Welcome to Education Alternative's Series on Homeschooling!
We publish Saturday mornings between 8am and 12noon EST
We follow the kos rule of Participating in someone else's diary
"Mom, do you think that NEXT year we might do something in science besides plant seeds, because we've done that every year since preschool?"
These are the words of our then 4th grader. And they went right to my heart. Both the hope and the dissatisfaction that they conveyed wrenched my guts. This is a child who gets up every single day excited about what he can learn that day. He has been that way since he was a toddler and is still that way today, at 15. It became clear to us that if we didn't find someplace or somebody that would challenge him, and would feed this constant love of learning, that we would lose him, he would become bored, disruptive, and withdrawn.
This diary is an edit and rewrite of a diary I published in 2010 in response to a heated conversation about homeschooling that happened in a diary about textbook selection in Texas. The story of our decision to homeschool, and the questions it raises, are still relevant today, as has been evidenced on Dkos lately where many people have questioned the decision by some liberals to take their kids out of public school and homeschool them. Many responses have basically trashed liberal homeschoolers for not staying in the system and working from within for change. I assure you, I did that without success. I also assure you that the decision to leave the schools was not an easy one. It's one I continually struggle with personally, and this is what I'd like to discuss today. Follow me over the squiggly for more...
First, a little history. I am a product of public schools, and my father served on the school board in our town from the year I entered kindergarten until he handed me my diploma. I fully support the Idea of a free and fabulous education for all. I grew up in Southern California in the 60s and 70s, and I feel I got what amounted to a pretty fair public education for that time period. The schools I attended were mostly white, mostly middle class, and although there was some Latino population, I don't think it amounted to a large percentage.
So when I had kids, as you can imagine, I never had any question that I would send them to public school. Some unusual things happened along the way...
Before we had kids, my husband and I had custody of a niece and nephew for about 2 1/2 years. They were 4 and 8 when they came to live with us, from my meth addicted brother, and they had been living in squalid and neglected conditions for most of their lives. If you've had a situation like this in your family, you know it's always hard.
We got to "practice", so to speak, with public schools before our own kids got there. This was in Northern California, on the Oakland border, in a fairly middle class but racially diverse school. It was considered a good school in a good district. My niece had some challenges, as you can imagine, and I was shocked to find that I could not get any help for her. It turned out that, since she was at about the 30th percentile in performance, she wasn't low enough to merit intervention. Hmmm. This was very frustrating and all I could think was, aren't we supposed to take them all and move them forward? She had come from a very poor, very rural district in SoCal. I quickly realized that she could read at a very high level, but with little or no comprehension. Due to her background, she was a consummate pleaser and was very able to fake her way through the early grades. Things didn't get tough until about 5th grade, when she couldn't use her survival skills to fake her way through anymore. I was promptly told by her teacher that she was just lazy. Despite my continued explanations of her background, my getting myself on a first name basis with the principal, and volunteering in the school, I advocated for her for 2 years and was finally told by the principal that I needed to take her to a doctor and have her diagnosed with ADD, and then they could assign more resources to her. But she very obviously did not have ADD. She had some other learning disabilities, it was clear to me as a layperson, but as I wasn't an educator, or a parent, I had trouble negotiating the system (and frankly, we were dealing with an overwhelming number of other issues with these kids and their parents), and I was unwilling to get a diagnosis for her that would follow her and was clearly incorrect.
I did, however, see a lot of good in this school. Many good teachers, many parent volunteers (key IMO to a school's success), a caring community. I wrote the problems off as unique to our situation, and as the kids went back to live with a parent shortly after that, I let it go. I learned many things that I figured would help me when my own kids got to public school. My oldest was born in 1996, about the time that these kids went back to live with their mom.
My experiences with these children did change many, many of my preconceived notions of parenting, and were definitely the key reason why I chose to stay home with my kids rather than work and put them in day care. My husband and I adjusted our lifestyle; as an engineer, he makes a good living, and we quickly realized that we would have to leave California. There was no way we could see how, on one income, to live in a "good" school district, have an affordable house, and not have a killer commute. Two out of three was all we could achieve in the Bay Area.
So off we went to the Midwest, where we moved into a very upper middle class school district in Western Michigan. A 98% of graduates college bound sort of district. Expectations were high, there were projects and auctions to raise money, and teachers were complaining about too many volunteers and that they could not afford to live in the district they taught in. Achievement naturally followed. This had its problems too. I could see that the kids were going to get a good education, but what would the price be in terms of their social development? Not to mention the religious pressure. It's Bush-Rush loving country, the home town of Gerald Ford. And, to top it off, one of my son's classmates had a Mom who was a principal in an urban district, just a few miles away, with 100% minority and 98% free and reduced price lunch. I had a friend who taught in a rural district and described the needs of those kids. I began to understand that we were in the wrong place. This was early, kindergarten, first grade years. While I wanted my kids to have this great education, I did not want them to grow up to think the whole world was white and rich. Parenting is a learn as you go endeavor, and I have to admit that living in West Michigan in the Bush years also defined my politics and beliefs in much sharper terms than I ever had to consider in California. As I like to say to people, we didn't like the climate in West Michigan, and I'm not talking about the weather!
