In my last article asking whether we should conceal our wealth, I mentioned the high poverty school that our children attend. We had a choice of many different elementary schools, and decided to go with the objectively worst school available based on traditional measures like test scores, percent of students in poverty, percent of students with limited English proficiency, and other demographics that most would say indicate a failing school. What persuaded us to choose this “failing school” was the direction it was headed and the fact that it was in our neighborhood only a few blocks away.
Before I dive into our rationale, I’ll preface this article with a caveat. I think you should send kids to objectively good schools if that is the best choice overall. The decision of which school to send your kids to is complex. Tuition costs (public or private), travel time and expense, how your children learn, and the kind of school environment you want for them all play a part in the question of “what is the best school?”.
What’s the point of school, anyway?
Let’s start out by putting school in the context of life as a whole. Life works better with education. Schools are a great place to get an education, but not the only place. They have no monopoly on learning.
I view traditional schooling as nothing more than one part of a proper education. So much learning happens outside of the classroom. If it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong with you or your kid. Children should be observing the world around them, asking questions about it, and satiating their curiosity of how the world works one wikipedia article or youtube video at a time.
For most of my life, I thought school (and eventually college) was in charge of providing an education. Then one day as I sat in the back of my child’s first grade classroom patiently waiting my turn for our quarterly parent-teacher meeting, I overheard something that completely changed my understanding of the role of school.
The parent in front of me was discussing their child’s progress in the class with the teacher. After mentioning that her child wasn’t challenged enough with the class, the parent asked the teacher whether it was okay to give her own child homework assignments in addition to what the teacher gave. To restate what just happened, a parent asked a teacher for permission to do something that the parent could do any time she wanted to. The teacher appeared confused and then realized that the parent was deferring to the teacher’s authority as an educator. The parent didn’t want to encroach on the teacher’s authority.
There was no reason to ask the teacher if it was okay. The parent can, and should, raise her child in the best way possible.
That’s when it struck me – schools are there to provide instruction on whatever happens to be in the curriculum. But that’s the beginning, not the end of a child’s education. Learning can happen any time of the day, even on weekends or during the summer! Kids learn from their peers, from television and internet videos, camp instructors, extracurricular activities, books they read, talking with adults, and empirical observations of the world around them. The learning shouldn’t stop and the incessant “but why?” should be encouraged, not frowned upon.
If school is just one part of a well-rounded education, then the quality of the school can only affect the fraction of that child’s education obtained at school. What kids are encouraged to do outside of school is up to the parent.
That’s my take on the role of school in the education of our children. While the choice of school is important, it’s not the sole determinant of the overall education our children will receive.
Our Crappy School
Everyone wants what is best for their children. We felt the same way when we started researching elementary schools for our kids as they approached kindergarten age. The neighborhood elementary school was pretty good when we first moved into our house 11 years ago. In the intervening six years before our daughter was ready for kindergarten, the school took a steep slide down hill. I don’t know the full story behind what caused the slide, but we found out our neighborhood school was bad. Very bad. Only one out of 146 elementary schools in our district were worse than our school.
From looking at the historical test scores and demographics during the death spiral, it looked like a classic case of “white flight” at a school level. What was a racially and socioeconomically balanced school turned into a high poverty, highly racially concentrated, low performing school in a short period of time.
After we dug deep into the test statistics and controlled for variables like race, education of parents, economic status, and English proficiency, it appeared that kids like our kids tended to have passing test scores just like all the other similar kids in the whole county (90-95% passing scores). Even though we were at the 145th worst school out of 146 elementary schools, kids with “good” socioeconomic backgrounds managed to succeed. This fact led me to not rule out our convenient neighborhood elementary school.
