I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
September 21, 2012
Parents here in Nashville are in an uproar right now over the state of our public school system, and my Facebook feed is exploding with their collective angst. You can read about the catalysts for this debate here and here if you’re interested, but I want to keep this discussion broad enough for all of you, whether you live in Nashville or elsewhere. Having spent the last year traveling the country talking to moms, I know there’s a great deal of unrest nationwide over public school. The question I want to ask all of you: What do we do about it?
The best way I can explain where I’m coming from is to simply tell my own experience with our public school system.
When I married, my stepdaughters were attending the public elementary school that our two youngest children attend now. It is an amazing school and we couldn’t be happier with it. I wish all of my kids could have attended this school right on through their senior year. Unfortunately, that’s not an option.
In fifth grade, my stepdaughters went on to our neighborhood middle school, and that’s when things began to slowly decline. There were some amazing teachers at their middle school and the principal at that time was wonderful. There also were some not-so-amazing teachers. Some didn’t really teach them anything at all, preferring instead to tell personal anecdotes during class each day or show movies. Others were clearly doing nothing more than “teaching to the test,” drilling the students to perform well on their standardized testing rather than trying instill in their students a love of learning. As a result, during these years I noticed that school became a chore for both girls. It was a great tragedy to me, because they had come out of their elementary school with curiosity about the world around them and a desire to read more and learn more– Faced with mountains of homework, hours of forced reading, endless worksheets and repetitive drills, though, I watched that spark fade in both of them.
We figured things would improve once our girls got to high school. Both of them were good students and qualified for magnet school, and we’d heard good things about the magnets in our district. When the time came, my oldest stepdaughter applied for magnet school and met the criteria to get in– However, she didn’t make the cut in the school’s admission lottery.
This news was devastating to us because frankly, we didn’t have a backup plan. With four children in the house and one income, we couldn’t afford private school, even with the help of financial aid. And we were concerned by the amount of violence and disciplinary incidents at the high school for which we were zoned. When more than one teacher friend at that school actually advised us not to send our kids there, we knew we needed to come up with another option. So we applied to send her to an open-enrollment school here in Nashville. It was, everyone agreed at that time, the best non-magnet public high school in Nashville. And that’s where both of my stepdaughters ended up (our younger stepdaughter struck out in the magnet school lottery as well).
My husband would tell you the same thing – Sending our children to this particular school was without question the worst parenting decision we have ever made. I still feel guilty about it. My stepdaughters ended up at a high school where fighting, gang activity, drug and weapons searches and lockdowns were common. Loaded guns were found on campus several times while they were there. Drugs were sold in the school library. Men flashed them at the bus stop in front of their school. At one point, both of them were in a class each day with a boy who was on trial for murder. Another time, one of my stepdaughters signed up for Chinese class, the teacher was ridiculed by the students and quit two weeks into the school year, and she was never replaced. My stepdaughter went to a class that had no teacher for the rest of the semester. These are just a couple of examples of the problems we faced at this school, but I could tell you dozens of stories just like them.
Four years of this school changed both my stepdaughters’ personalities. Making it through the day at this school required them to become defensive, tough and withdrawn. This, of course, carried over into life at home. When my younger stepdaughter was a senior, she actually made us promise that we would never send our younger children to her high school. She didn’t need to worry. We had already come to that conclusion ourselves, and were beating ourselves up over not coming up with a better plan for our older girls. In retrospect, with our limited funds, I should have just home schooled them. I wish I had.
That’s not to say there weren’t some great parents at that school, and great teachers. In both the middle and high schools our kids attended, the system itself seemed to be dragging everyone down, even those who were trying hard to make changes. There were disciplinary problems, drug and weapons problems, building facility problems, and testing standard problems that prevented teachers from being creative and tailoring lessons to get students interested in the subject matter, or appeal to different learning styles. There were students who succeeded there, but those students were highly disciplined and motivated, and managed to get through heavy course loads of advanced work without being distracted or dragged down by… well, everything around them. My stepdaughters took AP classes, but they needed guidance and inspiration, like most kids, and for the most part, they just weren’t getting it at their school.
I’m not qualified to make some grand pronouncement on the public school system– I’m simply telling you what our experience has been with Metro schools over a 17-year period. Because of all that’s happened, we’ve reluctantly decided to pull our kids out of the Metro school system once they finish elementary school. While many of our friends will send their kids to the neighborhood middle school for 5th and 6th grades and try to get them into a magnet school in 7th or 8th grade, I’m not really thrilled by that option. Even if we’re successful in the lottery crapshoot (and many of our friends have not been), the magnet schools are on the other side of town- I don’t really like the thought of my kids being so far away from home each day at that age. Also, I’m honestly concerned about the heavy workload at these schools. I don’t want my kids to be so burdened by schoolwork that they hate learning.
We’re currently paying two college tuitions and we still can’t afford private school, so we’re looking at a few schools in town that combine home school with class time and are substantially less expensive. We’ve also discussed moving five minutes away so that the kids can go to school in a neighboring district. I know we’re far from alone in our dilemma and that’s why I’m sharing it. There are thousands of families in our school district that are just like us- dissatisfied with the public school options available to them and unable to afford private school.
This is why I was incredibly disappointed to hear that my school board just voted down an application from Great Hearts Academy, which wanted to open FIVE charter schools in our district. I’ve read lots of opinions online on the matter, but many of them are coming from parents of elementary school students here in the district and I’m not sure they understand what their kids are in for once they’ve finished the fourth grade. For so many families in our district, charter schools give us more OPTIONS- something we desperately need. They would also help prevent good students (translation: HIGH STANDARDIZED TEST SCORERS) with families who care about their education from leaving the district. Is it really too much to ask that a district that spends so much money per student ($11,084 per student per year, to be exact) be able to provide safe, productive learning environments for its kids?
So if Great Hearts isn’t a viable solution, then what is? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject and on public school in general, because I honestly don’t have a solution myself. From a parent’s perspective, charter schools sound great to me right now, although I’ve heard plenty of arguments against them. And I recognize and embrace the need for diversity in schools and am behind any effort to help at-risk students, as long as the effort is working. What I want for all of our students doesn’t seem all that difficult on its surface– to provide a safe, caring learning environment for every child WHO WANTS TO LEARN, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. The problem comes with how to handle the kids who DON’T want to learn, and who are at school because they have to be there, and who too often end up creating problems for everyone else.
What I know for sure is that we must make changes, because our current system simply isn’t working. And that makes me very, very sad.
What are your thoughts?
Image via AlamosBasement/Flickr