This is an essay published privately by my friend Laura, a mother in her early thirties living in Manhattan. Re-posted with permission.
My son is turning five next year, which means one of the most important transitions in his childhood and potentially his life: starting Kindergarten. I always thought New York City moms who obsessed over this were clearly crazy.
Now I am one of those moms.
Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s not the one year of kindergarten. It’s securing that spot in the school where you want them to stay until middle school and potentially high school, and probably send your other kids to as well. It’s all of the social and class insecurities that come with choosing a school and its associated peer group. It’s the fear that if you choose poorly, your child will age 100 years and his face will melt off in front of you.
Not quite that severe. Still, you worry you’ll mess up their life and they’ll become drug addled sociopaths living on your couch, until you kick them out when they bring back that prostitute.
Maybe going overboard again. They’ll go to State College, move to the suburbs, and work in retail.
Still going hyperbolic. Your kid will be horribly miserable for the next 14 years, go through depressive episodes, and blame you for all of it. That’s what I’m actually worried about. Both my husband and I had horrible elementary school experiences. We still carry scars. We don’t want that for our sons.
So why not home school? All the cool kids are doing it. We have personal reasons why this would not work for our family. Our son has some social deficits, but is extremely bright. Literally everyone we’ve spoken to who knows our son agrees that he would do better in a structured environment with peers. We have observed his profound social-emotional growth upon starting the school year. We saw back-sliding over the summer when he lacked structure or regular peer interactions. He will not listen to us when we teach him. He is a different child in the school setting, soaking up knowledge.
People can rant all they like about how horrible school is philosophically, but that does not negate what we’ve personally witnessed in our own child. Philosophy aside, home-schooling is a lot of work and coordination. We both work full-time. While we would pick home-school over the horrid elementary school experiences we had, we hope we can do better and find a school where he will be happy.
That is much easier said than done. Especially for unique children. Our son has done well in a private preschool with 15 children and 3 teachers. A public kindergarten in NYC has a class of 26 children and one teacher. This goes up to as high as 32 in first grade. That is a lot of kids in a small space. It presents two options. Either you get a very noisy and unruly class, or a strictly controlled group which conforms precisely with everyone sitting quietly and doing the same thing at the same time. We have seen both. Neither is pretty. Our son has sensory issues, and will not tolerate a very noisy classroom. We expect he also would not tolerate a conformist one. Him tolerating it would scare us even more.
If he went to public school, we might well be pressured to put him into a resource room, with children much worse off than himself. Children with emotional disturbance, severe autism, retardation and other severe problems. My mother has worked in such classrooms, and what she describes is unacceptable. Those are her stories to tell, but I would not put him there. Ever.
So what can we do? Sue the city! That’s what everyone told us to do. Say the public schools can’t meet your kid’s needs, since they clearly cannot do so. Find a nice, private special needs school, and sue for tuition.
So we saw some special needs schools. Like public schools, they varied a fair bit and we liked some more than others. What they all had in common was a severely impaired peer group. He would be one of the most functional students in the class. We don’t want that for him. We want him to be challenged and learn from peers who can be models for him.
So what next? Private school! Private schools also vary a lot, but have one thing in common. They are expensive.
I’m not sure you understand how bad this situation is. I spent time looking around. The average private elementary school charges about $45,000 per year.
Yup. You saw that right, $45,000. That’s more than most students’ college tuition. Before aid or loans. And it’s post-tax income. And we have more than one child.
With two (and perhaps more) children, that would be most if not all of my post-tax income as a psychiatrist.
People have the audacity to say “But you can afford it.” Don’t get my husband started on that phrase.
Even if you want to send your kid to private school, you have to apply and be accepted. Most good private schools are selective. Most do not want to deal with a child with special needs.
We have been lucky to find one nearby private school that charges considerably less (though still far from cheap) and happens to have an educational philosophy we think would suit our son. It’s a Waldorf school. It emphasizes practical skills such as cooking, gardening, carpentry, foreign language, and trade. Since we believe our son is gifted academically, being less academic does not concern us. He will learn that stuff at home whether we want him to or not. Thus, we wait with bated breath for his trial period there to see if they’ll accept him. We don’t have a back-up option that comes close at present.
What’s been really interesting to me through this process is how vastly schools differ from each other. Often people speak about ‘school’ as if it is one thing. Either you agree with sending kids to ‘school’ or you don’t. This is not the case. One reason New York City moms go berserk over this is that there are vast differences between schools even a few blocks away from each other. [Editor’s note: This is much less true outside of New York City.]
Within the public schools, class is everything. Most children go to their ‘zoned’ school, and so people will pay higher rents near the ‘good’ schools to get their kids in. One of the public schools we saw looked and felt like a prison, had no music or art program, and only let the kids outside for 20 minutes a day. Another, 10 blocks north in the neighboring district, collected $500K/yr from the PTA [parent-teacher association] and had full music and art programs, book fairs, a large library, and extra in-classroom assistants.
