Saturday, March 29, 2008

Why I May Not Send My Kid to South End Schools (or, the Longest Post in the History of the Internet)

A few days ago I posted about how the Mercer Island school district is responding to their dwindling pool of school-age kids by accepting about 60 applications a year from out-of-district parents. And how that's an attractive proposition to some South Seattle parents who'd like their kids to attend schools with high test score averages. I also mentioned that now that we're expecting, some of our friends have urged us to sell our house and move north where the schools are generally better.

Most who responded to the post said that the grade schools down here are actually pretty good, though they're less enthusiastic about the middle and high schools. And some made the argument that if all the hyper-involved parents leave the area, the schools will never improve, which is, of course, completely true. (And one's from LM, my awesome neighbor a few houses down the street, who probably doesn't want to see us move, just as I would be crushed if she and her family moved.) Anyway, I'm going to repost all the comments here because it sounds like they're all coming from a more knowledgable viewpoint than my own:

litlnemo said...
I have a feeling a lot of Beacon Hill parents will send their kids to Mercer Island now. It's not a terribly inconvenient commute, compared to some.

LM said...
Please don't sell your house and move north- at least not for awhile- maybe move when the little one is 5 or 6

JvA said...
Yeah, I still have some time to worry about it.

uppergeorgetowner said...
What about staying in the South End, in the district and getting involved? There are many good elementary schools in the south end - Beacon Elementary, Maple, Kimball, Orca, The New School, are all good and very diverse. Middle school is harder, but there are good alternative middle school choices which are all city draws. If everyone runs off, how does anything get better?

Mercer Island - Kiss my a**. They've spent half a century trying to keep South End people out. And now they want our kids to go to school there? Right.

ColumbiaCityDad said...
I agree with uppergeorgetowner (except, perhaps, for the kiss my a** part) -- there are some great choices among public elementary schools in the south-end.

I'll admit that the same thoughts that you're entertaining went through my head when my kids were conceived/born. We had settled in C-City a few years previous and were unsure about the school situation. However, a few years have passed and I can state that we're completely happy with the options available to us in the public schools.

Our oldest is currently in his first year in the Montessori preschool program at Graham Hill. We've found GH to be a terrific school, with a very active PTA that supports and funds plenty of enrichment programs. We especially value the extraordinary diversity of cultures that this school encompasses. To get a sense of the school, please check out the in-progress interactive website at You could also pick up a copy of this week's Beacon Hill News & South District Journal to see a wonderful article (not yet available online) on the school's partnership with the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

We also have friends and neighbors who attend Orca, which is a program that I've heard nothing but raves about. It recently became a K-8 school, which makes it a good option if you are concerned about the middle school situation.

Beacon (International) Elementary is another interesting option in the area which is adding full Spanish and Mandarin immersion starting this fall, modeled after the much-loved John Stanford School in Wallingford.

I'll admit I continue to have some trepidation about the quality of the local middle schools (Asa Mercer and Aki Kurose), but that step is still a ways away for us. I also believe that these schools are improving. I've spoken to several neighbors who are happy with Mercer (particularly it's AP program). Meanwhile, Aki Kurose is part of the focus (along with Cleveland and Rainier Beach High Schools) of the district's "Southeast Initiative" which is providing additional focus and funding to address achievement gaps in these facilities.

In short, I would encourage you to stay here and support the growth of our local neighborhood schools.

PM said...
I agree with what everyone else has said about staying in the district and in the South End schools. A lot of the elementary schools are pretty decent. Heck, one of my only regrets about moving away from Beacon Hill is that Maple would be a great school for our daughter. (The ones in East Ballard are pretty good, too, though.)

If we were two blocks further west, we'd probably be staying and making the best of it.

(And as my Dad, who taught in public schools for years, including in Seattle in the 1970s, keeps reminding me, parental involvement is more of a predictor of school success than anything else, something he saw at "good" schools as well as "bad" ones.)

steve said...
I've got an 18-mo old and another on the way, and we're constantly having the same discussions around our house. I'm not convinced the Seattle School District is reparable within the time it'll take for my kids to reach school age. And although I've heard similar great things about several of the previously mentioned elementary schools, the middle and high schools are terrible, and I don't want to have my kids change schools in middle school starting in some other district where they won't know anyone. The new superintendent has some good goals but I've heard from teachers she's not all that, plus her plan for improving the district is on something like a 20-yr time line. And you can bet they'll be improving the north end schools first. I wouldn't hesitate to send my kids to MI schools--they have a great reputation and are very well funded. But I'm not too keen on the commute, and sure can't afford to move there. Parental involvement will help, but momentum needs to be built now to get Asa Mercer or Aki Kurose to an acceptable level by the time my kids are old enough, and I just don't see it happening. We'll be shopping to move to another district in the next few years.

