Monday, March 12, 2007

Lamplighter Column--Getting Schooled

For those of you who haven't picked up a copy of this month's Lamplighter...

Education choices in Memphis lacking

I was a proponent of the Memphis Public School system before I had kids. “I went to public schools and I turned out fine,” I would say (loudly in bars while having hypothetical holier-than-thou arguments). When I actually got pregnant and started thinking about reality versus winning an argument, I realized that “fine” wasn’t what I wanted for my future offspring.

For the first year of Satchel’s life I plotted ways for Warren or I to stay home full-time, but (ironically, due to needing two salaries to cover our student loans) nothing panned out. Our precious baby went to a home-based daycare and we went to work. When Satchel was eighteen-months-old and showing signs of sponge-like learning abilities, I started looking for a school to enroll him in. I called around and didn’t find too many options for his age group. At the time, the best choice was Threshold Montessori. Not only did they take the kids young, they were open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — a working parent’s dream. At the school, children did art twice a day, played outside a lot, and had freedom to choose what “work” they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Best of all, I liked the diversity. Threshold had a pretty even mix of white kids and black kids in addition to a smattering of kids with other ethnicities.

Satchel thrived at Threshold. He was well-liked by the teachers and students and quickly adapted to the Montessori style of learning. He paved the way for Jiro to be accepted at fifteen months of age, and soon he was thriving too. By the time Jiro enrolled, I no longer got upset by the amount of television they watched or the junk food they witnessed their friends eating. In fact, I looked forward to the third Thursday of each month when they had fast food or pizza because that was one less day that I had to make lunches. I was secure in the knowledge that they were both well cared for and intellectually stimulated. I gave glowing accounts of the school to my friends and never spent a moment worrying about either of my boys once I dropped them off in the morning.

Despite this, I did have a small inferiority complex in conversations with friends who sent their kids to the “fancy” Maria Montessori downtown. With its gardening program, high parent involvement, and no TV and no plastic toys, it seemed to me like it belonged more in California than in Memphis. I had called Maria Montessori when I was initially looking for a place to send Satchel, but upon discovering that they were only open until 2:30 p.m., closed in the summer, and that Satchel would have to be “invited” to attend a full day session after proving himself part-time, I couldn’t quite figure out how a family with two working parents could logistically send their child to Maria Montessori (even if they could afford it).

As much as I liked Threshold, I had to think ahead. Threshold only goes through kindergarten and Satchel is almost five. Warren and I had a come-to-Jesus talk where we discussed sending Satchel to Idlewild Elementary, the public school in our zone at the time. Idlewild was close by, it’s an optional school, and it has a pretty decent reputation.

We decided to do an Idlewild drive-by in August. I immediately noticed the “Open House Next Thursday Night” sign out front and the boys immediately noticed the cool playground behind the teachers’ parking lot. That Saturday we went to the playground and started talking about the time when Satchel would go to his “big school.” He was very excited and immediately started talking about his “big school” on a regular basis.

At the Open House, Satchel was amazed by the sheer number of people in attendance and was very interested to see the inside of the school. We walked by a few classrooms and ventured into the library, and of course, the restrooms. He seemed smitten, but inexplicably, by the time we got home, Satchel said he no longer wanted to go to the “big school.”

“Why?” I asked, perplexed.

“There’s too many people. Too many brown people,” he said.

“Whaaa, huh?” I was totally taken off guard.

But truthfully, I noticed too. According to the school’s racial breakdown, in a class of twenty-four, there might be three or four non-African American students. Satchel had plenty of black friends at Threshold, but I didn’t know how he’d feel being in the minority at Idlewild. When I went to Newberry Elementary, the racial breakdown of the classrooms was pretty much the same and I don’t remember feeling out of place. However, I would really like to have Satchel in a classroom that more accurately reflects the diversity of Midtown.

Recently, a crunchy friend of mine enrolled her daughter at Evergreen Montessori. “You should see it,” she said. “They have all of the traditional Montessori materials, they make lunch there, there’s a huge backyard with no sand and lots of animals, and there are all kinds of extras like yoga, soccer, and Tae Kwan Do.”

“Really?” I said trying to figure out why I hadn’t sent Satchel there in the first place. “What time do they close?”

“Six-thirty,” she said.

“Isn’t it expensive?”

“A little bit, but you would save some money not making lunches.”

“Don’t they close when the City Schools close?

“Yes, but they do stay open extra days for working parents.”

Warren and I set up an appointment to take Satchel and Jiro on a tour of Evergreen. We were greeted at the door by one of Satchel’s old Threshold classmates who immediately took him by the hand and ran off to show him everything. There were lots of other familiar faces too — from the playground, from Mothersville, from the grocery store, etc. The director told us that there were three other students with a Japanese parent and/or grandparent, which we thought was pretty cool. Once we saw all of the amenities at Evergreen, we were very impressed. It had all that Threshold had and more — all the way to the eighth grade. We were sold.

