It’s a journey that is arduous, exhausting, and often confusing. A quest full of dead ends, tight timelines, and hard-fought battles to find this most-coveted treasure. It can be a labyrinth of cryptic instructions, convoluted processes, and perceived impossibilities.
As a parent, you have faced this daunting task at least once, and for some, sadly, it can become an annual event. But should you survive the competition, miraculously complete your mission, defeating the odds, you will enjoy the ultimate spoils of the victorious, the “holy grail” of parenthood: you will find the right school for your child.
For all those non-parents, parents-to-be, or brand new parents, you may ask yourself the following questions:
- “Oh, please. I went to a perfectly good public school/Catholic school down the street. Just enrol your kid in the neighbourhood school. What’s the big deal?”
- “I just had a baby. Do I really need to start worrying about that kind of stuff?”
- “You’re being a tad elitist. For some people, private schools are not even an option so what decision is there to be made except the local school down the street?”
- “Isn’t the only debate between private and public schooling?”
I WISH it were that simple and for a lot of people it is. But sometimes it is a simple decision only because most people aren’t fully aware of ALL the options that are available (now’s a good time to pop an Advil). The “public or private” debate seems like the most common conundrum when in fact, for the purposes of this post and in relation to my own circumstances, we are not going to even add elementary/secondary private schooling into this discussion. Bottom line: 4 children = public schooling.
Now most people would assume that the local public school is the only option and there really aren’t many choices anyway. Here are some things to consider:
- If you have no children but are planning to have some in the near future, you may want to research schools and relocate accordingly because public schools are not all created equal and you may have to pay a premium to get into an area with an exceptional school…but at least you know you will get a great re-sale value on your home.
- If you are pregnant or have a newborn, chances are you will be going back to work on the anniversary of your child’s birth. During the first year, you will not only have to cope with meeting the physical needs of this new member of the household, adapting to life with a baby, deal with the transition of your relationship with your husband from spouse to roommate, ward off over-bearing, newly-annointed “grandparents,” manage hormones that seem to eliminate all emotional restraint and rational thought, you will also have to make a decision about childcare for when you return to your job. As the date approaches, you will be having sleepless nights over the pending separation anxiety (that most probably YOU will feel more than your child), suffocating guilt, and you will second-guess your decision to go the daycare/montessori/nanny route every day.
- If you are among the lucky and fortunate who are able to stay at home with their children, you may be lulled into a false sense of comfort in thinking that you are spared from the schooling decision for a few years. However, 3 to 4 years can fly by and if your child has not been prepped for school through countless playdates, lessons in social interaction, and drop-off preschool programs or part-time/full-time Montessori attendance where they can learn independence and conquer separation anxiety, you will find a difficult journey ahead of you – remember #2 who went into hysterical convulsions during her first year of school? Well, she attended Montessori for a year and a half before kindergarten and STILL had a meltdown…
- Every year around this time, mid-Jan to late Feb, parents are scrambling (present company included) to attend information nights, acquire application packages, attend interviews (the child too in some cases), and dissect their research on potential schools for their children to attend next September. To give you an idea of how this can lead to certain madness, possible divorce proceedings, and future family therapy sessions, the following outlines our own painstaking process this year…
I have 3 children who will all be in the Toronto public school system in September 2009. My oldest currently attends a large public school (our home school) with great athletic teams, my second is in SK who attends the same school as the oldest but is in the French Immersion program, and my third is home with me but her schedule during the week is so full of activity that I am seriously considering a daytimer just for her weekly commitments. (The fourth is just along for the ride at this point, but soon will be enrolled in some toddler-mommy programs just to get her feet wet.) We have been thoroughly satisfied with the school (although the oldest laments that she should be in the French program too and tries to hide her sibling-envy as best as she can especially when #2 answers my English questions in French while she, the older one, is dying of boredom learning her colours in French). In our public school system, the traditional entry points are only in SK and Grade 4…
3 down...1 to go.