Jennifer said...
I want to join the chorus of support for south Seattle schools. My son is currently at Maple and he's very happy there -- and my husband and I are very happy with the school as well. As others have also said, I know families with children at Beacon, Kimble, Graham Hill, Orca, and the New school --and everyone is happy with their choice. I looked at most of these schools and I think I could have been happy sending my child to any. Yes, the middle and high schools aren't on par with the north end schools, but I'm going to still consider them when the time comes.

I'm not a religious person at all, but the argument that concerned parents need to stay in the area to improve the local school system reminds me of that New Testament quote: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life." (Or however it goes.)

I admit that this is the absolute height of arrogance -- if not outright sacrilege -- but I've been asking myself, "Do I so love the South End that I will give my only begotten daughter to try to improve the local schools from within?"

I know that if I did send her to the local schools, I'd channel all this ridiculous energy that I have for terrorizing local developers and government officials into making demands on school administrators. My kid would not be spending recess in a playground next to flaked-off sheets of 30% lead paint, even if I had to spend my weekends sneaking onto school property with a shop-vac.

But if I do try sending my daughter to Seattle Public Schools and I feel like she is not getting an excellent education from wherever my address and their lottery happens to put her, I'm pulling her out and sending her to a private school or Mercer Island, or we're moving north, or whatever. Since I last posted about schools a few days ago, I've been thinking a lot about my own early education, and now I remember that it actually kind of sucked compared to my later experiences.

I entered kindergarten in California already knowing how to read and write, and that was fine -- they just sent me up a grade for reading class. But by the time we moved to Oregon between second and third grades, I'd turned into quite the precocious little shit, and was reading college textbooks with footnotes and all.

I remember the very first day of third grade, we played one of those first-day-of-school games, where each kid had to name a word starting with the next letter of the alphabet. On the second round, I got E. The word "elephant" had been used the first time, and since I'd been reading Robert Graves's "The Greek Myths I & II," the next E word that popped into my head was "epic."

So that's what I said, and the teacher looked at me in a way that expressed neither love nor admiration, and paused. Finally she said, "I'm not familiar with that word. Please choose another." (I was too embarrassed to suggest bringing out the dictionary in my defense, so I just picked "episode," which was accepted.)

I remember thinking, OK, so this is how third grade in Oregon is going to be. I am going to have to talk down to the teachers.

Fourth grade wasn't much better. They started separating us all for reading and math classes, which helped a little, but even in the highest-level class, I remember getting docked points on a spelling test for "raspberry." I had to bring the dictionary to the teacher and show him that "raspberry" really did contain a "p."

"It's a silent letter," I explained. He admitted his mistake and regraded everyone's tests, but, again, there was no acknowledgment that I might have a better grasp on the language than my teachers and maybe I ought to be learning elsewhere.

I don't remember whether I ever told my parents about these incidents. They're both immigrants -- my dad is ESL and my mom left school when she was 15 -- so after I learned to read and write, they were never very involved in my schoolwork.

Anyway. As we got older and the schools got larger, they subjected us all to much more rigorous testing and did a much better job of sorting us all out according to academic ability (and started a new talented and gifted program, which was a fun opportunity to goof off with some really smart kids). Once in junior high and high school, I had a few brilliant and incredibly dedicated teachers to whom I'm still grateful.

My 8th grade English teacher refused to teach us any literature until we'd mastered the rules of grammar. He made us all get four-color pens so we could diagram sentences in black, blue, red, and green. I bet all my classmates who survived his class still to this day can explain what a gerund is.

My junior high school French teacher and an English teacher sponsored a trip to Europe and took a group of us to a dozen countries for a month. She let us 14-year-olds all ditch the scheduled trips and explore the European capitals on our own every day and night while she and the other divorced teacher went prowling for men. This sounds terrible, but it was fantastic. By the end of the trip, we were all more confident and adventuresome (and understood boys a little better and knew how to order beer in seven different languages).

My public high school offered every opportunity -- state-ranked sports teams, AP classes in everything, some International Baccalaureate classes, three major drama productions every year, band and orchestra, fine art, automotive, programming, four foreign languages, and a million different clubs. I asked the administration why we didn't have a Junior Statesmen program for kids into politics, and they invited me to start one (which I did). When we won statewide competitions, the school would always pay all the expenses for trips to the national competitions, so I ended up going to Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Florida for different things. And we never had to go door-to-door selling candy or anything like that. The school wanted us to spend our time preparing for competition, not bugging the neighbors for sponsorship. (Thank God.)

