Kindergarten roundups: The big giant fat decision
An urbanPapa friend and I engaged in a lively philosophical debate via chat yesterday evening while I should have been cooking dinner. At issue, the looming opening of school choice transfer applications for kindergarteners -- this Friday, January 29, at 8 a.m. schools throughout the district will begin accepting them, as well as registration forms for neighborhood kindergarteners. Should he apply for transfer, or just accept the fate his home purchase a decade or more ago had set for him?
I told him I thought Atkinson, his neighborhood choice, was a good one; he wondered about the test scores there, which were not what you'd call a "home run." Atkinson got a grade of "satisfactory" in the District's report cards [pdf link] (you can find other Oregon district report cards, with data on individual schools, here.) He asked what was partly a rhetorical question: "do test scores matter?"
My perspective was this: test scores are a snapshot that tells you how well third, fourth and fifth graders in your district take tests. It has much to do with demographics; students who are minorities typically do worse, as do those for whom English is a second language. Yes, we know this, he said, but white students in Atkinson weren't doing great, either. This, I said, was again a snapshot of demographics; poorer students do worse, on average. This tells you nothing more than "the majority students in my school are not, on average, students with the high level of parent involvement that guarantees better results on standardized tests." It is not a reflection, I said, on teacher competence or whether or not your child will thrive there. It's just a demographic snapshot. Unless your neighborhood school is a war zone (I'm not saying we don't have any of those in Portland, just unless), your risk of a bad educational experience is equally great at a great neighborhood school, a poor neighborhood school, a charter school, or a private school.Sidebar: Kindergarten roundups [pdf link] actually started last week: you've missed the dates for Arleta and Ainsworth -- sorry! Atkinson was this morning at 9:30 a.m., but has another at 6 p.m. Feb 4. Astor is tonight at 6:30 p.m. Forest Park and Rieke are tomorrow at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively. The rest start next week. If you decide you love a school other than your neighborhood school, you must list it as first choice to have a chance in the lottery. Also: if there is choice between half-day and full-day kindergarten in your school, you will want to turn your application in right at 8 a.m. if you want the full-day option; they fill up fast. We have a growing resource in our schools forum, which provides at least a little information and a chance to connect with parents for each school in the PPS, many private schools, and those from some surrounding suburbs and towns. Last year, we talked about kindergarten roundups and school choice, although most of the comments there do pertain strictly to 2009.
He countered, saying, "there is no question that educational reputation affects people's lives. I can't say it affects whether they are happy, but it does affect what kind of jobs they get. For example, top competitive positions at corps and in government are filled predominantly by people from about 5 or 10 universities. Ivy League plus a few others. Shouldn't I give him that opportunity if it's there for me?" He acknowledged that stating this was a departure for him; he'd just as soon give a screed on how owning land should be illegal.
Yes, I said, but there are so many unknowns for a kindergartener, and the test results of kids who are now in fourth grade -- who won't interact with your son at all -- are hardly likely to influence this much.
Look at Everett, who was out of his neighborhood school kindergarten by mid-October and has spent the past two years at Pioneer School, a haven for kids whose IEPs say the infrastructure in all the rest of the district's schools just can't accommodate them. He'll transition to a neighborhood school that I don't pick, soon, and as I've completely lost control of my choice over his educational environment, I've worked instead to give him all those "educational" opportunities over which I do have power: namely, books and a rich immersion in the outdoors. Science by actual experience. Reading because books are all around him. (I'm not saying I get this right all the time; he still resists my attempts to get him holed up with a book to while away the afternoon. But I'm working on it.)
Absolutely, I said, if you go to the "best" preparatory kindergarten in Manhattan you have a far better chance at getting a job as head of a hedge fund one day...if we still have hedge funds then... but I'm not at all sure that's what I want for my kids. What I know is that I want them to have an uncomplicated elementary education that doesn't create extraneous anxiety in me. I don't want to send my kids to a charter school, because I don't want to spend much of my time feeling pressure to help raise money for the school, to perhaps become involved in a parent group with standards of behavior and wealth and attire (or whatever) that I, we, either can't or don't care to meet. At Everett's school? I once was one of only three parents who showed up to an open house. Those are standards to which I can quite comfortably live up.
I related the tale of another parent of a kindergartener I know, who had a tough time with the administration at a really lovely school, reacting to a child's sensitivities in a way I felt was, well, insensitive. The school has great test scores; an involved parent base; an admirable set of programs. But it was (at least for a while there) a bad fit.
Here's the thing: the school lottery is a game of enormous chance, and the cards are stacked so that the kids who are in the wealthier neighborhoods end up far better off than the rest of them. There are very few transfer slots, and very many applicants. It is an inequitable system. The kids at charter schools have the decided benefit of parents whose participation is almost guaranteed to be better than those at neighborhood schools; you're committing a lot to be a charter school parent. Private schools are kind of a given: yes, you'll give your kid a better chance at getting into an Ivy League school. I don't think, however, this necessarily the priority of all possible goals for a parent.
Friends have asked about kindergarten choice in the backdrop of a child with special needs. I have had, up until last week when Truman officially "graduated" from his special ed eligibility (go Truman!), three little boys with IEPs or IFSP (the preschool version of an IEP). If you don't already have an IFSP for your preschooler, and suspect he or she will need one, you'll want to immediately call MESD (or the appropriate county's Educational Service District) and get your child's assessment begun; a transition team will help you negotiate the kindergarten upheaval. I highly suggest that you request the opportunity to select a kindergarten teacher. I don't even know your rights, here (I suspect you have a lot more than they'll say on a web site) but I do know that the relationship you and your child have with the kindergarten teacher can have a huge impact on your child's success. Go with your gut here. You can't get it if you don't ask for it, right?
I've decided to go with my neighborhood school, Grout, for Truman, despite my many reservations (namely, I'm not entirely comfortable with the way the administration handled Everett and his difficulties). I'd hoped that all three of my children could become immersed in the same neighborhood school. It's not going to work out quite like that -- clearly -- but I'm hoping that each neighborhood parent like me who gets involved and engages deeply in the diversity of this place where they live, whatever sort of diversity it is, will make a positive impact on the school's future. Every place can only start where it is and, if we work hard (or even if we work AT ALL), improve.