This special woman is one of the reasons I love our public school. Blessed with a mighty gift of teaching, she not only managed to launch my first grader into reading chapter books, she also shared her love of Langston Hughes poetry, knowledge of India and other parts of the world, passion for learning, and joy in reading aloud great pieces of writing. When I hear my daughter reading the classics aloud to her stuffed hippo, I know it all started with her first grade class memorizing MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. And this gifted teacher did all this while working individually every day with the children who were struggling to learn to read at all. There are some real gems in public schools, and this woman is one of them.
Before I rhapsodize further about my deep love for public school, though, I want to state clearly what my aim in writing is not. And for whom I am not writing. This is not a polemic against private schools, charter schools, or homeschooling. I am not going to weigh the relative merits of differing ways to educate children. I have no interest in taking aim at other methods of schooling or at the people who choose them. I have close friends who send their kids to private school and equally close friends who homeschool; I deeply respect them and trust the care with which they make choices for their kids. I am not writing to persuade those who feel called and passionate about homeschooling their kids. And I am not writing to cast suspicion on those who have chosen private schooling for their children.
So, to whom am I writing? I am writing to those who think they may be interested in sending their kids to public school but are hesitant because of things they have heard. I am addressing those who are open to public school but are nervous because it’s foreign territory as they themselves did not attend them as kids. This post is also for those who like the idea of public school but wonder if their child can get a quality education there. I am writing to bless and encourage parents who have no choice but to send their kids to public school for financial reasons or because their child is disabled and s/he requires the range of services only offered in public schools. And, finally, I am writing to those who might consider sending their kids to public school but feel like the message in their circles has been that serious Christians only send their kids to Christian schools or homeschool them.
One more caveat, if you’ll allow me. I can write only from my own experience. My experience is occurring in an above average public school with many involved parents and a motivated community. I imagine, though, that the things I am about to say may be true of a large percentage of public schools in our country.
I love our public school because I love people, and our school offers a large number of them to meet and interact with. There are 350 kids and accompanying families in our school–the harvest is ripe for the friend-making! And then there are at least 25 staff. If more is merrier (and it usually is to me), then public schools are very merry places. There is a palpable energy in the building due in part to the number of people and the diversity of activities going on. This energy is enjoyable and life-giving to me and our family.
Not only are there a lot of people in any given public school, there is a diverse array of them in most. In many public schools, you can truly find the fabled “melting pot.” In ours, not only are there many whites like us, but also African Americans, Asian Americans, Asians, Latinos, and bi-racial children. Conversations about culture happen regularly with my kids. Mom, why is that lady wearing a scarf around her head? Mom, you know what, Kevin doesn’t participate in Halloween because of his religion. Hey, Mom, Monesha says she got her ears pierced when she was a baby! And not only is the student population diverse at our school, so is our school staff. Our faculty is made up of at least four different ethnicities. In addition to the white, Christian teacher two of my kids have for kindergarten, we have had African American, Jewish, French Canadian, and bi-racial American women as teachers. I cherish this opportunity for my kids to learn from many types of people.
At our school, in addition to typically developing children like mine, there are dozens of children with disabilities. Our particular school serves a large number of children with cognitive disabilities. There is also an economically diverse group of families who form our school community. In addition to the families who make sturdy incomes in engineering and academia, there are families who live in subsidized housing. There are many parents with PhDs and a few without high school diplomas.
I doubt there is a better place than the public school to see who actually makes up America today. This is where the 99% are. Not only do I enjoy seeing a slice of America myself every day, I love having my kids experience it. We tried to teach our kids about ethnicity, disability, and poverty from toddlerhood, but I’m not sure they began to understand until they got to kindergarten when they started interacting every day with children of different races, differing abilities, and varying incomes. We have had a dozen conversations about poverty as my kids have been in class with children who cannot afford to bring a snack to school every day and who cannot easily go on playdates because their families do not own a car. My kids regularly ask me to explain disability as we see the mom in the wheelchair without legs, and the boy in the classroom across the hall with muscle spasms and the girl with obvious cognitive impairment. These conversations continue to challenge me to get my own mind around disability and how to explain it in a way that is accurate, respectful to the person being described, informative for my child, and theologically faithful. Due to my own history, I am far more experienced in thinking about ethnicity and how to talk about it. Conversations about special needs provide a learning curve for all of us. One that I am grateful to be forced to tackle.
My kids attend our neighborhood school and we can walk there. In addition to the obvious benefit of not paying for gas and not spending loads of time in the car, there are subtler perks to attending a school in your neighborhood that relate to communal life. From neighborhoods surrounding our school, parents and kids walk, ride bikes, scooter (and drive) to school each day. This makes it easy to get to know your neighbors and to interact with them regularly. And as you see the same families day after day and month after month at drop-off and pick-up, there is little chance of anonymity or disengagement as a parent. My younger daughters arrived at kindergarten already knowing many other kids because they had met the younger siblings of their sister’s friends. Similarly, I have met moms who in addition to having kids my daughter’s age also have older kids; these women have been very helpful when I needed to understand something about the school or a particular teacher or just needed to get the long view. By virtue of being embedded in a particular neighborhood, our school is anchored in a large network of longstanding relationships. Both the individual families and the school itself are blessed by this vibrant social community.
In a large, complex organism like a public school there are many different ways to contribute. Way beyond the traditional PTO coordinator roles, there is a job for everyone. I enjoy doing clerical tasks for teachers while interacting with my kids’ classmates. I also serve the school unofficially and behind the scenes by leading a monthly prayer meeting. One of our friends who is a high school biology teacher visits her kids’ elementary classes every week to teach a science lesson. For those who like physical labor and the outdoors, we have an annual “Wood Chip Day” on which students and parent volunteers spread new wood chips on the paths of the wooded park that adjoins our school property. Those with a flair for decorating and hospitality take charge of furnishing the teachers’ break room. The organizing wizards can coordinate the annual science fair, the ice cream social, or the Science Olympiad teams. Those with handyman skills build new shelves for classrooms. All this is to say that many hands make light work. There are enough people to contribute to the flourishing of the school that I am not required to volunteer in a way that does not suit me. PTO meetings and the requisite coordinating fill me with dread, so I leave those roles to those who are gifted for them and instead I lead people in praying regularly for the school. And for those whose jobs or life circumstances do not give space for serving the school, they are free to not sign up because there are enough other parents who can chip in. It takes a village to run a school. And a public school’s size means that there is often a village-worth of people to do it.
Sending your kids to public school is the quickest route to caring about your community. As I have cast my lot (in the form of my kids) with the public schools of my town, I have found that I am particularly invested in their health. There is no surer way to start caring about local elections, financial levies, state-wide policies, and district budgeting. I have always aspired to be a concerned and active citizen, but I rarely spent the time and energy to become one until my own children’s welfare was at stake.
Although much of what I have described is about what I enjoy and appreciate about our public school, I hope you can see the ways my children also benefit from this unique environment. Also inherent in what I describe is our family’s particular temperament, priorities, and sense of fun. I think it is wise to know yourself well and what makes your particular family tick when picking a school. These things may even add up to a call.
© Laura Goetsch and goetschblog, 2014.