The school itself isn’t really that bad. We like it. It’s in the neighborhood, our kids can walk to it, and they don’t want to switch schools. Ignoring the below average test scores you would expect from a high poverty school, it’s a great place by many measures. Looking at the latest data available and comparing our school to the average school in our reasonably good school district, our school is slightly safer, offers twice as many books per pupil, and three times as many “digital learning devices” per pupil. Class sizes are 25% smaller than the average district school (17 kids per class on average). Factor in all the supplemental teachers providing extra help for those that need it, and there are only ten kids per licensed teacher. Getting individual instruction or learning in small groups of a few students isn’t a rarity in other words. For example, there is a half-time dedicated “academically and intellectually gifted” teacher to tend to the needs of the thirteen AIG identified kids at the school (one of which is my daughter).
Why is a high poverty school so well endowed? It comes from being one of the poorest schools in a relatively wealthy school district. They back the money truck up to the loading dock and stock the school with extra teachers, supplemental training, and tons of technology. Is it successful? That’s hard to say. I know it would be a lot worse without the extra resources, but without digging deep into the data and looking at comparable schools without the extra resources, I can’t really say what $1 of extra spending brings in terms of better performance.
Four years after starting at this school, we are glad we chose the neighborhood school. A new principal and almost all new staff have turned the school from the worst into a competitive school that turns away applicants. Neighborhood kids are starting to return to school and newly enrolled kindergartners are choosing our school. Just recently, the school was recognized as the top STEM elementary school in the state.
Our third and fourth graders are doing well above average. There are some screw offs in their classes but for the most part it is a mix of students that want to learn and do well and they seem nice enough.
Benefits to being very close to the elementary school include more access to teachers and principals, easier volunteering opportunities, and huge built in social network in the neighborhood of the kids that go to our school. We live near a few teachers and know them a little more than just seeing them quarterly in parent teacher conferences. Other kids walk to school and we have gotten to know many of the families.
I am glad we didn’t abandon this school and choose one very distant from our house. We wouldn’t really be a part of the social fabric if we had to drive 20 minutes to volunteer or go to PTA meetings. Our kids would be worn out from hour long bus rides instead of leisurely ten minute walks or bike rides to school.
We also enjoy the fact that our kids don’t get the social pressure to have all kinds of fancy things that the rich kids have at more well to do schools. There isn’t much keeping up with the Joneses.
My advice would be to find a good enough school that is the best choice overall for your family. Spending an extra few hundred thousand on a nicer house in a nicer area just to get access to better schools when the alternatives are perfectly acceptable doesn’t make sense to me.
Why take a risk on a crappy school?
Were we really willing to experiment with our kids? The downside didn’t seem that bad and the potential upside seemed very positive. We decided to go into the crappy school with an open mind with a willingness to evaluate it as a whole and not focus only on the negative aspects. We knew that it wasn’t a permanent decision, since we could bail out and change schools after a year if we wanted to. In the meantime, our kids could meet more local kids in the neighborhood and we could walk to the school.
Some of the perceived negatives are actually positives. Lots of the kids at the school don’t come from the same socioeconomic background as our own kids. Around half of the school comes from homes where English isn’t the first language spoken at home. It’s a mix of Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, and other languages beyond my recognition.
While still working, I had dreams of taking off on a trip around the world for a year or two and finding a school overseas where our kids could get cultural and language immersion. My friend Jed at Bucking the Trend did exactly this when he packed up the family and went to Granada, Spain (here is his kids’ classroom experience in Spain). Our kids could see first hand how other societies live and maybe pick up some of the language.
Suddenly it hit me – our school just a short walk up the street from us WAS that overseas school. Right here in our own neighborhood. We could enjoy all of the comforts of home plus have this little hidden nugget of cultural treasure right here underneath our noses.
We knew going into this school that the following was true:
- Immigrants don’t bite
- Lower income people don’t bite
- Racial minorities don’t bite
- People who don’t speak English very well don’t bite
We are comfortable enough around people who are different from us that the diversity didn’t bother us or scare us away from this little gem of a school. We are in our fifth year at the school and it keeps getting better.
What was your school like growing up? Are we making a mistake choosing this school?
// cover photo credit to Paradox 56 @ flickr
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