On the last day of school: The state of education & making the tough choices

My daughter, fourteen at the time, sat in a small chair in the corner of the classroom and held tightly to a blue folder that had a large smiley face sticker on it. Her face by contrast gave nothing away. You couldn’t tell if she was happy or sad, comfortable or scared, rested or tired.

I remember thinking that if the parent-teacher conference and the rest of her four years of high school went badly, she might still have a future as a professional poker player. Even though I knew she had to be nervous, she sat stone-faced.

A few weeks earlier, she had started at a new school, a private school, and we were attending our first meeting with her firing squad of teachers. Of course, as we would soon learn, she had nothing to fear. Teacher after teacher that night raved about her study skills and work ethic. They told us how she asked challenging questions, worked closely with her classmates, and was a “joy” to have in the classroom.


A lasting memory

When I hear people complain about the state of education and kids today, I think often about that night. With each bit of feedback, my daughter’s smile got bigger and bigger. You could see the confidence building inside of her. She went from doubting herself, questioning if she fit in, to bursting with pride and excitement. She had found her niche, she had found her place.

People have strong opinions on education today. Teachers make too much money. Teachers don’t make enough. We need vouchers. Vouchers will kill local schools. Teachers give too much homework. Teachers don’t give enough homework. You get the idea. You can’t open a newspaper or look online without seeing a story or complaint about the quality of our education system. And they all seem to disagree with each other.

My family has a unique perspective on our educational system having seen it from many different angles: as public, private, and parochial students and my wife as a teacher in an inner city urban environment.


I’m not being challenged

My wife and I have long been big believers in public school. I attended public school and, while I had my share of teachers who were going through the motions, I also had a number of teachers who made a major difference in my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

However, when my daughter came to us at the end of her middle school career, looking for more of a challenge, we knew that had to find a solution, we had to find something that re-energized her curiosity and creative spark.

With her help, we researched options. She ended up applying for and winning a partial day-student scholarship to a prestigious small private all-girls boarding school near our home. The school was different from anything she or my wife or I had ever experienced. We would need to drive up to an hour each day to drop her off and pick her up at the school. While she was awarded a day-student scholarship, we would still need to come up with a sizable annual contribution. I haven’t even touched on the challenging academics and workload. She went from being near the top in her class to fighting for a spot to call her own. Everything that she had come to know changed with the swipe of the iPad she needed to carry with her to every class.

The cost certainly hit home. I remember shaking my head at the tuition bill and questioning how we would pay for all four years of high school, but we knew relatively early on that we had made the right decision. She came home excited to learn and to be challenged. When we asked about her day, she would tell us about all the interesting things she had learned and, if we were lucky, she’d break out into a makeshift jig in our kitchen. Her smile swept across her face. It was cool to be smart.

In short, she was being challenged academically and emotionally.


The questions?

In the years since first dropping her off at the school, I often wondered how the private school experience changed my daughter. She always planned to go to college, even prior to attending the private school. Would our local public high school have prepared her the same? Probably. Would she have gone to a different college? Would she have a different major or career goals? I wish I knew the answers, but I don’t think anyone will ever know.

We had less money to pass along to cover her college expenses, but she got much out of the school. She learned how to study, speak up for herself, and built a strong work ethic. She also came out with great mentors and even better friends. Most importantly, she found herself. (And in the end, her strong academic work ended up helping her earn more merit based aid for college.)

While she went the private route, our oldest son’s experience was the exact opposite. He went to the local public school and now goes to a large state school. While she always gravitated to small groups, he seeks out the crowd, the best to find his spot. While a complete different experience, he seems pretty happy with his choices.

He too found teachers that gave freely of their time. He too was challenged. He made a different decision and for him it was the right one. Our youngest son is finishing up his school year this week and will be starting high school in the fall and for him, right now, the best answer remains following his brother’s footsteps.

We’ll see if that continues into the future.


An apple for the teacher

When people start to criticize the state of education or teachers today, I obviously get sensitive. I think of my kids, but then I see the hundreds of dollars my wife puts back into her classroom. I smirk when people say she has three months off in the summer. I want to send them a bill for each hour of preparation that she spends in July and August. I want to call them at twelve o’clock each night when she’s finally finishing up an IEP or report for her classroom. I want to call them and ask them how much time they spent helping their kid with homework, instead of counting on all learning to happen in the classroom. I want to ask them if they understand how just five minutes of time would do their child wonders.

So, yes, I feel like I have a unique view. The funny thing though is that while others seem even more convinced of the solutions to our problems, I’m convinced more than ever that each student is different.

I would much rather people stop their complaining and work to fix the problems that plague our schools. I would much rather parents actually parent. I would much rather see the community get behind academics and not just school athletic programs. I love sports as much as the next guy, but the odds of lil Jimmy becoming the next Bill Gates are ten times better than him becoming the next Michael Jordan.

Sports are good in moderation. They teach valuable lessons, but we lose focus when we put them above the arts and academics.

In short, there is no easy answer. It takes a community.


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