Tuesday, September 30, 2014

the belly of the beast

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on decisions that I face in how my daughter's education will unfold.  You can find part 1 here, in which I discuss a great preschool enrichment program she's attending; part 2 is here, in which I discuss my ambivalence about homeschooling.

In this segment, I will discuss the public school options that we have.  There are a ton.  Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) has a byzantine system sprawling throughout Davidson County.  It's a far cry from the neat, excellent public schools I attended as a girl.  Lawrence has a variety of factors that give rise to its great schools - a major university in the center of town, no competition from private or parochial schools (the word "charter" is still unheard of there), a real estate tax base that can be equitably carved up so that funding can be roughly the same for all schools.  A lot of it really boils down to:  it's a small enough community that it can be managed pretty easily.  MNPS, on the other hand, is gigantic.  In 2011-2012, MNPS served 77,617 students.  By comparison, my hometown school district serves ~11,000.

So, here are the viable paths that we can take for Vicki Jo (that I know of at this point - one of the issues with MNPS that I've found is that you have to really educate yourself thoroughly on your options.  No one is going to be calling you telling you about choices you have for your family):

1)  Lockeland Design Center.  This school is by far the closest to our home (literally, Google Maps tells me it is .2 miles).  We can walk there in under five minutes.  It is an amazing school.  It is ranking in the top performing elementary schools in the state of Tennessee right now.  It's also a magnet, and an exceedingly popular one at that.  Because it is designated as an optional school, we have to go through a lottery.  We are in no way guaranteed a spot at this school.  In fact, the lottery has become very selective in the last few years (because of massive increases in applications), so that only about 40% of children in our neighborhood who do not currently have a sibling attending there are getting spots in Kindergarten.  Unless something changes about the zoning, I cannot count on LDC as a sure bet.

 a)   I have the additional decision to make of whether I should apply for Vicki Jo to enter  Kindergarten early (fall of 2015).  I have to make this decision fairly soon, because the lottery takes place around the turn of the year.  She has gone through the necessary testing and been approved to do this, if the principal and I agree it's a good idea.  We generally have to make application for the lottery by somewhere around December 1.  I can't help but admit that the soaring popularity of the school is contributing to my thought that I might try to enroll her early.  If we don't get in through the lottery, we can always try again for Kindergarten next year.

2)  Warner Enhanced Option Elementary.  Warner is our "school of zone."  This means that we do nothing to enroll there except show up.  Warner is a school that draws from a very integrated demographic, which is attractive to me.  I love the idea of Vicki Jo experiencing education with people from different backgrounds.  This school has also been making strides in terms of performance and testing.  (Blech.)  It's a bit larger than Lockeland (350 students vs. 305), and the school day is 45 minutes longer (this is what makes it an "enhanced option" school).  There are a core of parents that are very dedicated to improving Warner, and I have to admit that it's a school that is growing on me.  I need to tour.  I like the idea of escaping the crazy stressful process that is the lottery.

 a)  I have the same decision to make about early admission to Kindergarten here as I do at Lockeland.  The jury is still out on that one.

3)  Hull-Jackson Montessori Magnet or Stanford Montessori Design Center.  These are optional schools that require a lottery.  We are not in the priority zone of the lottery for either of these schools, which makes acceptance a long shot (worse odds even than getting into Lockeland).  The benefit of these schools:  Montessori!  I love the Montessori method and would love my children to be experiencing it.  These schools use mixed-age classrooms and start enrolling at age 3.  So, I applied through the lottery for Vicki Jo to go to both of these schools last year.  At the end of all five of the lottery draws, we ended at numbers 31 and 7 on the wait lists, respectively.  I will apply again for these school, but I will have to decide where they fall in priority, along with Lockeland.  We can only make one application, and have to rank up to 7 choices on that application.  A downside of either of these schools is that they are not in our neighborhood.  They would entail a bit of a commute every day, which would be annoying.  They also don't support our local community in the way that I would ideally like to.

(Are you feeling overwhelmed yet??)

4)  Charters.  There are a few options in our neighborhood, but I'm not interested.  I don't think giving power to for-profit companies to increase school choice and effectiveness is the way forward.  Especially when we have so many other viable options in our neighborhood and in our family's life.

5)  Pre-K.  MNPS has made a commitment to expanding their pre-K programs (which are defined as programs offered to children in the year before they start Kindergarten) so that all students will be able to attend free of charge.  There are two pre-Ks that I'm interested in:  Ross Early Learning Center and Warner Pre-K.  Lockeland does not have a Pre-K.  We very nearly went to Ross this year - we made application and were accepted and everything.  But it ended up not being much cheaper for extended care than what we currently pay at King's Daughters.  (The catch is that it is "free" for the school day - but if you need any care for your child beyond 8-3, you pay $70/week!).  The difference between Ross and Warner Pre-Ks is that Ross is a freestanding center with multiple pre-K classrooms, while Warner is a Pre-K housed in an elementary school.  The big benefit at Warner would be that if that ends up being Vicki's elementary school, she gets an added year for continuity and stability.

I feel completely exhausted just typing all of this.  As I mentioned above, I had to pretty much dig up all this information on my own.  I can't imagine that a parent with less luxury of time (because of working multiple jobs, being in service industries, etc) would have the ability to do this kind of research.

My bigger issue with all of this has to do with what is trending in public education, regardless of how "good" or selective the school.  Longer class times, less teacher freedom, more testing (much more testing), less enrichment, less recess.  Do I want my young child to jump right into all this?  Vicki Jo will probably do fine, because she can sit still pretty well.  But do I want Todd to jump into it at 5, and be labeled ADHD because he acts like a 5-year-old?  These are the difficult questions.  When I started Kindergarten in 1990, we went for half a day, and we still had a rest time.  Those days are gone in our public schools.  So what's a mom to do?

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