August 26, 2010

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Back to school

In between camps, days off, playdates and trips to the shore, this summer was marked by a single looming event – picking a new school for my son. The school he had been attending since pre-K closed it doors for good in early June. The fall and spring application process left his father and I with an uneasy feeling that we had yet to find the right place for our about-to-be third grader.

There were several complicating factors but the overwhelmingly discussion around the choice of our son’s next school was a debate all-too familiar to many parents in Northwest Philadelphia. Should we continue the sometimes-painful financial sacrifice of private school or jump into the fray of the public school system.

In the spring when a group of students from King High went to a nearby elementary school with baseball bats and assaulted several of the children playing in the schoolyard, I inadvertently sparked a debate on Facebook among some of my friends. I had posted an article on the assault with my sentiments of despair for the children involved, both assailants and assailed. The comments the article received fell into two camps, “This is why I send my kids to private school” and “The only way to affect change it is to send our children to public school.”

I found myself squarely in the middle of a debate in cyber life that I was also in in real life. The idea of sending my own son to a Philadelphia public school made me think long and hard about my commitment to urban life. On the one hand I see that the system needs more parents who are willing to be involved with their children’s scholastic life and by extension the life of their would-be peers. Afterall I chose to live in the city and Mt. Airy specifically because I believe strongly in diversity, urban prosperity, preservation and public education.

I was having this conversation with someone who sent both of her children to a local public school. They had opposite experiences, one great, one terrible, but ultimately chose to stay through eighth grade. It wasn’t so much what she shared about each of her children’s experience in public school, as it was something she said in general that really stuck with me. She said, “It’s hard because you don’t want to experiment with your child.”

For her, she sent her eldest child to school, and it worked out beautifully. So she sent her younger child too. When it didn’t work out as well, she thought about alternatives and the child was given a say and wanted to stay. In many ways she followed her intuition and listened closely to her children, both of who went on to high school and college and are well-adjusted, intelligent young adults.

It seems hardly necessary to list the advantages of private education – the freedom from bureaucracy, empowerment of educators to develop and hone curriculum, ability of school administrators to choose their student body. I had the fortune to attend both public and private schools. Private schools succeed at giving students a sense of themselves and the world in which they live, both locally and globally. At many private schools, the one I attended and ones friends attended, there is a tangible sense of what it means to have an education and the opportunities it brings.

It was a long, hard summer of reflection and deep thought about what values I truly want to teach my son and how is best to do that. I cannot say we figured it out. We made a choice, followed our gut and now we will listen to see how we did.

-Jennifer Katz


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