Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Public Schools

WE’RE ABOUT TO MAKE ANOTHER HUGE CHANGE FOR OUR FAMILY. Many who know us know that we have had a contentious relationship with the public school system, and this has been the last time I will try to make it work. We always thought that we should make public school work, because both Marcy and I went to public school and we turned out fine. We always treated private schools as a second choice for when there was a serious problem. It has become clear now that public school is not what it was 25 years ago, and it still has a ways to go getting worse before it will improve. Which leaves us with a difficult choice for our two girls.

Bella has been in and out of various public school systems since she was almost 6 and we started her in kindergarten. She missed the cutoff by only 8 days the previous year, and would be the oldest in her class. We asked for her to be evaluated for first grade, as she was reading well and definitely old enough, and that set the tone for the year. The school was uncooperative, her teacher was resentful of having to do the evaluation, and it came out over the course of the year. We took her out mid-year and enrolled her at The Boyd School where she blossomed. It was expensive to have both her and Kaylee in paid schools, but it was worth it to see how well she was doing. In the middle of first grade, we moved to a different school district and put her back into public school there. Then just 3 months into her second grade year, we moved to California.

Since we got here, we have lived in two houses and Bella has been in four different elementary schools. At first she was overloaded to one school, then moved back to her home school during her second grade year. We moved in the summer, specifically to avoid disruption in her school life, and she started at her new home school. Then 3 weeks in, she was overflowed across town to yet another school, where she is now. During her second grade year, insane classroom policies around bathroom use led to medical issues, which we are still dealing with. Now in third grade, she is the oldest and smartest (at least on academics) in her class. She reads twice as fast as the grade level, and comprehends it. She finishes her work, correctly, before everyone else. When she asks for extra work to do, the request is refused and she’s told to read quietly while the teacher works with everyone else. She’s a good teacher, but even a good teacher can only do so much with a bad system.

The administrative side of public schools has been no picnic either. I already described our problems with trying to get her placed in first grade so she would not be bored. California has been no different. We have had several incidents of the schools not handling her allergy properly, including the field trip that I had to skip work to attend at the last minute because they failed to have anyone going who was trained in using an epinephrine injector. Schools do not have a nurse on site, so every time she has a stomach ache, serious or not, there is nobody there to assess her and determine whether or not she needs to leave. Now we have a “truancy problem”, because earlier in the year we took her out of school for two family vacations. At the time, I attended the required school meeting, acknowledged this would be a problem moving forwards, and adjusted our future vacations to take them during breaks. Then we had the audacity to take Bella out of school for one day when she was sick (and contagious) to go to the doctor. We called in the excused absence as we are supposed to, and the school claimed that they never got the call and were referring us to the district’s attendance board even though it was clearly an excused absence. So now, not only do I have to take a day off to do this, but Bella is required to attend as well, which means she has to miss a day of school.

Meanwhile Kaylee has been in private preschools since she was tiny. She started at a wonderful preschool called Little Learners Academy in Ashburn. When we moved to Herndon it wasn’t as convenient, so she was home for a little while. We were about to put her in a Montessori school when we decided to move to California. We were fortunate to have a good Montessori school, Montessori Childresn Center, right around the corner from our first house. Kaylee still talks about her teachers there. When we moved across town, we found another Montessori around the corner from our house. That’s when we found out that the name “Montessori” is not protected, and not all Montessori schools are created equal.

Anyone who knows Kaylee knows she is a cheerful child, and she would give you the shirt off her back if you asked her for it. Lately we have had recurring reports from her teachers that she is not doing the things she is supposed to. She refuses to go outside, refuses to go inside, and refuses to participate in some class activities. She stands and hides in the corner, or lays down on the floor. Bella had an incident like this at Boyd, where she just refused to do anything for an entire day. Her teacher told us this after school, and worked with her that day and the next day to engage her, and the next day was fine. But with Kaylee, it does not seem that her teachers are willing or able to connect with her and get to the root of the problem. We just get behavior reports sent home. One of her teachers has even taken to threatening her with cancelling our family vacations, which is not appropriate. I’ve suggested that sometimes when work she is doing is disrupted, such as when another student knocked over her plant, she can shut down and needs a little attention to get moving again. They said they’ve noticed that, but I don’t see them doing anything to work with her. When I get Kaylee home and we talk about her behavior, she is still so cheerful and optimistic. I send her to her room for a little while to think about it, and she happily does so. Meanwhile, she tells me with great enthusiasm that tomorrow she is going to have a great day and follow all the rules.

All of this has come together to make us realize that we need a change. At the very least, Kaylee is in the wrong environment as she moves into kindergarten. Our school district has half-day kindergarten, so our intention was to keep her in Montessori through next year. With Bella, I can see her frustration with school. She loves to learn and explore things, but she dislikes going to school. I can see the boredom setting in, and that will only lead to behavioral issues. Marcy and I put all the options on the table: public school (given that they will move to a different school), private Montessori schools both in town and across the bay closer to my work, other private schools, and home school. Public school was almost immediately taken off the list because we’ve tried to make it work too many times now, with too many problems. One important thing for us was to have both Bella and Kaylee in the same school. This is not only a question of convenience, but also because they get along with each other so well, we want to foster that by keeping them together where possible.

Which way did we choose? Stay tuned for the next post. I promise it won’t be a year in coming.

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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