Long-time blog readers will recall the saga of finding an appropriate elementary school in Pasadena, California. After, quite literally, years of school tours, speaking with other parents, and applying for schools and lotteries we choose a small, private, secular elementary school, Friends Western School (FWS), near our home that was organized as a parent cooperative. As a cooperative the school is a non-profit corporation, chartered by the parents, run by a parent board of directors, and all functions other than teaching are done by the parents (the teachers are paid, credentialed teachers).
Well, after all that we still completely and utterly screwed up the decision on where to send Thomas to school. The wheels didn’t just come off of the [school] bus, the damned bus exploded and went up in flames.
Long story, short:
Two weeks before the start of the current (2012-2013) school year, we were forced out of FWS and Thomas is now repeating kindergarten at another local private school.
Long story, long:
Thomas enjoyed his time at FWS last year and was excited to go to school every day. He was happy there and his happiness and comfort with a school had been paramount among my concerns. During our time at FWS we saw a number of things which gave us some concern. We expected this – it was a relatively new school (in its second year as a parent cooperative) and we knew that there would be growing pains as well as a lot of time required by all the parents to make it work. The concerns started relatively small, the school day NEVER started on time; an issue we raised that the school leadership was dismissive of. Fine, we figured we would bring it up again at a later time. Then we participated in the school’s annual fundraiser; a huge amount of work that raised very little money – most of it from the parents themselves. We suggested a couple of ideas for improving the net payoff of the fundraiser. They were dismissed. Fine. Two families abruptly left the school. When I asked for an explanation we were told that the details were confidential. I contacted the family involved and they had a very different story to tell. We began to worry a bit. We were told by another parent that we were nominated to be elected to the school board, yet the person in charge of nominations never informed us. Odd, but with three kids we didn’t have time to serve on the board anyway. Three more families told us that they were leaving the school. We wondered if the school would be able to stay afloat. Over the summer our concerns grew as we saw the school struggle with signing a lease for the school campus. We decided that we were still committed to FWS for the 2012-2013 school year, but started, sadly, to discuss if we would need another option for the following (2013 – 2014) school year.
Then, two weeks before school started Jeff came home from a school work day and told me that he had heard, in casual conversation with a teacher, that every other Friday would be an early dismissal so that the teachers could have paid planning time; there was also some plan to have parent-supervised “free-play” so that other parents who could not pick up their children at the early time would have free childcare. I was puttering around the internet when Jeff said this and I closed my laptop and said, “What the hell?” I tried to make sense of it; our parent cooperative school had made a major decision about the school day – shaving 6% of the instructional time off of the year without consulting or even informing all the parents. That couldn’t be right. We were working parents with three other young children. Our lives are scheduled down to 15 minute increments. A change such of this would wreak havoc with our carefully planned schedule. There was no way I was comfortable with Thomas spending three hours in “free” play watched by some unspecified group of parents. I worried he wasn’t getting enough academics as it was – I certainly didn’t want him to get less! I got very angry but hoped that somehow this was all a misunderstanding. I trusted this school to take good care of my child. I paid this school a lot of money to do so. At the very least I had a right to know who was supervising my child and when and I had a right to know that information as soon as it was available.
I put myself in the shoes of the other parents; many of whom did not yet know about this information. I felt strongly that we all had a right to know and so I posted for all parents to see on our school’s online forum the gist of what I knew, along with the statement that I was very upset over how this issue was handled. I expected a discussion of the decision would follow. What I didn’t expect was to be told to stop talking. But that’s exactly what happened. I was told not to post about this issue in full view of the entire school. That I should only be discussing this issue – any issue- with the board. That other parents did not have the right to know. We were told specifically that the board was concerned about how this “made the school look to new parents” and that we were “poisoning the waters” of the cooperative.
Well you can imagine how well I took that.
We spoke both via phone and in person with members of the board and our conversations raised more questions. It is still not clear to us who made the decision (we know that it was not all the members of the current board) and when the decision was planned to be communicated to the parents. I received patronizing and classist statements about how “many families want to and are able to pick up their child early” and that “for you working parents” free “childcare” (the supervised free play) was going to be arranged. I felt as if I was being spoken to as benveloent dictator speaks to a mere peon. I asked what was to stop them from making unilateral decisions in the future. I was told that I should trust them and that they would “always have our best interests at heart”. There was no choice but to leave the school. I could not trust them to take care of my son.
We consider what was done to be a huge breech of trust and a breech of contract. Just as we scrupulously honored our contract to attend membership meetings, volunteer at the school, and pay tuition we expected that the school should honor its obligation to provide our child with the instructional time, from credentialed teachers, that was agreed upon when we joined the school. That is clearly not the case. In fact, when we raised this issue, we were told by the board that their was no such guarantee. Quoting directly from an email we received from the FWS board: “The tuition contract does not state that children will receive instruction from a credentialed teacher from 8:30-3 Monday through Friday.” I laughed at the absurdity of that email. No private school contract I have ever read says such a thing – but it is implied. I can only imagine that if I signed a contract to purchase a house, did a walk through, and then when I actually got the keys to the house found that 6% of the house had been removed, that might be a breech of contract. It is no different with a school contract.
In the midst of all of this I decided to organize Thomas’ schoolwork from kindergarten. I like to save examples of his work and artwork and so I laid everything out chronologically before putting it in scrapbook. When I did so it shocked me to see that Thomas’ writing had not improved whatsoever during his five months at FWS. Over this summer we also noticed that Thomas’ math skills had regressed when we saw him counting on his fingers. I asked him where he learned to count that way and he replied “school”. I was saddened to see my son who could do addition, subtraction, and even simple multiplication and division in his head revert to preforming simple addition and subtraction with his fingers. There was enough to do at FWS that Thomas wasn’t bored so we never realized the extent to witch the academics were lacking. But it is now clear that he was never challenged there.
Other than food allergies and potentially devastating prenatal diagnoses, this incident has been the single most stressful incident of parenting yet. We were very, very lucky to find a last minute placement for Thomas in a fantastic local private school (of course more expensive). I called about public school but we did not make it to the top of the waitlist for the local public charter school and our neighborhood public school is absolutely abysmal – there is no way in hell I would send my child there. Given our new school’s very rigorous academic standards and September 1st cutoff date for kindergarten (meaning that Thomas would have been the youngest 1st grader by over 2 months) we decided to consider our time at FWS to be pre-K and have Thomas spend this year in kindergarten. A week and a half into the new school year Thomas is thriving and seems well-suited to his role as one of the older, more mature kindergarteners. The academic damage will be undone. But I can’t help but still feel like a failure. I did everything I possibly could to find a good school for my son and yet it still wasn’t enough. As someone who moved around a lot as child it breaks my heart to know that Thomas will probably attend at least three elementary schools now (we will probably not be able to afford three kids in private school and will eventually move to another, better school district). I had wanted so badly to give him a stable school experience. I never, ever thought that sending my son to kindergarten would be such an ordeal. We will move beyond this and we already feel that the new school is much better place than FWS was. But we will be dealing the consequences for some time to come. It will take months for Thomas to make new friends. We had to buy a second car because the new school is too far away to bike. I have had to increase my hours at work. Sometimes being a grown-up is damned hard.