Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Open Enrollment. Or, Open the Prozac & Pass It To The Parents In My Neighborhood

The much anticipated, talked about, dreaded event of OPEN ENROLLMENT is here and I am losing more sleep than ever, trying to decide on a school for B next year.

When I was a child, my mom walked me into the school in our neighborhood and I proceeded to spend my elementary years there. Same for junior high. And high school. Different schools, of course.

My parents never spoke in hushed tones about the school's "performance." Never did I hear my mother utter the words to another mother: "But what about those test scores? Don't you think you can do better?"

I remember being challenged and entertained in my elementary years. Not so much in the later years but that's another topic. To this day, I don't know how a web site like Great Schools would even rate my childhood schools. And who really cares? I went on to finish four years of college and land corporate marketing gigs in the Bay Area with the perks that make parents proud...big office, big salary, big travel budget. I don't have those anymore but I think my parents still get a lot of joy out of telling people that one of their daughters worked for VISA.

So why can't I do the same with B...that is, walk him into our neighborhood school and sleep at night, knowing that he is getting the best education possible and that he will grow up to be wildly successful and support his hippie yoga mom who can't seem to make her way back into the corporate world?

We live in an award winning school district. At least that's what the school district's web site says. But the thing is, there are some great "California distinguished" schools in our district and some of California's worst also in our district. And therein lies the problem.

The very confusing and identity-challenged San Juan Unified School District has about a dozen schools that are "open," meaning that anyone, regardless of residential location, may attend. It's all based on a lottery, or so "they" say. These "open" schools are very desirable and highly rated. So I shouldn't have been shocked when I recently, well, like just TODAY, learned that the school around the corner from me, which is also an open school, may only be OPEN to those who are "hand-picked" by the staff. What is WRONG with this school district???

When you have a baby in my neighborhood, the conversation immediately goes from "Congratulations!" to "Where will you open enroll him/her for Kindergarten?" I feel like I have been talking about San Juan schools for the better part of five years and I am so sick of it. And now that we're smack dab in the middle of Open Enrollment, I can't walk through Trader Joe's, Starbucks or my place of employment without hearing the same conversation:

"Where are you enrolling B for next year? Oh, I don't think that school is so great. Have you considered this one? No, wait, this school is absolutely the best. Really. You MUST send your child there. Check the ratings. Yeah, the parents might be a bit snobby and you may not fit in at all, but B will go on to Stanford and probably on a full ride scholarship and you really, really don't want to screw up his education in the early years, now do you???"

Enough. Already. Please.

This last year, it was easy. B was (is) a young Kindergartner and we (my ex and I) originally planned to send him to a private Pre-K program. I also put B's name into a lottery for a local charter school, which also happens to be accredited by Montessori. We've known several families who have used this particular school as a Pre-K, then the children have moved on and repeated Kindergarten (quite successfully) at more structured schools.

I received an 11th hour call while on vacation this summer from the charter school with the good news that B's name had been pulled. We spent a day scrambling to find uniforms, completing the paperwork, and meeting the other parents and children at orientation.

The school has three advantages. First, it is free. The Pre-K programs that we looked at were very expensive and given the state of the economy now, I'm not quite sure how we would have managed the steep tuition. Second, it's in my neighborhood. We can't quite walk, but I do have the ability to work right up until a few minutes before pick-up. Third, it's the longest Kindergarten program, in terms of daily duration, in the area. I drop B off at 8:15am and pick him up at 2:00pm. There isn't any child care included in this block of time; it's all curriculum.

Sounds great, right? Well, maybe. But maybe not.

My good friend, S, also has her daughter in the program and we are constantly lamenting the fact that the school just doesn't have the best energy to it. In fact, the school isn't even on a "real" campus; the classrooms are situated in an old medical building. The kids have a very limited playground and there isn't a lunch room.

And then there are the parents. Some are wonderful, truly lovely people who I would imagine that we could enjoy getting to know at birthday parties and soccer games. And the others? I can't quite put my finger on it, but the word apathetic comes to mind. Which is ironic because the school requires a yearly commitment for participation from all parents.

What concerns me the most about B's current school is the fact that it isn't rated as highly as the "open" schools in our district. And I don't get it. If Montessori's curriculum is so fabulous, then why aren't the kids scoring higher on the state tests? Truth be told, my son's school ranks just fine among other neighborhood schools and if I didn't have access to a wealth of information via the Internet, I would probably be happy as a clam with his progress and the performance of the school

Really, I should be glad that B is exposed to such a diverse curriculum every day. Just last month, he came home and rattled off the names of the continents and the oceans. He did a full-blown science project on the leaf cutter ant and can tell anyone who might be curious about the ant's habitat and its prey, lifespan, and adaptations for survival.

If I walked him into our "assigned" neighborhood school next year, he would go back into Kindergarten and spend the first few months learning colors, shapes and textures. That's just the kind of school that it is and it infuriates many of the neighborhood parents. Meanwhile, the "hand-picked" kids around the corner spend the first week learning about the eco-system. Given that B is spinning a globe each day, signing "please" and "thank you", and reciting how many times a leaf cutter ant's jaw vibrates in a minute (that would be 1,000!), maybe we're actually in a decent program.

Still, I've made it a point to ask as many people as I can about the reputation of his school. In fact, I have several clients who are local school teachers and have asked them, point blank, for their thoughts. And no one has given me anything compelling.

So I found myself, just today, at the District office indicating my three choices of "open" schools for next year. Around me, there was more of the same chatter and just a little bit of panic, too. C'mon, let's face it...we all can't win in the "open school lottery" and I'm not the only one who knows this. But, I guess you if you have an affluent, nuclear and very good looking family, you might be HAND-PICKED and in that case, there's nothing to worry about.

Apparently it takes the District's computer system a full four months of churning data before it can spit out the results of the lottery UNLESS you happen to be slipping bribes to the open school in my neighborhood and your child is HAND-PICKED for their rich and stimulating curriculum.

For right now, I'm going to be grateful that B is not screaming bloody murder about going to school in the morning and I'm going to be very, very grateful that Open Enrollment ends today. And, like every other parent, I'm praying to every god that I don't screw up the educational future of my child...


Kirsten said...

That is one of the big reasons that we left San Francisco. They have a lottery system too and I watched so many friends have terrible experiences. I also applied to eight preschools for my twins and didn't get into any of them. It all worked out in the end, but oh lordy the stress is terrible. It's all anyone talked about during admissions.

I hope it all works out. I'm sure it will.

heartatpreschool said...

We're sending Seesa to the public elementary school, just two blocks from our house. It's a "blue ribbon" school, supposed to be awesome. I've never even considered sending her anywhere else. Now that California's budget is so horrible, they are considering cutting the current 5 hour Kindergarten program down to 3 hours. Argh! I can't win for losing...I'm not even on the wait list for any of the private schools in our area. Now I can only hope for the best.