(Just to backtrack quickly, prior to the school they attend now, #1 and #2 attended an alternative school, but because we moved homes, we also changed their school – although I did try the 45-minute commute to the alternative school for one year, which actually totaled 90 minutes in the car when you factored in the journey home. Having a DVD player in our van for the commute helped but I just couldn’t do it anymore. My breaking point wasn’t the wintertime when we had to leave an extra half an hour earlier (7:20am) to account for the weather, or getting 4 kids to bed at 7pm so they could wake up at 6:45am, or construction detours, or enduring the onslaught of road rage, it was listening to the movie High School Musical 1 or 2 for 10 months because according to one child, “headphones makes my ears sweaty.” To clarify, alternative schools are public schools that teach the same province-wide curriculum but deliver it in a different way. Normally, there are entry requirements and an application process to see if your child is a good fit for the school which is well within the alternative school mandate. For example, both my daughters had an “observation” appointment in kindergarten in which the teachers observed their behaviour in the classroom environment and I had to fill out an application with some short-answer questions. One of the benefits of this particular alternative school was few classes, small class sizes, multi-age learning, high parental involvment, and teaching through facilitators and field trips. The biggest realized benefit was the fact that my eldest daughter had the same teacher for 4 years straight. The teacher knew my daughter so well that she could sense when something was off with her and would check in with me which went something like this: “Are you pregnant again?” “Yup.” “That explains why she seems distracted in class.” (By the way, this conversation was repeated 3 times.) Leaving the alternative school was difficult because leaving this small-sized community atmosphere led to many unwilling but necessary goodbyes….don’t even get me started on how tough it was to say goodbye to the Montessori where #3 was attending..)
Back to our current dilemma. The problem I face is that their current school ends at Grade 5. This means my oldest will be attending an even larger middle school (with lockers…eeek!). I had just mentally resigned myself to the fact that she would be entering her highly volatile pubescent years at this school where she was at risk of getting lost in the crowds, cliques, and cafeteria food. (I know that middle school is the norm for a large portion of the general population, but I still cling to this utopian image of all my daughters attending the same school, playing at recess together, experiencing the same teachers, and most importantly, having one drop-off and pick-up destination.) But then, as if the heavens opened up, I received their monthly school newsletter and discovered in tiny print that a new alternative school was opening 10 minutes away. I immediately logged in to the accompanying website and became increasingly giddy (almost hearing choirs of angels sing) as I read all the details: the school, in mission and spirit, resembled their old alternative school (yes!), the application deadline was still a month away (yes!), we didn’t miss the info night (yes!). I hadn’t realized that I was squealing with delight until I noticed that the household activity screeched to a halt. No one could understand the reason for the squeal since there was no chocolate or a clean house in sight. I babbled something along the lines of: new school…close by…all the kids …close by …alternative …new …September …close by…hooray. Needless to say, we attended the info night which was held in the school’s gymnasium which would be shared with the public school that the building already housed. Let me give you an idea of the turnout. They were expecting 100 people but 350 people showed up fighting for chairs, elbowing their way up to the front to get a better view of the powerpoint presentation, and all the while, excited as if the cure for cancer was finally found. (I, of course, hobbled in and scored some sympathy seating for the both myself and Ever-Patient). Having attended multiple info nights, open houses, and school tours over the last 11 years, we know what to expect. The key to any good presentation is the messenger…just think of how many people have bought those “Sham-Wows,” the glorified J-Cloths. Also, all the relevant info – the deadlines, the application process,the acceptance procedure – are left to the end. So…10 minutes into this, I turn and mouth, “I am so sorry” to Ever-Patient only to see that he is furiously taking notes in his Moleskine. Impressed yet pleasantly surprised at his eagerness to take such interest in the presentation, I grab the notebook to see if I missed something pertinent since I had just fallen into a daydream about clean laundry, only to find a lengthy grocery list and topics for future blog posts. 2 hours later, the presentation behind schedule, and a throbbing headache, we give up and head for the nearest exit, grabbing an application on the way out. This set off some type of domino effect because as we stepped out the gym doors, we caught a glimpse of parents who were on the same wavelength (but lacked the cajones) to leave early, start to slowly get up, grab applications, and walk briskly out the door. Then the frenzy to grab applications, as if this was the only oasis in a desert, began. When I say “Holy Grail,” I am NOT exaggerating.
