The Failure of (Our) Public School

I BELIEVE IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM. I think it can succeed, educate our children, and be the best choice. But what we have now is just a political leftover: something they slice a little more off of whenever they need to reduce a budget number and something the affluent, which most of our politicians are, rarely remember is not a choice for most people. I was educated in a public school system, but my children will not be after this week.

When Bella moved from daycare to kindergarten last year, I truly believed that we could make the public school system work for her. My parents did it for me, advocating with the school district to find me the additional challenges that I needed and always making sure that I was in the right place and was not bored. We started with asking the school to evaluate her for first grade, and we should have known something was wrong right then. At first the kindergarten teacher, not a new recruit to the school system, said that wasn’t something they did and the principal was confused when we asked her about it before school started. The school system’s policy on this is very clear, that we have to make the request and they will perform an evaluation and the decision has to be made in the first 30 days of school. When we sat down with them to review the evaluation, the teacher was obviously put out that she had to do this work. Her speech was rushed, she didn’t want to be in the meeting, and while she had a few complimentary things to say about Bella, the bulk of what she had to say was how unready Bella was socially and because she couldn’t follow directions or do everything a kindergartener needed to do at the end of the school year.

Even speaking as someone with an obvious bias, I can say that Isabella has always been bright and creative. We’ve tried to encourage that as much as possible, such as finding science enrichment classes for her or getting her tools like a Leapster Tag so that she could learn to read on her own. Now she loves her chapter books and would spend all night reading if we let her. She always has a half a dozen little art projects going on. She asks questions constantly so she can understand what is going on around her. It’s sometimes hard to remember that she’s only six years old. But she’s also very stubborn. She’ll put her foot down and refuse to do things, especially if she doesn’t fully understand why it’s needed. She also loves to test her limits with everyone.

Even though I know with absolute certainty that if Bella was put in first grade she would have adapted to the environment within a month, I didn’t press the matter with the school. It was obvious they did not want to move her, and I did not want to create an adversarial relationship with them from the very start. We decided to take a “wait and see” approach and continue to help Bella with the few missing skills at home. From a selfish point of view she was now staying in a half-day kindergarten, heading off on the bus at 11 AM and returning at 3 PM, with nothing to eat at school but a milk break (where the kids get to pick chocolate milk). Marcy tried to get some lunch into her before she left, but still we would hear about “problems” that tended to be at the end of the day. What do you expect when the kids haven’t had anything to eat for almost 4 hours except a little sugar?

I have no illusions that Bella is a perfect child. Early in the year, in September, she had a problem where she took an item that wasn’t hers from school. We had a lot of things to say to her about this, and it seemed to mostly solve the problem. A couple weeks ago, there was another incident where she took a couple things belonging to other students, but it was only witnessed by another kid (not a teacher), and from all accounts it was a case where they were “found” items (on the carpet without the owner near them) and Bella was trying to do the right thing and return them or figure out whose they were. And then earlier this week, on Tuesday, she took a roll of stickers from near the teacher’s desk and handed them out to her friends in class. None of these things were the right thing to do, and all of them got her in a lot of trouble at home. But I believe the most recent incident was motivated by a bit of a “Mean Girls” incident in the neighborhood last week, and the one just before that she actually had good intentions, she just wasn’t sure of exactly what to do.

Marcy was at the school for something unrelated on Tuesday after school, and was cornered in the hall by Bella’s teacher. The teacher told her about the incident with the stickers, reminded Marcy that it was the third time and therefore a pattern, and proceeded to tell her how Bella would be in in-school suspension the following day. Marcy let her know that we were both available to talk with them at any point, as our schedules are flexible, but the teacher said it would be one to two weeks before they had all the paperwork done (because you know this goes on her permanent record) and could discuss a behavior plan with us. Marcy was floored, and relayed all of this to me. I read Bella the riot act after her karate class and started another round of lost privileges with her. I then made plans to go talk to the principal the following morning. Regardless of how wrong Bella might have been, there was no way I agreed with suspension as a solution to it, in school or not.

I ended up talking to the assistant principal the next day (who, as most parents know, is typically tasked with discipline in most schools), and here’s where it gets really interesting. She explained to me that all she was going to do was have Bella in her office when school started for about an hour to do her work and have a talk. While some might call it in-school suspension, she didn’t see it that way and there was no paperwork or record. Just a chance to give a little shock to the child and reinforce that the behavior was not acceptable (and this I have absolutely no problem with). She also said that she didn’t know anything about two weeks to create paperwork, and that if I wanted to talk about behavior I was to come in any time I wanted. She assured me she would talk with the teacher and find out where the communication issue was, and I relayed some of the neighborhood incidents that might be affecting Bella so that at least the assistant principal would have a more complete picture.

This all painted a very clear picture for us, and it’s clear that the problem was actually some combination of a bad teacher and a bad school. What I predicted at the beginning of the year had come to pass, and Bella was getting into trouble most likely because she was bored and was now being labeled as a discipline problem. The teacher, who after we requested the first grade evaluation we had never felt anything but resentment from, was not doing the right thing by our daughter, and it doesn’t matter whether that was because she was overworked or because she just didn’t care. And the school district is just too large for us to get them to help us solve this problem within the system. When I was in school, the state mandated that the school districts must teach all children to the best of the child’s ability, but now all that matters is the tests and ranking numbers. The official statements that kids in a grade are all at different levels and they adapt to challenge each child were just platitudes that they had no intention of executing on.

We took Bella that morning after I got back to tour a Montessori school. Before we left, Bella asked the following questions:

  • Can I learn more math? (Yes, and science and everything else) Yes!
  • Is it all day? (Yes) Awesome!
  • Is it all year? (Yes, you’ll go there this summer) Awesome!

After we left, having made the decision immediately to move Bella there, we asked her if she wanted to start in 1 week and cancel the gymnastics spring break camp she was going to (at her request), or start in 3 weeks. She immediately told us that she wanted to start going to the new school now.

On the way back to her public school, she told us that she hoped she was in the class with the teacher she spent time with at the Montessori school while we were touring because she was nice and didn’t yell at her. Marcy and I looked each other, and I asked Bella who yells at her. She got very nervous, and we reminded her that she wasn’t in trouble. We asked if it was someone at her public school. She said yes, her teacher yells a lot. If we didn’t know before that we made the right decision, we certainly did now.

This is Bella’s last week in public school. She starts at The Boyd School on Monday, April 2.

Todd Palino


I'm a dad, a small business owner, a systems engineer, a developer, and any number of other things.

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