(Me all excited to represent Oregon at the national Academic Decathlon competition:)


And the teachers (except for the ones I clashed with until I had to demand that I be transferred out of their classes) all seemed personally interested in my development. My English teacher took me to a John Updike lecture with her, and my French teacher took me to a Bizet opera (I told her I'd meet her at the theater because I wanted to go to a Matt Groening book signing on the way). On another English teacher's rec, I read Kurt Vonnegut (though I went alone to that lecture) and Richard Brautigan.

(My souvenir from the night of the Bizet opera:)


And the school itself helped us all sign up for scholarships. In fact, they signed me up for things I didn't even know existed. I was somehow named a National Merit Semifinalist, and I remember leafing through the Oregonian one morning and being surprised to come across my name in an article about that year's Presidential Scholars, a federal program I'd never heard of before.

Anyway. If we end up with a little girl who's as much of a geek freak as I was, I want teachers who'll introduce her to writers not on the official reading list and invite her to go to lectures and operas and trips to the East Coast and Europe, not ones who'll tell her they're not familiar with the word "epic" or don't know how to spell "raspberry." If she's reading hundreds of pages of footnoted texts in third grade, I don't want the school to waste her time on picture books with the rest of the class.

And of course, I've never even met her yet. All I know is that she kicks and waves her hands around; I have no idea whether she'll give a shit about classical literature. (And if she does, maybe she can test into the troubled APP program at Lowell and we can avoid this issue entirely.)

If the South End schools can provide all that (or at least most, or maybe even just some of that), then great. If not, then I think I'll owe it to her to look elsewhere.

I've always listened to the school stories on KUOW, because the school reporter, Phyllis Fletcher, is a friend of mine. But now that we're having a kid, I've spent some time really thinking about things she's said. Like this KUOW story about the drama program at Rainier Beach High School from last year:


STEWARD: "We didn't have any money! Um—"


STEWARD: "They're calling us a performing arts school and we're trying to make it just that, but we do need the resources to make it that. We're doing everything that we can with as little that we have."

So the teacher, who sounds wonderfully dedicated (though a little naive), tried to put on "The Wiz" with a copy of the script she'd downloaded from the Internet. She got community volunteers to work the technical side, and she cast the play, and was getting ready to go, except someone called her out for not having bought the rights to do the performance. So the school district's attorneys pulled the rug out from under her.

This story happens to have a happy ending -- the teacher was able to negotiate a free license to perform the play in the end -- but it's still a shining example of how ridiculously underfunded the South End schools are. Somehow, Ballard High School manages to put on plays and musicals, as does Roosevelt. But if South End kids want to try to put on a play, they're pretty much forced to be accessories to a crime.

So please forgive me if I end up sending my kid elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

You've raised some good points about a very tough issue. Thanks for that. I hope our comments -- mine included -- didn't put you on the defensive.

For us, while we're definitely thinking about the future, we're also kind of taking this year by year, grade by grade. Our son was blessed with a gifted kindergarten teacher and now has a gifted first grade teacher. She told us not long after the school year started that she makes two lesson plans each day: one for the class and one for our son. He moves quickly through his work and needs to be interested and challenged; she makes sure daily that those needs are being met. Further, his teacher and I communicate regularly about my son, what he's currently interested in, projects she suggests for home, etc. I'm learning that this is the kind of teacher relationship (with my kids and us) that I'm going to expect from now on.

Last, I have to add that I'm in awe of your middle and high school academic opportunities. I'm betting, however, that yours is the exception and not the rule. Sad.

Chris M. said...

I'll come visit you on Bainbridge after you move!

JvA said...

Thanks for the additional insight about your son's education, Jennifer. That's great to hear that there are teachers out there willing to put in that much extra effort for one kid. Wow. I think taking things year by year is a reasonable approach. That's probably what we will do. In any case, six years of private school seems a lot more doable than twelve.

(Yeah, my high school was pretty great, though not as good as the nearby ones like Lakeridge in Lake Oswego. And yes, I took greater advantage of those opportunities than did most of the other kids there. To be clear, though, my parents paid for my junior high trip to Europe -- that was not school-funded.)

Chris -- Glad to hear it! We'll save you our extra ferry passes.

Anonymous said...

