It’s that time of year again. Time to buy new pens and pencils, time to wake up early, and time to get that brain back in gear. It’s time to start school.
For me, as a mom, this year’s start of school meant picking up a six-pack of new socks for one of my sons. Honestly, that was the extent of my back-to-school preparations. How things have changed now that I have two in college and one already out. It seems like just yesterday I was busy worrying about my boys as they embarked on new adventures. Oh wait, that was yesterday. But new clothes and books and backpacks aside, it’s also that time of year for us parents to place trust in our children’s schools to provide them with an excellent education.
Nearly twenty-five years ago my husband and I became parents for the first time. It’s hard to remember exactly what that day felt like after all these years, but the words exhilarating, overwhelming and one-of-the-four-happiest-days-of-my-life come to mind. It was a day I’d been dreaming of and longing for and it was truly heaven. But after the Sheer Bliss wore off and the all-encompassing Fatigue and Worry set in, it was time to start pondering our new baby’s life. What would he do? Where would he go? Who would he be? And more importantly, what on God’s green earth were we supposed to do to get him there?
One of the biggest decisions we make as parents involves our children’s education, and these days there are many, many options. Deciding between public school and private is probably the first and easiest choice most people make. But for my husband and me, it was complicated. You see growing up I spent most of my years educated in private school and he spent all of his years educated in public. And while we had very different school backgrounds, both were excellent. We each look back on high school as a great experience that neither of us would change. So you can imagine our dilemma. Should we head down that public school road my husband had traveled or that private school road of mine? And so the discussion began, and continued, and stretched on and on and on. Round and round we went. Finally, after much debate, we decided to compromise. We would start our boys in private school and later move them to public. It seemed to be the perfect solution, or at least the perfect solution for us.
Having attended fourth through twelfth grades in private school, I pretty much knew what to expect, so those early years were easy. However, I didn’t know what to expect from the public schools. I’d heard rumors and stories and example after example of the horrors that fill our public school system. They force your kids to watch R-rated movies, they pack the classrooms like sardines, they hand out condoms like candy. The voices were constant, loud, and terrifying. It would surely prove an epic nightmare where my children would be required to take untold numbers of grueling standardized tests, no one would care about them, and they would be nothing but a number. I couldn’t wait.
But as you might have already guessed, none of the aforementioned rumors turned out to be true, and I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by our children’s public school experience. Let me pause for a moment and be clear, I’m not trying to convince anyone to choose public school over private or vice versa. Every child is different and each has his or her own set of needs. In my opinion, there really is no right or wrong decision. I just want to share a few things that surprised me, in a good way, about our public school system.
1. The Teachers. The teachers, most of who held master’s degrees and some doctorates, were wonderful people who enjoyed their jobs and their students. And while there were a few bad apples, there were only a few. Each of my three children had teachers who took a special interest in them during high school. My youngest son had such a great experience with his French teacher, he decided to minor in French. C’est fantastique! My oldest son had such an amazing chemistry teacher, he came out of high school wanting to major in chemistry. Now that’s something. My middle son had such a fondness for and camaraderie with his basketball coach that I think he would have preferred to consider him a friend rather than a teacher.
2. The Students. We were lucky on this front. Our public school system is diverse: racially, religiously, and economically. If you walked into the school, you would get a fairly accurate cross section of our country right there under one roof. All of the students were exposed to others who looked nothing like them on the outside, but were very much like them on the inside. The result was a wonderful lack of misunderstanding, judgment and fear that can sometimes result from limited exposure to people with different backgrounds.
3. The Education. Aside from the politics and the sharp parental opinions, which are always present at every school (and which I tried to stay far away from), the education my children received was top-notch. Their school had more options for core curriculum classes than the students could ever need, more Advanced Placement and college classes than they could possibly take, and more electives than they had time for. The high number of students led to a high number of choices. Excellent.
4. The Overall Experience. As far as extracurricular opportunities, there was something for everyone. It didn’t matter if the students were athletic, artistic, academic, or none of the above or all of the above. There was a club, team, or some kind of group where they could fit in. If they were willing to put out a little effort, they could find their place and be a part of something bigger. It never felt too large or too impersonal for my boys to feel like they belonged.
5. The Result. Now that my oldest and his public school friends are out in the real world, I’m happy to report they are all (yes all) finding jobs with great success. They are business people, engineers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and maybe most importantly teachers. In addition, many are involved in charity work and religious groups. These public school kids have turned into fine young adults and I’m having fun watching them live fulfilling lives.
Over time, I’ve heard a lot of negative chatter about public school, so I wanted to give a shout out, a thumbs up, and kudos to all those involved in the system. After experiencing our boys’ twenty-seven combined years in six public schools, I can say this: while ever changing and hopefully always improving, public school has provided an excellent educational foundation for our children. For everyone whose child is headed down this road, I hope you’ll sit back, take a breath, and rest assured that although his or her experience will never be perfect, it may not only meet your expectations, but it may soar above and beyond them. It certainly did mine.