Leaving the info night, I have mixed feelings. At first, I am hopeful for my eldest who has thrived in an alternative environment before and loves independent learning and has always felt comfortable in smaller school settings. I am also excited at the prospect of all 3 children attending the same school in this “whole child” environment which promises to encompass Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and inquiry-based philosophies. Think back to your own schooling – sitting at a desk, filling out educational workbooks, memorizing facts, and listening to a teacher lecture. Fun? More like a lesson in how to suppress every natural childhood inclination. What if, instead, during the primary years and not just kindergarten, you were allowed to enjoy a learning centre of your choice and once gaining confidence, were softly encouraged to try new centres? What if all subjects were intertwined as you learned about nature and sustainable growth through a hands-on class, taught outside in the school garden? Learning is not a chore with you questioning the relevance of what you are learning, but can be seen now as a lifelong endeavour since what you are learning is being directly applied to reality and how you are learning is based on connections between all the disciplines. #3 would absolutely bloom in this atmosphere since it will also be heavily arts-based. Ever-Patient brings me back down from my lofty perch and says, “Joey is thriving in French Immersion. She LOVES it…and she has not been anxious or has had a hyperventilating hysterical incident all year.” Oh crap. Here comes the Pro/Con List. Ever-Patient runs for the nearest emergency exit. Then I read the new alternative school’s website and it says that K to Grade 4 is guaranteed but offering the older grades will depend upon the demand. Double crap. AND…. in the event of receiving more applications than spots available, for this year only, a lottery will be held (which looks likely if the large mob crowd on info night was any indication). Triple crap.
We hand in the applications and leave it up to destiny, fate, and lady luck. As the pros and cons are still discussed, a new prong in our proverbial “fork in the road” appears. The oldest comes home, so electrified she could light a small city with the amount of energy she is emanating, and shoves a paper in my face and says something to effect of: French…me…Can I?…Please…Fill this out…where’s my report card??…20%…French… I look at the paper and it says “Late French Immersion Program” in big, bold letters. Unbeknownst to me, the school board, in eliminating the Grade 7 insertion point into the French Immersion Program, is inserting at Grade 6 and this program will be housed in the middle school where all her friends will be attending in September, but in a separate wing of the school. We did not miss the application deadline and we will be attending the info night soon. A completed application form and her latest report card is required. Academic excellence will be the number one criteria and as for any remaining spaces, you can have one guess as to how they will be filled…yep, a lottery. Curve ball. The pool of students is smaller in the immersion side and she will still have access to fabulous facilities and winning sports teams in the middle school which also happens to be in walking distance.
My head spins as we consider all the factors. What is best for each child? Can I handle the logistics of 3 different schools? If the kids go to the smaller school without the capacity for a good sports team, can we supplement this with competitive play at the club level? Will we be able to keep up with the extracurricular schedules if either arts or sports need to be supplemented since participation in both sports and the arts are mandatory in our family? Does being bilingual, in the end, open the most doors? Socially, where will they be most comfortable? Will it benefit their sibling relationship for all 4 of them to potentially be in the same school at the same time? Does it matter in the end where they go to school if they are given a solid foundation with respect to their personal character at home? How does each child adapt to change? Do I really want to fill out ANOTHER application form (at this point, I have unwillingly memorized their health card numbers, confused names and birthdays, and have toyed with filling in the “Relationship to Child” field with creative responses like “Average” or “She had me at ‘hello'”)?
Of course, having 4 kids adds a definite multiple to these factors but the options can be just as immense for a family with an only child. As parents, we are still getting to know our children because they are not just extensions of ourselves but individuals who are finding their own rhythm in life. As a parent, you instinctively know when a school just isn’t a right fit and if you leave them in this environment, the child slowly becomes disinterested and regrettably, becomes satisfied with mediocrity and half-ass effort (like fitting a square peg into a hole). At the end of the day, we want our children to thrive, feel safe, enjoy childhood, and have healthy self-esteem especially as they get older and will need to be prepared for unexpected situations, encounter failure and disappointment, and face difficult choices. So maybe, the holy grail is NOT finding the right school, but the never-ending, tumultuous yet rewarding journey we commit to in finding our child.
As we await acceptance or “better-luck-next-time” letters, as I like to call them, we continue the Pro/Con discussions even though a lottery may take the decision out of our hands in the end. I take comfort in the fact that we have done all that we can with respect to this leg of our parenting journey, have faith that whatever happens is supposed to happen, and remind myself to savour each moment with my children because it won’t be long until I lose another one to a full-day grade one class, one to half-day JK, and the other to the abyss of adolescence. I take a deep breath… and promise myself not to start the preschool (for #4) or high school (for #1) conversations until the end of summer.