlChild (she's 13 now but started when she was 5) goes to private Catholic school. The BoyChild (he just started kindergarten) goes to the neighborhood public school. We made the decision of where to send the kids based on their needs at the time.

I suspect the GirlChild is locked into the Catholic School System until graduation. And that's o.k. because there are a lot of things I like about it.

I don't know what we'll end up doing with the BoyChild. The public school fits his needs this year, next year we'll just have to see.

I doubt the BoyChild will stay in the public school system much past elementary school though.

Blogger CPA Mom said...

very, very timely. I'm in the midst of researching my next Soccer Mom post on school vouchers.

You know we chose private school for our kids. For a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the poor, poor school district we live in.

Blogger Gwen said...

I'm going to do you a favor, LM, and address some of this on my own blog--really? that's what it's for?--but I will say that not every large high school necessarily results in a lack of access to sports. That was so poorly worded, I realize. What I mean is, the high school my children are slated to attend has 4000 students, but the football team, for example, doesn't cut. Anyone who wants to play can. They just keep creating teams to accommodate the number of boys who want in. Now, will average athletes rise to the creamy top in this scenario? No. But they will have the opportunity to be involved in team sports.

For what it's worth.

Blogger painted maypole said...

we wanted to send MQ to the public school, but because she was born 3 days after the cutoff, they wouldn't even consider her. The private school took her, which was the right thing for her. So the decision was made for us. But we fully intend to move her into public schools in a few years.

Blogger Christine said...

this is hard. i went to private school for 12 years, but the district we lived in was basically dangerous and gang infested so for my parents it was a no-brainer and we sacrificed a lot financially to do it. but our schools are good here and we are happy. all the private schools are also a commute which is problem for me environmentally. they are also prohibitively expensive. but i believe in never say never. my girl is only in 1st grade, and we no idea what the future holds.

Blogger canape said...

I believe that ultimately, you get out of a school what you put into it.

I say this knowing that I went to private schools for all of my life. I am still pretty much a dumbass.

Whymommy went to the public schools in our hometown.

I rest my case.

Blogger Mrs. Chicken said...

My husband and I both attended public school up through junior high.

Then we were both placed in private school, him because he is a genius, and me b/c we moved abroad.

I got a much, much better and more relevant education in private school. I was in public high school for one and a half years, and what a difference.

I too support public schools - hubs taught in one for nine years - but for The Poo, if we can make it work, private school may be what we decide.

I think it is a very individual choice.

Blogger Jennifer said...

This is a very tough one. Very tough. I'm a huge supporter of public schools though, for the very reasons you outlined. While I understand it completely when people say, "My first obligation is to my child", and I agree, I also believe that my second obligation is to all children. I would like to honor both obligations, if possible. So I believe in sticking with the public schools -- making them good, "Being the change you want to see" -- for the good of everyone. I know that sounds hippie-dippy. But it's really what I believe. (Though I do think ethics in general can be situational, definitely.)

I also believe that if your public schools aren't good, it might be a good idea to think about moving? I don't mean that flippantly: we moved from a house we adored to a house we don't even like that much, all for the public schools. And it's worth it.

My opinions and thoughts only -- for what it's worth. :)

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Jennifer, I can see your point. But if I move to a better school district, how am I helping to make the bad schools better?

I don't think moving is an option for us. We moved away from one of the best school districts in the country to come here because quality of life is also important to us and our kids.

Blogger Jennifer said...

I do think attending a good public school is beneficial to the "bad" public school, if the issue is "good public" vs. private, because all public schools are connected in terms of funding, etc. For instance, if involved parents at a good public school band together to fight for increased school funding, all public schools benefit. Even and especially the "bad" public schools where parents might not be as involved in their children's education, for any number of reasons. Also, as public schools are open to everyone, a kid from a "bad" public school can transfer to a "good" one. In those ways, involved and passionate parents at good public schools benefit all kids at all public schools.

Um...can you tell this is an issue about which I am pretty passionate? Forgive me for taking up so much of your comment space?! :)

I do understand that moving isn't always an option, for whatever the reason. And ultimately it is a personal decision anyway -- one each family makes for themselves.

Now I'm going back to mulling over your "scenario" posted above!

Blogger ewe are here said...

Hot topic these days...

I firmly believe you have to do the best you can for your kids. Some people don't have the luxury of this choice, but that doesn't mean you should give yours up just because they don't have one. Harsh? Maybe. But 'punishing' (for lack of a better word) your kids for society's failure to provide everyone's kids with appropriate choices won't fix anything. Public or private, only you know where your kids will thrive.

For the record, I am the product of private schooling through the 8th grade, and then a smallish public highschool (1100 students or so). I was only allowed to go to this highschool because it was a very good one; otherwise, I would have been forced to stay in the private system. They were the right choices for me academically; socially, however, another story... I wasn't a real good fit.... another aspect for you to consider.

Blogger ExPatSW said...

C is a product of both private and public schools. Since we moved around so much, which school we chose depended on many variables...quality of education, socio-economic makeup of the populace, availability and quality of after-school care (since both S and I worked). Ultimately, I think that you have to look at what's available in your area and which school will meet most of your important educational goals. We were not always happy with the choices we made (like the Catholic school that had my fourth grader sign a petition against abortion!) but as the public school alternative in that very small town was truly awful, StMM was the best choice at the time. Good luck...it won't be an easy decision.

Blogger growingupartists said...

I don't get why schools would suddenly revert to "dumbed down academic programs" because the smart kids have left for private schools. Are you saying the majority would suddenly rule, and those with average to high intelligence would be forced to study remedial materials? Not likely.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Actually, yes, that is what I'm saying. Schools, public and private, teach for the majority. And I'm not saying it happens when the "smart kids" leave school, but when involved parents do.

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