Looking over the enrollment packet, I was worried if we’d be able to afford Evergreen. It wasn’t as much as Maria Montessori, but it was definitely more than Threshold — especially if we needed before and after care, which we did. However, Warren and I were committed to making it work. And thanks to the understanding of Evergreen’s director, we did.

The boys have been at Evergreen for two months now and are fitting right in. They love yoga and Tae Kwan Do and can’t wait for soccer. Warren and I like seeing our friends at drop offs, pick ups, and parent meetings. I don’t miss making lunches one bit. The school definitely reflects Midtown and has a very neighborly feel.

It is easy for me to imagine the boys staying at Evergreen indefinitely, but not without feeling a little guilty about it. It was a no-brainer for us to buy a house (twice now) in a transitional neighborhood — the realtor actually said something along the lines of, “This neighborhood needs people like you” — but taking the leap into the public school system is much scarier.

I saw a high-school friend last fall at a Rock-n-Romp. As we sat and talked for over an hour, he told me how much he wanted to move back to Memphis.

“What’s stopping you?” I asked.

“The schools,” he said. In North Carolina, he told me, they have great schools. All kinds of schools. Even public Montessori schools.

I want to live in Memphis. In Midtown. I want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. But, I also want my kids to get a great (and not necessarily traditional) education. I don’t want a third of my income to go to private school, especially when a third of it already goes toward student loans.

I want better choices.

There's already been a record breaking THREE letters to the of which clears up a few facts about Maria Montessori that I got wrong, one basically says I am a racist, and one that simply says I am a whiner/poor journalist.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I like it, it's very honest. I bet you will get a LOT of letters though.

3inthefamilynotify said...

I thought it was excellent.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, yeah... I often hear white midtowners talk about how self-sacrificing they are to live here and be, as you say, "part of the solution." And that way of framing the situation always bothers me, because what it implies is that you assume it must be a negative thing if a neighborhood or school is majority black.

You know? Like, if we just had more white people around here, everything would be better. As if you're doing your neighbors a tremendous favor by lightening up the average skin tone on your block. I am sure you don't intend to convey this message, but it gets conveyed all the same.

For example: You are probably using the word "transitional" to mean that the neighborhood is rundown and being fixed up, rather than that the neighborhood is black and being whited up. But many people will assume you mean the latter.

I also notice that many white people use that same equation of "even mix of white and black with a smattering of others" as the ideal racial makeup for a school. But our city is more like 70% black and 30% white, so why can't a classroom have more black kids than white?

Sure, it can be lonely and uncomfortable at times to be a racial minority in a social situation. But it doesn't have to be a bad experience overall, and nonwhite people deal with that situation all the time -- so why do white people assume their kids can't handle it?

Just a few things to consider.

gatesofmemphis said...

Interesting and honest article.

I have to say I'm an Idlewild parent and believe it to be a very good choice. Great kids, teachers, principal, and lots of involvement from the parents, including sometimes me. It's much harder than the Catholic school I went to when I was a kid.

ali said...

I think we all take the education of our OWN kids very seriously. For the good of the community, we have one attitude; for the good of "me", we have another. From afar, one solution seems best.. but close up, when it's your kid, your bright and shining star, everything gets blurred and emotional. I'm a public school teacher and I send my kids to a private school that I drive to. Where's the justification there? It's shaky... but, those are MY kids and the "behind the scenes" stuff I see from the inside is not good enough for my own. Maybe I spend too much time listening to the complaints of other teachers - too much to do, not enough time - that I never want to see the teacher of my kid complaining about her job. I want my kids' teachers to LOVE their job.
I don't have the answer and I certainly don't live in a big city with the same choices, but even here the decisions parents make about education are irrational.
Are there still community values? Or is it just the "me" value that we listen to?
Stacey, I'm on your side because I don't know what the "right" thing to do it either. That's called motherhood and it sometimes sucks.

Sweet Sassy Molassy said...

Wow. I disagree on so many levels that I may have to actually write a post on my neglected blog. But you knew that.

And if anyone thinks private school teachers don't complain about their students, well, I've got some sad news for you.

Anonymous said...

All may not be as it seems. I found this recommendation, or rather, lack thereof, just by searching the web for Evergreen Montessori.

Your article made me feel a little guilty or like I was a bad parent for sending my very caucasion (father is from Great Britian) son to Snowden Elementary. He has always had plenty of friends both "brown" and white and I have always had a positive feeling about his education. Yet, your article made me question my decision, so I decided to research this Montessori option your article presented.

This is what I found:
Just a regular glorified day care center masked as a Montessori
Posted by memphisreagent on 01/22/2007
If you're looking for a glorified day care center, this is your place. If you want a true montessori environment, this is not the place for your child. If you are familiar with montessori teachings, children are encouraged to explore and do "work" on their own, but with some guidance and instruction. This place lets your child roam around and float unsupervised and without little structure until they are finally ready to actually teach your kid something. They will, however, let your child get plenty of fresh air several times a day which I guess is bound to happen since little teaching does. There are other great options in the Memphis Midtown area besides Evergreen so do your research. If you must choose this place, ask to sit in on lessons, actually meet your child's teacher(s), and get a progress report at least once every six weeks.

