Education and Community

When our children are born, I think most of us feel compelled to hunker down with our partners, parents, and closest friends for a long spell of gazing at the baby. It’s like circling the wagons: creating a tight, safe circle in which our new one can stretch, yawn, and roll around to the delight of everyone who is very happily looking inward. It feels right to draw close and narrow the known world down to its very essentials: nourishment, sleep, intimacy.

But then they get bigger, and we start to look around. This happens whether you work outside the home, are a stay at home mother, or figure out something in between: as our children toddle into the world beyond that safe circle of home, we consider our neighborhoods, schools, and local culture with fresh eyes. How to be a family in this community? What will we share, and what will we partake of?

Nothing brought this into sharper relief for me than when our eldest child went to kindergarten. She was an enthusiastic learner and had always loved school; she couldn’t wait for real homework. We sent her to a small, urban public school with a high percentage of poor children from nearby public housing. Her teacher was caring and warm and hugged me when my eyes welled with tears on the first day. It all seemed perfect: a true public institution that was a bit ragged around the edges but welcoming of all children in an inspiring way.

By January, we were in a muddle. My daughter was liking school less and less. The day was long, the time outdoors nearly nonexistent, the classroom management techniques tedious, and she was positively deluged by dittos. Worksheets, endless worksheets! It broke our hearts to hear her ask to stay home on Monday mornings. So in the end, after months of deliberation, we applied for aid and were able to send her to private school.

She’s now in first grade. Her school is beautiful. I don’t know if I could design a better one. But I am still plagued by doubts about the choice: something about our participation in this self-selected, elite community feels wrong. Our neighbors aren’t there. The poor kids from public  housing aren’t there. The children with learning difficulties aren’t there. And while the academics are so, so, so much better, my kid still has hard days. She would still rather stay home some mornings. Even a fancy private school can’t protect you from the fact that growing up can be tough.

At this time in our lives, the choices we make about our children’s educations have a bigger impact on how we participate in community life than anything else. I read David Brooks’ column last week on how our culture is polarized into two separate “tribes” (educated upper and poor, uneducated lower) that  live lives completely divorced from one another. He advocates a National Service program that might draw our national tribes together, at least for a short time. I couldn’t help but reflect on our choice of school. We live in a town with many expensive private schools and many struggling public schools. It makes for lack of neighborhood cohesion and a disturbing stratification along tribal lines that begins at a tender age.

So often we pose these problems as family vs. community: would you choose your child’s happiness over supporting public schools? Is your kid more important than the public good? But maybe that’s a false kind of set up. Maybe we have to think about education – and happiness – in more communal terms. Maybe throwing our lot in with our neighbors–all of them–is a way of honoring our interdependence and teaching our children something about personhood that is hard to learn in a homogenous setting where everyone agrees with one another.

And it needn’t be a choice between public and private. I know many home schooled children experience the diversity and richness of their communities as part of their unique education. I am not sure what form it might take, but what I am longing for is a more inclusive vision of what is best for children. Maybe it is best for kids to learn and grow around people possessing all kinds of abilities and experiences and bodies and imaginations.

I would so like to hear your thoughts on this complicated question. How do your choices around education impact your family’s role in the broader community? What value does diversity hold for you when it comes to your children, and yourself? Please share!

And please stop by and visit my blog, Homemade Time. New conversation partners on the questions (big and small) that come with motherhood are so very, very welcome.


About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

10 thoughts on “Education and Community”

  1. Because of just what you wrote, I decided to homeschool my now 13 year old. I brought her home last year. Best decision ever. We decided to also homeschool our 4 year old. Do it. It’s great! My girls

    Earn what they want. Science is baking, math is starting a business, English is writing poetry and reading poetry. Homeschooling rocks. Tons of social opportunities. Don’t be scared. Just dive off the bridge. If you feel sad sending her off, and she feels badly leaving, why force it? Listen to your intuition.

  2. What a timely post for me. My husband are struggling with very similar issues with our five year old daughter who will be entering Kindergarten next year. Our neighborhood school – despite being in highly touted Montgomery County MD – scores low on tests and has a very high percentage of English as a Second Language and low-income students. Another mom in the neighborhood told me the academics are fine but there is no community at the school and that it doesn’t actually reflect the neighborhood we live in because all of the upper middle class families have sent their children elsewhere.

    We are all over the place trying to decide what to do for our daughter who is bright and eager to learn, but also sensitive and emotional. We have gone so far as to consider moving to a town on the Eastern Shore so we can send her to a private school we can afford – except this would require one of us to quit our job and the other to commute FOUR hours a day to DC.

    As someone who went to an exclusive mostly white private school and then switched to a large DC high school where I, as a white person, was in the minority, I can say that I place a high value on diversity in education. At the same time, don’t we always want the best education we can get for our kids? For me an education goes beyond whether she can learn to read and write – it also involves the community she feels a part of at the school and how able the teachers are to meet her individual needs and keep her excited about learning.

    At the moment we are leaning towards staying put and sending out daughter to the neighborhood school in September. If it doesn’t work out we can make changes later. Such a hard issue though. I wish someone could tell us the answer!

  3. We also struggled with where to send my 5 year-old son. He will start school this fall. I have many friends who home school. I have friends with children in the public school and we hear the same thing…homework, busy work, boredom. I also was so dissappointed with the kindergarten curriculum that would all be review for him. Lucky for us there is a charter Montessori school in the next district. We will have to get up early to take him to the bus stop or take him to school ourselves, but the peace in my heart that he will be in an environment that will foster his love of learning will be worth the sacrifice.

