Monday, April 22, 2013

My Rant in Defense of Charter Schools


Seven and half years ago I brought forth a tiny baby with blue eyes and brown hair.  They held him up and that little face looked at me with what could only be described as a "What the heck did I do to deserve this?" look.  He was wet. He was cold. He thought all of this getting born stuff sucked, but he didn't howl like some babies.  He cried soft little cries that broke my heart.

Of course I fed him and wrapped him up and cuddled him and loved him like all good Mamas do. I loved him so much I thought I would burst.  His hair turned blond and he grew and walked and I taught him to "speak" with baby signs. I held him while he slept for almost every single nap he ever took, not only because I was enraptured, but also because that little beastie would wake up as soon as he was set down.  

My boy was sweet and gentle and kind.  All he wanted to do was play with toys and snuggle with Mama. I had a second boy when the big one was two and half years old, and that first child would sing lullabies to his brother when he cried.  He was the Sweetest Boy Ever.

Of course he was also adorable and far handsomer than any other child in the world, and smart and strong, but all mothers think that.  If I said that here you would not believe me.

He was not perfect.  He didn't sleep unless the planets were alligned. He was slightly speech delayed, and when he did speak, no one could understand him,  but he was the embodiment of sweetness.

He got older and the time for kindergarten was approaching.  Because his birthday is in the end of September, we could have sent him when he was turning five or when he was turning six. Daddy wanted to wait a year, but I knew I would not survive another year home with him.  He was sweet, but he was demanding and constantly on the go.  I had wanted to homeschool, but knew I didn't have it in me. 

Because we are divorced, we had two school districts to choose from.  I remembered my own history with schools: constant boredom interrupted by bullying.  I did not enjoy childhood.   Although a friend told me I was pushing my own issues on my child, my biggest concern on choosing a school for my eldest was bullying.  I would do anything to keep my son from going through what I went through.

Lest you think I was over reacting, the larger community in which I live has had five bullying related suicides and a school shooting in the past few years.  At four years old my son was called a "pussy" on the playground by another kid. The world does not reward gentle boys, and I did not want the sweetness beat out of my son.

Growing up, kids tried to beat the sweetness out of my brother.  My mother got creative and enrolled him in the School of the Arts, which I believe to this day saved his life.  He might not have blossomed in the ways my mother intended (the mohawk was probably not part of her vision) but he found a place where he fit and where he could develop into the weirdly cool person nature intended him to be without being beaten down for it.

I heard about a charter school for gifted children with free tuition, small class sizes, individualized curriculum and uniforms. I didn't particularly care if I was raising a boy-genius, but I knew from my own childhood experiences that smart kids were generally gentler, and the teasing I received was generally not from the kids in my advanced classes.

I had no idea if my son was smart enough to attend, but I wanted to try.  He was reading some, but not dramatically more than other children at his school.  He didn't have a particular academic area where he was head and shoulders above other kids his age.  Still, he had this near-photographic memory.  At two and a half years old, he could give you driving directions to his school.  At three he could use "metamorphosis" in a sentence. So proud of that…guess where he learned it? Mama? Nope. Television. Go PBS Kids!  It was like anything he was exposed to he absorbed into his lexicon.  But don't all kids do that?

My ex was against the school, so I paid for the testing myself and we decided to fight it out when and if he got accepted.  $160 might not seem like a lot to you, but I had eschewed a "real" job to be able to stay home with my boys on the days they were at my house.  I worked two part time jobs, both of them chosen for flexibility over income.  $160 was a lot of money to me, but if it would give my boy a chance I would come up with it, and I did.  

The school had a strict admittance requirement: a certain IQ score or above, no ifs, ands, or buts.  They did not care if you had three siblings already enrolled there, if you did not score at or above their marker, you did not get in.  I worried about pushing my kid too hard, and decided if he was within five points of their required number I would not send him. He had to be dramatically smart, not just kind-of smart.

Yes, he got in, and scored so well that Daddy stopped complaining.  I made some calls and ascertained that neither public school district he could attend offered a gifted program until he was in third grade.  We bought little size five uniforms and sent him to the charter school.

He blossomed.  He is appropriately challenged and never bored in school.  He has many friends and gets along with pretty much everyone.  The school is old and small and doesn't have things like daily hot lunch.  It's not shiny and pretty, and they don't have a grass field for gym class-- just a parking lot-- but the boys (mine included) play football in it everyday  at recess, just like little boys everywhere.

Yesterday I filled out a survey about the school, and asked my son what the best thing was about his school.  "Zero bullying," he replied.  I wrote it down, along with what impressed me the most: with over 200 students, not one locker has a lock on it.  Students don't steal from each other.

Now, I know that every child at his school does not have the same experience.  I know of several kids who have been bullied there.  But the prevalent culture does not look up to bullies, and they are exception, not the rule.  Best yet, my sweet, kind boy has a place in the world where he is okay being himself.  

Do charter schools steal good kids, good parents and good money from public schools?  Apparently.  But my child isn't going to suffer while the system is fixed.  As a parent, I will do everything I can to help my child succeed and help my child be okay with who they are.  My child is not a tool for social action.  He is just a kid, and I don't feel bad for going outside of the system to meet his needs.  If that makes me part of the problem of public school, so be it.

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