I can tell you from 12 years down the road, your sense "do I want to sacrifice my kid's education to make things better, probably not" is a good one to cultivate now. We have one child, a son, who is not typical in any sense of the word. His school journey has been a difficult one, still is. He started in private school because we heard horrific things about Seattle Public Schools. Instead, our private school experience eventually turned horrific because he wouldn't be quiet, complacent, and non-inquisitive. He went on to one bad year in a Seattle public school followed by three awesome years and now is in the middle of a bad one again. I believe the school where he is, is the best one he could be at, but that's not saying much. The program he is in is also in a school closer to our home, but barely, because no one will take a chance on it. Some have tried to guilt us by saying "well, if people like you would send your kid here, the program would get bigger and better." Sorry, I can't gamble with him, he's been through enough already. As for your hopes and dreams ... I have yet to encounter a teacher who has shown him a glimpse of a new world. Now in middle school, he gets force-fed "young adult" novels that he can parody in hysterical style, and so instead he goes off to raid Mom and Dad's bookcase to find something better. If your daughter turns out to be an extremely bright, asocial geek, oh my dear, I feel for you. Things will not be easy. But always listen to your own heart and know that no one knows your child the way you do and don't let them tell you otherwise. Good luck.

ColumbiaCityDad said...

Wow. Your story is a great encapsulation of the disarray of our nation's educational system. I truly believe that this issue (particularly the immense diversity of experiences) is the great public policy tragedy of our lifetimes.

I also hope that you didn't take the wrong point from my earlier comment. It was not my intent to imply that anyone needs to put her child in public schools to benefit the "greater good". Each parent needs to make the choice that is right for her child and family, whether that means public, private, local or non-local. I just wanted to point out that there are options within the Seattle Public Schools system that bear consideration. I would never tell anyone that their child will get a good education in the SPS system, but merely that they can.

A couple of other things that I would like to point out:
* I believe the parent involvement is the best indicator of a child's educational success. (Obviously, your own experience is perhaps a counter-example, as your parents were not in a position to be as "hands on", but I get the sense that they were supportive of your desire to learn nonetheless.) From this standpoint, it appears that your daughter is in good stead no matter which school she attends.

* Be wary of drawing broad conclusions based on average test scores. Test scores often correspond more closely with the socio-economic standing of a school's students than with the quality of the school's educators. That's not to say that scores (and particularly trends) can't tell you something, but they are far from the whole story.

* SPS's school-choice system allows lots of options for students. Which means that your daughter wouldn't have to attend middle- or high-school in a SE school that you feel is substandard. There are some very good middle- and high-school options in the SPS system.

Lastly, I would like to commend you for airing this topic and expressing these fears. This is a discussion that I wish more people in our community were having. You might be interested in a somewhat related discussion that has been taking place over at the Columbia Citizens wiki.

LM said...

Interesting. Also- I posted a comment- but it didn't seem to take.

I wanted to add to the comments by saying- yes, to be a part of a community and to make a community better & stronger- it may feel like one is sacrificing your child on the ideal. I do not believe that is the case in the elementary schools. I do want to note that even the schools with very strong PTSA's (parent involvement + strong fundraising $$) does not mean a good education- or good WASL scores.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Have you considered the home schooling option? It sounds like you could do a far better job of educating your daughter than any school ever could.

JvA said...

Wow, thanks for all your great comments. I'm really grateful.

I'll definitely check out that school blog. I should learn more about the situation before continuing to post about it. Though I did kind of want this particular post to be a personal, honest account of what it feels like to be a parent-to-be in the South End. When I was little, my parents decided where to move partly based on school district. I keep wondering whether it was selfish of us not to have done the same.

Thanks also for the note about how private schools can also fail kids. I want my kid to be a bit nonconformist and question bullshit, like I did. It occurs to me at this moment that the private school model in itself works against this; if you attend a private school, you must agree to whatever arbitrary rules they might have. At least in the public school system, they can't expel you for any reason they want.

As for homeschooling, I don't think I'd want to deprive my daughter of the opportunity of learning how to deal with the world on her own. (And I while do want her to question bullshit, but I don't want her to question MY bullshit!) Also, my husband and I are pretty much equal breadwinners, so if either one of stays home, our income will be reduced by half. It would be a harder hit than paying for a good private school if we can find and get into one.

I do see us supplementing her education, though. I put my husband through engineering school a few years ago and was thrilled to find that I could even help him with some of his homework at the very start.

litlnemo said...

Your school experience has much in common with mine. I also showed up in kindergarten already knowing how to read and write, and spent time in elementary school correcting my teachers' spelling. This was, incidentally, in Seattle Public Schools.

I had some terrible experiences there, and overall, I would not send a smart young child there if I could help it. I believe in the concept of public education, but unless the District has changed a lot since I was there, it is not the place to send kids who are "geek freaks." But then again, I wonder which schools are.

I don't think I'd send a kid to Mercer Island, either, for social reasons.

I'm not sure what I'd do, so I guess it's a good thing I don't have a child of my own.