As parents, we eventually have to ask ourselves, where should we send our kids to school? Everyone has an opinion and no one agrees. Arguments about diversity, economic accessibility, and privilege abound, not to mention educational philosophies. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds and forget why you’re considering the question in the first place!
In our own household, it being what I call a democraticallyminded mini-dictatorship, you’d have to rephrase the question as, “Where do my children want to go to school?” Suddenly the topic gets much less complicated. My very vocal spawn know exactly what they want: autonomy, meaningful study, good resources, and time to play. Oh, and nice people.
Yes, I’m Biased, and So are My Kids
I’ll confess right up front: I love alternative schools and alternative education. I love what small independent schools have to offer: truly individualized instruction, student-led inquiry and project-based learning, multi-age classrooms that promote mentoring and cross-learning. I love the values based culture, with the freedom to embed those values in the day-to-day classroom curriculum and overall running of the school. I know all this because our kids attended a small independent school out west. And they loved it, too. That said, when I moved from California back to my home state of Vermont, I was happy to put my kids in the local public school, and the kids were 100% behind the idea themselves. Why not? Compared to where we’d moved from, Vermont schools are absurdly well-funded, generally small in size, with a great mix of both experienced older teachers and young energetic innovators fresh out of grad school. The curriculums include all the basics plus music, art, and foreign languages.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Our kids stayed in the public school for four years. I volunteered as much as possible in the classroom. We helped out with PTO activities and attended school board meetings. We voted on school budgets. As a family we invested ourselves in making it work. Academically, the public school follows all the federal guidelines and students take all the required tests, yet the school’s still been labeled “deficient,” despite having some of the top scores in the state.
Teachers, as individuals, are wonderful and we could tell they wanted to give students more autonomy, more time to explore interests, but they were on the clock and on the hook. Being labeled deficient can have serious punitive/financial consequences. Speaking of finances and education, every year the budget for music, art, and languages gets smaller and smaller, as pressure to perform better in core subjects grows.
Surprisingly, the academic woes, (typical of public education in this day and age), weren’t actually a deal breaker for us. Culturally it never felt right. As a volunteer, I met other wonderful involved parents and made lots of friends. I felt connected with other families who had a vision for what their school should and could be. My kids, however, didn’t fare so well.
Separated from each other all day in single-age classrooms or age-segregated recess and lunch times, they brought that intolerance home with them in the form of endless squabbles and lack of consideration for each other. You might think, “What’s the problem? Aren’t most schools like that, and don’t most siblings fight?” Not necessarily. The alternative school our kids attended in California had all mixed-age classrooms and, prior to starting the public school here, my kids rarely fought.
They also told me that they felt their days were scheduled down to the minute and their movements in the building surveilled and restricted. Of course, even small Vermont public schools are much larger than than many private elementary schools. I tried to explain it to them and brush it off as necessary “crowd control.” They understood but it still registered with them as a lack of trust.
That got us thinking about what sort of values they were learning. Instead of the acknowledgement of daily kindnesses in support of core values we’d come to expect, good classroom behavior was rewarded with candy. “Bribery!” scoffed my son. Instead of teaching—and modeling—conflict resolution skills, kids were separated after disputes.
And every month, they were brought into all-school assemblies and lectured en masse on bullying. This fall, the school website has a new online anonymous “Major Behavior Reporting Form.” We all felt it was time to look at other options.
How Did We Choose?
If your kids are already in school, you’ll know what works and doesn’t work for you as a family. If your kids are still in preschool or about to enter elementary, you probably still know more than you think! We had a mental checklist, but it really helped to write things down. That way, when we’d toured several schools, we could compare notes and weigh pros and cons. Our checklist looked something like this:
What are staff members like, and do they seem accessible?
What kind of curriculum does the school follow?
How are classrooms structured?
What are the school’s values, and do they seem to live by them?
What is the physical location like?
Can we afford tuition or qualify for a scholarship?
Only you will know the right answers to those questions. And always ask to speak with families currently attending the school or with alumni.
Hitting All the Right Notes
Eventually, we chose The Schoolhouse, on Dorset Street in South Burlington.
My kids are very engaged academically and “own” their curriculum. They never seem to bring much work home, yet they’re meeting all the benchmarks we care about. They have all the “extras” of music, art, and languages, minus the budget cuts. The school also has an innovative program called Farm Food Forest, where students spend meaningful time working on a farm, cooking and learning about food and nutrition in the school kitchen, and investigating nearby forests, learning about nature and ecosystems. As a family we care deeply about conservation and we also consciously support our local farmers, so it was a program we felt attracted to.
My son working at Bread and Butter Farm, who the Schoolhouse partners with
my daughter cooking in the school kitchen
These days, the kids come home much more relaxed and willing to hang out together and work out their differences. After all, they see each other several times a day, they have school friends of all different ages, and the staff models conflict resolution skills and community building. I’m delighted by their newfound (or refound) patience with each other. I also have to confess, having been away from New England so many years, I’m no longer much of an early riser… You wouldn’t think having school start a mere half hour later would make a big difference, but it’s a salve for my slacker soul.
Even though we moved back to Vermont four years ago, it finally feels as though we’ve all come home.
Written by Anne Mollo
I grew up in rural Vermont and, as a young adult, lived in downtown Burlington. Eventually I was lured away to New York City, and from there to San Francisco. Twenty five years later, here I am, back in Vermont! I’m a writer and a massage therapist, and lately I’ve been dabbling in improv comedy theater. I’m delighted by the invitation to contribute to the BVT Moms Blog! I live in the Vermont countryside with my husband Paul, where we are wildly outnumbered by children and pets