As parents of school-aged children, one of our biggest and most important decisions is where to educate our little ones. Keep them at home? Send them to school? Where?! Which one?! Choosing can elicit more questions than provide answers. In this post, we invite you to participate in this ongoing and important dialogue. Please share your experience, your thoughts, your ideas—whatever you like—to help us flesh out this issue. And please note, no value judgments are meant to be expressed within. Please excuse generalizations, which are made only for the sake of starting the conversation. We urge you to listen to the podcasts (links below) to hear details and specific anecdotes, if you have not done so already.
Last month, WYPR ran a story on The Lines Between Us, about this dilemma. Three mothers share their experience with Baltimore schools and the choices they made: public, charter, or private/independent (download the podcast here). One mother on the show spoke about hearing profanity and observing alarmingly disruptive behavior from students in grades K through 8 at her neighborhood public school, leading her to enroll her daughter in a private parochial school. Though certainly not seen at every city public school, this vignette is all too common, unfortunately. Sadly, quality of education is actually a secondary consideration to safety in some of our more beleaguered schools. Also unfortunately, neighborhood schools are not created equal. Poor neighborhoods tend to have worse schools. Roland Park residents, by contrast, have access to arguably the best public schooling in the city.
Not so long ago, families simply moved out of the city into the suburbs—in droves, in fact—to avail themselves of better school prospects. Also profiled on WYPR (on Midday with Dan Rodricks; download the podcast here), Maryland resident and father Michael J. Petrilli writes about the issue in his book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools:
Many of today’s parents yearn to live in or near the lively, culturally vibrant heart of the city–in diverse, walkable neighborhoods full of music and theater, accessible to museums and stores, awash in ethnic eateries, and radiating a true sense of community. This is a major shift from recent generations that saw middle class families trading urban centers for suburbs with lawns, malls, parks, and good schools. But good schools still matter. And standing in the way of many parents’ urban aspirations is the question: Will the public schools in the city provide a strong education for my kids? To be sure, lots of parents favor sending their sons and daughters to diverse schools with children from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But can such schools successfully meet the educational needs of all those different kids? How do middle class children fare in these environments? Is there enough challenge and stimulation in schools that also struggle to help poor immigrant children reach basic standards? Is there too much focus on test scores? And why is it so hard to find diverse public schools with a progressive, child-centered approach to education?
Recently, a report of Baltimore City schools showed that enrollment in city schools started upticking in 2008, the first increase in 40 years. In the last 5 years, ~3,000 more students have been enrolled in city schools. Now that families are staying in Baltimore and investing in the city (or are stuck with an upside-down mortgage, as may be the case), where are we sending our children to school, and what goes into making that decision? Spoiler alert! Mr. Petrilli and his family moved from Takoma Park to Bethesda, where their neighborhood school happens to be attended by mostly students from the middle and upper eschelons of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Many of The New Century School parents have already faced this decision and opted for TNCS for the long haul. Others move their kids to public schools when the kids are old enough to be eligible or they win a spot in a charter school lottery. Still others are prolonging the decision. Does a stigma exist for those who choose private schools over public? Critics argue that parents should be investing in the city as a whole by sending their kids to the local school and that by not doing so, they are turning their backs on their community. On the other hand, say some, we don’t want to use our kids as social experiments and possibly risk squandering their education years.
But the key here is not that TNCS is private so much as it is independent, free to strike out and forge new educational territory, to revolutionize learning. We need choice. Hands-on, progressive education is hard to do in public schools, where test scores are used to measure a school’s success, too often forcing teachers to “teach to the test.” It’s also very true that TNCS cares deeply about the surrounding community and actively demonstrates this support in a number of ways such as by hunger outreach, investing in sustainable energy, and engaging in city programs.
We close by acknowledging that there is no single right answer here; ultimately, this is a personal decision for each family, taking into account the particular factors relevant to each. So, please, chime in to keep this important dialogue open and productive!