We live in a district which has weird rules about admissions. Instead of having a zoned school, you make a rank-list of schools in the district, and apply to all of them. In an attempt to integrate the schools more, the city has imposed rules about who can be admitted by class. The schools are required to accept 67% of ‘diversity’ applicants who qualify either for low income, English as second language, or living in shelters (i.e. homeless). There is a lot of evidence supporting that peer group is a major factor in child development and life outcome. Political incorrectness aside, this is not a wonderful peer group. It also far reduces the chances that your child will get into the particular school you want them to go to.
Since priority is first given to siblings, the ‘nice’ school in this district (that we would have previously been zoned for) now only has four ‘non-diversity’ spots open for admission this year. Even if we were willing to send him there, he probably wouldn’t get in. Because of this, many better-off families are moving out of the district entirely. This is reflected in the rents within our community – rent jumps considerably right at the district line. People respond to incentives. If we sent our kids to public school we would be forced to do the same. If you have any money at all, you go to the district where the PTA funds the nice art program, not the one with the metal detector in the lobby.
Going private for education hopefully means you avoid true disaster, and the peer group is relatively wealthy and educated. But even private schools differ vastly in their philosophy towards education. Some are super academic, drilling kids to get high SAT scores and become doctors and lawyers. Some are more laid back. Some hardly seem to teach anything at all. There are small schools with one class per grade, others that are much larger. Religious and secular schools. Science schools and arts schools. If you’re willing to pay for it odds are there is some school that you would like. That’s a big if, though.
My practical advice: If your only option is public school, move to an area that has a nice school, at least one full school year before you intend to apply. You can tour schools just by saying you have a kid in the district, and they don’t force you to prove it. Once you find a school you like, you can move to that school’s zone, and you will have a high chance of admission. To be safe, you should make sure there are 1-2 back up schools you find acceptable in the district. If you cannot afford to live any places with reasonable public schools, you should seriously consider leaving [New York City]. I am told of reasonable schools in New Jersey…
If you can’t stand public school, because at the end of the day they all follow common core, take those tests, and have 32 kids in a class, then you have to consider what you can afford. Home school has no tuition, but will require all-day child care, any educational materials/classes you want to use, and a large coordination effort on your part. If you’re a stay-at-home parent this might appeal to you anyway. For the most part the people who choose to do it are happy with it.
Private school is expensive, but requires less advance planning, since they don’t care what district you’re in as long as you can pay. You might still need to consider moving for private school if you don’t want your child to have an infinitely long commute. [New York City] will pay for busing to private schools for bus routes which are 0.25 – 2.0 miles. Keep in mind that they are measuring distance along bus routes and not geographically. Even if you are physically within 2 miles of the school, the bus route might be over 2 miles and you will be out of luck. To be fair, if you’re willing to spend $50,000/year on a school, then what’s another $40/day to hire someone to take them to school?
I am now going to write some school reviews. I will leave out specific names, but if you are interested you can message me privately, and I will let you know which is which. My husband saw some schools I did not, which I haven’t written about, and we still have some tours planned at local public schools.
District 1 (our district – the one with the integration)
Public School A:
I was pleasantly surprised by this school’s philosophy of education. They were laid back and progressive. Kids sit at tables instead of desks. Group conversations and creative expression was encouraged. No mandatory homework. Starting in 1st grade, kids learn chess and have the opportunity in 3rd and 4th grade to compete in tournaments. In 3rd grade the kids learn basic computer programming. There is a year of free music lessons. They have a theater and a roof-top garden. Gym is non-competitive until 4th grade. 45 minutes of daily outdoor time. I really liked everything they said and the principal was super cool. However, the actual classrooms were tiny and crammed full of students. It was loud. I felt claustrophobic there, and I don’t have sensory issues in general. Plus, the district just implemented the diversity criteria this year, so the students I was seeing are not the peer group my son is going to have if he went. And, of course, they only have four non-sibling, non-diversity spots available.
Public School B:
This place is a prison. There is an angry security guard at the entrance to the grime-encrusted orange walls. Multiple signs above the guard state ‘theft is a crime.’ The slit-like windows at the top of the rooms let in thin beams of daylight to an otherwise flickering-fluorescent landscape. This is hell. There is no music or art program – no room in the budget. So ‘we do that within our lessons’. 20 minutes of yard time a day. Everything is centered around standardized tests. The only white faces were part of a special program. No one with any choice would ever let their kid set foot in this place unless they were in the special program. Not worth it. It’s social control of minorities. Straight up. If SJWs [social justice warriors] want a cause, here’s one for you. And no, forcing white or wealthy children to go there is not going to work. They won’t.
