How Are Our Public Schools?

July 3, 2006

Have I told you how much I love Brain, Child magazine? Finally, there’s a non-preachy publication that doesn’t bore me to tears like Family Circle. I will feature some of it’s summer edition’s stories this week.

First up: “(Public) School’s Out? Is the middle class abandoning public education?” Reporter Andrea Cooper, who loves her son’s elementary magnet school and is lukewarm to her daughter’s middle school, wrote a pretty detailed account of the pressures hitting public schools and various initiatives parents are undertaking to improve public education, including our urban public schools. Most recently, USA Today placed the graduation rates of some major urban high schools at less than 40 percent.

But Cooper laid out the problems facing urban public schools, including middle class parents taking off for the suburbs — and attending better public schools. Other pressures: Private schools and better funded public schools, competing magnet and charter schools, vouchers, and No Child Left Behind, which punishes underperforming schools and has forced them to teach the test. Many public schools have cut the arts, science and social studies programs just to teach math and reading and pass the standardized tests required by NCLB.

If classrooms are physically overcrowded, curricula are increasingly overcrowded with testing, testing, and more testing. During a recent chat with my daughter’s sixth-grade English teacher, it sank in how much testing is affecting her education. I mentioned that Laurel is a fine creative writer but didn’t seem to have any opportunities in class for creative writing. The teacher explained what’s on the state EOGs (end of grade tests.) Creative writing didn’t make the cut — so it isn’t taught.

Still, the percentage of children in private school is at its lowest in 50 years because of the declining Catholic school system. Middle class families, especially in the suburbs, are attending public school in overwhelming numbers. Despite the bad publicity, public schools are churning out more graduates than ever before and the “top 20 percent of our students score higher on tests than ever before and more children are educated than ever before,” said Carlos Garcia, former superintendent of Clark County, Las Vegas, schools and now an executive with McGraw-Hill Education. The problem is that politicians and the media keep feeding the lie that public education is a lost cause — and parents now expect a lot more from their public schools.

Schools themselves are facing unprecedented pressures. We ask them to care for the mental, emotional, physical, and social wellbeing of our children. We expect them to serve previously unserved portions of the population, like the mentally and physically disabled children who were once shunted off to separate schools or kept at home. At the other end of the spectrum, we’re putting more pressure than ever on schools to beef up “gifted and talented” programs for children.

Word to our public school advocates: Parents are organizing and fighting to protect their public schools. The D.C. School Modernization Campaign secured $200 million a year to repair the ailing infrastructure of D.C. public schools. Both Parents for Public Schools and the Center for Parent Leadership have received kudos for effective advocacy work.

Okay, this article did feed my guilt a little bit. Like many of the obnoxious, demanding parents mentioned in the statistics, I wanted to enroll my son in a dual-immersion program so that he would learn Spanish throughout his elementary school years. In a dual-immersion setting, children start out learning the foreign language (in my son’s case, Spanish) and every year starting in kindergarten they receive one hour of English instruction. By the third grade, they learn all their subjects in equally the foreign language and in English, forcing them to become fluent and think critically in both languages.

Our public school system did have such a dual-immersion program, but I learned that it was fiercely competitive — a lot of demand — and I would have to rely on a lottery system for a slot. Lo and behold, a private Spanish-English dual-immersion program — the first private one in our area — opened up and I immediately enrolled my son. (It already has a waiting list!) It’s the program that I wanted and I figured I was still supporting our public schools in paying property taxes and leaving more room in the publicly funded dual-immersion program for parents who couldn’t afford it.

Plus, my husband and I both benefited from private and public schools. We both went to urban private schools for elementary school — in my case, I attended the same Catholic school in Miami from kindergarten to 8th grade — and well-funded suburban public high schools. Personally, I had a great experience in the Catholic school system because of the discipline — thanks to our heavily enforced dress code (school uniform), for example, we did not have the gang problems and issues surrounding “colors” plaguing our public junior high schools — small class sizes and hyper parental involvement due to all the fundraising. To this day, I have five friends I have known since kindergarten! One just left yesterday after a weekend visit.

Interestingly enough, Ari’s school is housed in a Catholic school in Oakland that resembles my own childhood school Miami, which admittedly gave me the “fuzzies.” If all goes well with this new school, we plan to keep him there until the 8th grade and then enroll him in our local public high school. It worked for us.