  4. Our schools are good in my town, a town with little racial/religious diversity and only some economic diversity. Private schools also didn’t work for us, those we might afford weren’t appealing and those that were appealing were far too expensive. We opted to homeschool our children. I don’t regret it ever. But we do have to work much harder to develop our community. We have made one through church, one through sports, one through our homeschooling.. but they don’t always overlap at all even, like might a bit more if using public school. But the sacrifice has been worth it in my opinion. Despite being ‘guilted’ by others that the school system would be better for our family’s participation, I continue to put my child’s (children’s) needs first. No one else will.

  5. Jennifer, everything you describe is so familiar. We’re in Annapolis and I think I might not have quite gotten across this in my post: our public schools often don’t reflect the full diversity of our neighborhoods, because families with more resources go a myriad of directions towards various private schools. That makes for a far less neighborly community, I think, and it’s painful to realize we’re part of that trend.

    When we were deciding about the school where my daughter is now (which she mostly loves; it really is a beautiful place) a friend asked me what was more important than her flourishing. Pretty convincing argument. Yet I can’t quite let go of some sense that our choices impact more than just our kid: they impact the school we left behind and all the kids in it.

    Another point I didn’t touch on in my high-minded wonderings was the fact that even with considerable aid paying for school puts a financial strain on our family that is hard sometimes to cope with. We are stretched thin and could probably work less in the long run if we went public. Not that you asked, but when you mentioned heading out to the Eastern Shore and giving up one job and adding a LONG commute — I thought, don’t do it! Overall family well-being is so important. And that is part of our doubts: would we have more time together a a family if we weren’t paying tuition? Would we have less stress? Those things seem of ultimate importance for children and adults alike.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m with you. It’s super hard. Good luck this fall!

  6. As parents of two girls we have been assessing this same question for the last year. Just prior to the ‘standard’ start age of 5,we moved from the east to the west coast of Canada. Interestingly enough I think delaying the start with our busy move was ideal. We opted to start our eldest (5) in the January term at our local public elementary…and so the experience grows and our horizons lengthen. The school (all in the area actually) is very welcoming, and our kindie teacher is what I can only describe as extraordinary. This however is the result-getting here so many factors played a role.1) atmosphere in the school 2) parental involvement 3) distance from our home 4) an inclusive approach 5) forward thinking…and of course solid academics for the higher elementary levels.

    Having gotten to know the principal, teachers, and having been present at all of the school functions and joining the parental committee I truly feel we have become part of a deeper layer of our immediate community, and we feel very lucky. For those still on the fence I think you need to truly look to assess if your child is ready for school yet, and by knowing your child, be honest with yourself about where they will thrive. Keeping extreme changes in check help…especially when your family time could suffer as a result. I am a believer in the public school system-however no system is perfect. I think we can all help make the systems and our communities a better place to live. I hope the success we have experienced so far will follow us through until our senior elementary years-wouldn’t that be ideal!:) thank you for posting, I enjoyed reading your story and the resulting comments.

  7. Thanks Meagan! One thing that made us consider the Eastern Shore was the argument your friend made – what is more important than making sure my daughter is flourishing? Isn’t any sacrifice we have to make worth that? What is making us think we won’t make the move now is A) we don’t know yet that she won’t flourish in our neighborhood school and B) as you pointed out, being on the Eastern Shore with a super long commute and being a one-income family would no doubt (at this point in our life) create a strain that would cancel out the good we are trying to achieve with the private school. When Mommy and Daddy ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy…So in the end any sacrifice is worth her having what she needs, except the sacrifice that makes it all worse!

    Having said that, we are focusing our efforts on finding telecommuting positions (for at least one of us) so that we have the option of the Eastern Shore if and when we feel she needs it.

    Thanks so much for this great post – so thoughtful and honest.

  8. We send our children to the local public school (in Mainline PA). We moved here because of the blue ribbon school. My kids are part of the community here, and I am happy with the quality of education they are recieveing. Rent is higher, but much cheaper than paying for private school. We have a small rental as opposed to a larger house in another area, but education is our #1 priority.

  9. This is something I’ve been thinking aout a lot lately. My children both attend parochial schools. My son is now in a high school in the same city we live, but all the way across town. My daughter is in 2nd grade at the same school my son attended in a neighboring town. This is something we knew would probably happen when we moved here. We live in a nice neighborhood on the edge of a small city. A good portion of the rest of the city is not great. The school historically underperform and there are gang issues in some neighborhood schools as well as the high school. At the time, I was OK with the trade-off – lower city taxes in a suburban-town-style neighborhood. Even with the cost of parochial school, we were still paying less than we would if we actually moved to one of the suburban towns. Fast-forward and although I am still very pleased with the kids’ schools and the education they receive, I have grown and changed and I have different priorities now. I would prefer that they could attend a neighborhood school that we could walk to (I always walked to school growing up). Then, their schoolmate/friends would be in the same neighborhood instead of spread over 3 or 4 towns. Commuting to school and any playdates all involve hopping in the car and driving at least a few miles. I’m torn between the lifestyle I’m trying to cultivate – family-centered, environmentally responsible – and letting my children stay in the schools they love with the friends they’ve come to love.

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