District 2 (the nice one)
Public School C:
The platonic ideal of school. When you think school, you think this school. The people who designed it thought ‘what is school?’, and then based the design off of every trope and meme about school, ever. Charts of everything on the walls. ‘Task leaders.’ Bulletin boards. Window decals. Those weird cartoon people you only see in school ever. Worksheets, worksheets, worksheets. Chalk boards. White boards. This place has it all! The place felt nice. Larger rooms, more light. Nice enrichment activities. A music and art program. A nice library and computer lab. Several outdoor spaces and playground equipment. The place gets $500k/yr from the PTA to keep the place great. Mostly white faces sitting quietly in circles while the teacher spoke to them in exaggerated tones with big faces while pointing to a white board.
Looked like the children of the corn. Completely conformist. But conformists at least a year ahead academically. It is disturbing to see kindergarteners completing reading worksheets and pushing papers around, but they were able to do it. This is the place for upper-middle class white people who move into the ‘good’ part of the neighborhood.
Private School A: Preparatory School
EXPENSIVE. Beautiful school and facility. It is a ‘Quaker’ school, but mostly secular. Has a beautiful chapel where kids have ‘community assembly and quiet time’ once a week. Other parents were very well dressed – a lot of suits and jewelry. Academically rigorous without being oppressively conformist. Perhaps because the class size is 20 instead of 30, so there is more room to maneuver. A fine school as schools go, but not that much of an upgrade from Public School C given the price. Also difficult to get into and unwilling to accommodate special needs.
Private School B: Jewish School
I loved this school! I really did. It’s a progressive, laid-back atmosphere that is still academically oriented. It is very Jewish. The boys wear keepas, and the curriculum is fully bilingual with one teacher speaking English and the other speaking Hebrew. They have all the usual stuff such as music and art. They go outside for 1 hr/day. They are willing to work with special needs. They know how to work with gifted and talented kids and make special assignments for children who are ahead. LOVE IT. Problem was, it is about 1 hour away by bus and it’s a 7.5 hr day. Not doing that to my kid. Not willing to move close enough to make it work. At least not this coming year.
Private School C: Waldorf School
This is a very unique nearby school that happens to be less expensive than the others. It has a unique education philosophy (a Waldorf school) which emphasizes embodiment and practical skills over academic ones. The curriculum includes foreign languages, cooking, washing, gardening, carpentry, and trade. The kindergarten is entirely non-academic and includes copious time for free play and an hour of outdoor activity. The later grades teach traditional academics, but do so in somewhat unusual ways, which I don’t have a strong opinion on at present. Since the main reason we are sending our son to school is for socialization, and since he’s already brilliant, I’m less worried about academics, especially in the younger grades. The school requested a drastic reduction in our child’s screen time, which at first freaked me out (who are they to tell me what to do in my own home), but I kind of understand. It’s a very small school (only 1 class per grade) and they are currently considering whether or not they can accommodate his needs. This is our top choice at present.
Special Needs Schools [SNS]:
SNS A: Social Justice Away!
This school is an ‘integrated’ private school – meaning it’s a private school for regular kids which also accepts children with learning disabilities and has services for them. This means you can get the tuition paid by the city, unlike regular private schools, with a relatively normal peer group. It’s a great idea. The school itself is beautiful and has All The Things.
However there is a catch. The school has an agenda. It’s a social justice school. In the sense that other schools are reading and math schools. They call themselves ‘Advocates for Social Justice’ in their opening lines. I wouldn’t have thought this mattered for elementary age children. Sure, loving each other is wonderful! Accepting your neighbors is wonderful! But this is not where they draw the line. Social Justice is taught in every aspect of the curriculum. There are 7 year olds discussing their ‘identities’, an 8 year old talking about how his hero is Colin Kaepernick, that guy who keeled for the national anthem. The teachers then praise his ‘activism’ for writing about it. The other sample lesson is on how Christopher Columbus was a white colonialist oppressor. And the children absorb this. The school is accepts all kinds – unless you happen to be a gasp Republican. No diversity of thinking. If you don’t fully swallow the SJW philosophy in all its forms, or don’t want them forced down your child’s throat, this is not the place for you.
SNS B: Soothing Gardens…
Beautiful place. Therapeutic environment. Has the things. Didn’t want us to see the children – which was strange. When we peaked in at them, they were, well, very special. Seems like a great place for very special kids. If I have one that needed all that, I’d consider sending him there.
SNS C: Jews with learning problems
While not specifically a Jewish school, there were clearly a lot of Jewish children and teachers. I actually liked this place a lot. It was very laid back and gave the kids a lot of lee-way to be who they are. It didn’t feel at all oppressive. They group kids into separate reading and math groups not by age, but by reading and math level, which I liked. The kids seemed less special than at SNS B, but still clearly special. The school didn’t have its own outdoor space and so kids only go outside twice week with a bunch of parent-volunteers, since they want one adult per kid when crossing the streets. What was particularly disappointing was that they were clearly quite academically behind. The classes were so laid back that there didn’t seem to be a challenge, and the teachers were fine with whatever they produced. I can imagine certain children this would be very good for. I have vastly higher hopes for our son.