Next up, my husband was offered an assignment to Seattle. That was more like it. Back to the West Coast, lowest religious observance in the county, diversity, progressives. Yes, that would be great. We chose a school and a district in Suburban Seattle, because of a magnet program that was similar to a program we'd been in in Michigan. It's in a high ranked district, but a school with lower rankings, with much economic and racial diversity. Perfect, I thought. I jumped in with both feet. Volunteering, joining the PTA board, I was even offered a part time job at the school. And within months, I was horrified.
The expectations for these kids were so much lower than what we saw in Michigan, it was laughable. I sat in meetings with teachers who complained about not having time to teach science or social studies because they had to spend so much time on reading. This is because of testing and because the kids were (and still are) so disadvantaged that they have to catch them up. This is a school with about 40% minority and 50% free lunch, so not at the bottom, but with a lot of kids in a lot of bad situations. It was supposed to be good for my kids to be there, we were supposed to be floating the boats, right? We are progressive. But my kids were bored to tears. They weren't learning because they already knew the material. I was there, volunteering and working part time and my own kids were falling through the cracks. There was no one seeing them, challenging them, teaching them.
My oldest was in this school for two years and in 4th grade when, in a parent-teacher conference, the teacher told me that his reading level was 4th grade. Excuse me, I said, but before we came here 2 years ago, he was tested at 5th grade (when he was in 2nd grade) and he just finished reading the first Lord of the Rings at home. And the 3rd grade teacher told me he aced the 6th grade test and she didn't have a higher test to give him. So either they were wrong or you are wrong. Sheepishly she said, well, I haven't really had the opportunity to test him independently because I have all these other kids who aren't at grade level, so, since I knew he was ok, I just marked him down as grade level. Would you like me to have the reading specialist test him?
I have story after story after story like this. I was working directly for the principal. I discussed these things with her and she blew it all off. I talked to the teachers each year about some difficulties in my son's writing, and then was told by the reading specialist who tested him that, while he was reading at about 10th grade level, she had concerns about his writing. Really, I said, does anybody around here keep a file or information from year to year because this has been a concern of mine since the day he came here. No, I was told, the teachers don't have access to the previous year's information. How can a child be here for 2 years and no one knows what his strengths and weaknesses are? No one has an answer. It wasn't just our oldest having struggles, but his situation was the most pressing.
At this point, we began to search for options. We looked at private schools, other magnet type programs, etc. In discussing options, the oldest had asked to homeschool. He explained it as wanting more time to learn what he wanted to learn, to be able to ask as many questions as he wanted in a day and get either answers or help to find the answers, and not to spend any more of his time with a bunch of kids who didn't want to be there and didn't care about learning. Wow, when at 10, he articulated it like that, how could we ignore him?
In the course of this, I was struggling with the concept of homeschooling. I had several friends who had done it, one short term and one whose kids had never been to school. With my family background, I had this notion that to take him out of school I had to take all three kids out (at this point, he was 4th grade, my daughter was 3rd grade and my youngest was in kindergarten), and basically turn my back on the system. My younger kids were doing ok in that school. I knew that it wasn't the best situation, but they wouldn't be hurt by staying there while we figured things out, and I was terrified that to homeschool I would need to pull them all three out, and then what, how could I help the one who really needed it, and was asking for it? Then, one day, I went to the mailbox, and my favorite mom-magazine was there (Brain Child, which is out of publication), and on the cover was a story about short term homeschooling. I started reading it while walking back to the house, and was crying before I could open the door. This article described our situation almost to a tee, and suggested that it was ok to take one child out of school and focus on meeting their needs, while leaving siblings where their needs were being met. In an instant, I knew we'd found our answer, at least for the immediate situation, and in a sense for the long term too. I had always considered my kid's needs sort of in bulk, and I realized that I needed to look at them independently and that they may not all be served by the same choice.
The following fall, my younger kids went back to school and the oldest stayed home. Within 3 months, our daughter asked to come home, for completely different, but very valid, reasons. Our youngest declared he would finish first grade and then he wanted to homeschool. We transitioned over that year, which was 5 years ago, and have never looked back. It started as a short term, let's figure out how to meet needs thing, and has continued because everyone's much happier and learning more, and while we look at each one's needs each year, homeschooling has been the best choice for each of them and for our family. (that's a whole 'nother diary!)
But I still HATE that we aren't there. I hate that the system couldn't do what I thought it could, and what I still think it has a responsibility to do. I love our life, but I struggle with the idea that we are not there, helping to make it better for all those other kids. I hate too, the sacrifices we have to make to live this life. And yet, do I let mine fall through the cracks for that?
The issue I am trying to define is the struggle of urban and suburban progressives. I think this is one of the challenges of our values. How do we assure our own kids receive a good education, while adhering to our values?
White (and really any middle class,regardless of ethnicity) flight is real, but is it reasonable? How can schools ever be equitable for minority and disadvantaged kids? How much should I be expected to sacrifice my own child's education on the altar of social justice? I have dealt with tremendous guilt in pulling out of the public system. I want my kids to be there, but I don't see how they can be there and get the education that they need to get into college and to prosper in an ever more competitive world.
I feel as if we did everything right, and yet the system didn't work for us. I was there and advocating for my kids, and they still didn't get the education or attention that they needed. What about all those kids who don't have an advocate? They deserve to have me (or someone?) there advocating for them if they don't have someone on their own, but what price would my own kids pay for that? When is it ok to be selfish and when should we be selfless? What do I owe my own kids if I do choose to put them into this situation?
What is a progressive to do?