Pros: The helpers/assistants were very pleasant.
Cons: Too many to list in this small space. However, one does stick out and that is they seemed to have more helpers than actual teachers.
Overall user rating: Not Recommended

My point is that each individual parent has to do what they think is best for their child. Someone is always going to have a different opinion or point of view of a situation. Thank you for sharing yours, but I wouldn't necessarily deem you a better parent because of it.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and very true. This is a subject that my husband and I have juggled with for the past 6 years and one week ago we think our answers have come. Our child starts first grade at Campus School in August!! Diversity, current research based best practices, enthusiastic teachers, parent involvement, free and PUBLIC (somewhat, they pick their students based on different priorities)! We live in the neighborhood and feel like we're now "part of the solution." Having an education degree I know what to look for in a school and also would like "more" for my child as every parent does. With campus school's 30/30/30 diversity, continuous research, and enriched curriculum I feel like this is the best Memphis has to offer.

I teach at a private school in midtown and my daughter has attended this school for the past 3 years (PreK through K) I can vouch for the "communityness", small class sizes and parent involvement. However, the resources are very limited.

I have a friend whose daughter attends Evergreen. She is one of the Japanese decent students the tour guide spoke of! Her mom is very versed in education practices and has been VERY pleased with Evergreen. But she does a lot at home with her child to make sure standards are met.

I think the request for progress reports is a great idea and no matter what school your child attends frequent "pop-ins" during instruct time opens your eyes to a lot. The lack of structure is a concern with the Montessori track! You can find state/national and city educational standards online and can see for yourself what your child should be learning.

Good Luck! It's probably the most important decision for parents to make! They do spend more time at school than at home.

Ashley said...

I just found your blog while looking for othe Memphis bloggers - hapy I found you! Let me just say - I agree with you! We actually moved to Tipton County a couple of years ago and don't even get me started on that. It is such a diverse mixture there and it's completely not a race thing it's a "class" or "stature" thing which is kind of the same issue, it all boils down to parental support or lack there of. At the end of the day - for me it is less about "fixing things" and more about who my kids will hang out with or be friends with - I really think it is so important who your children are friends with and what you allow your children to experience. selfish, I know.

Melanie said...

What do I think?

I admit to being puzzled by your comment that you wanted a school that more acurately reflects "midtown." What does that mean? Is the racial make-up of *midtown* 50/50? I really don't know the stats, but I'd hazard a guess that when you look at the whole of midtown (not just areas like Cooper Young or Evergreen), it's probably not that equally divided.

Also, the school would undoubtedly be more "diverse" if more of the families that lived within the school parameters actually sent their children to the school. That seems pretty unlikely to happen if they think there are too many "brown" people there; it's a cycle.

After homeschooling for one year, I'm MORE than happy with our neighborhood school (Snowden). I truly think my kids are getting an education and experience that is on par with what some of my acquaintances are paying $8,000+ a year for at places like Hutchison, Lausanne, and Briarcrest. It's a school that has not lost the support of the neighborhood, and I think that has made all the difference.

Kaleigh said...

Well, I read the article before almost anyone did since my husband works for the LampLighter. We chose Peabody when we lived in CY, and now we go to another public school. The racial makeup was never the deciding factor for us, nor was it an issue for my kids. But kudos for your honesty.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Greenberg,
Your decision to reject public schooling for your children seems to have been at least partially based on racial issues. As has been pointed out, this is relatively hard to justify on non-prejudiced grounds. After all, in a color-blind society (which according to Dr. King was the goal) the color of other students' skin should play no factor in your decision. You may have been using race as a shorthand for other issues, such as poverty, but that too would be at least somewhat problematic. All of this is too bad because there are myriad reasons for rejecting Memphis' public school system and choosing other options other than race. You could have written a very different article that analyzed a range of factors parents considered in choosing private or home education, including not wanting the government to have a role in rearing their children, concern about the ineffiency of large bureaucracies, desire for their children to have a religious and moral education, fears about the standards of public education, and rejection of the methods and goals of contemporary public education, among other factors. Despite the assertions of other posters here, it is hard to argue that the average private school in Memphis does not provide their students with a more rigorous education than the average public school. As it was your article provided the rather unfortunate suggestion that race was the primary factor in many parents' decision to abandon the Memphis public school system and I very much regret that.
Sincerely Yours,
Leroy Pancake

It's about DIVERSITY stupid said...

Many of the posters have missed the a parent who faced the same situation and choices, I can relate. I would no sooner send my child to a class with a ratio of 90%-10% black/white, as I would to a school out in the far-out burbs where the ratio is reverse. How can a child learn to celebrate diversity when there is very little of it in their environment? There is nothing wrong with seeking out a school where the student body is less homogeneous--ESPECIALLY when one's own child is of mixed ethnicity.

My child attends Evergreen Montessori as well, and the student body is a diverse crowd. This assorted mix of ethnicities is used as a teaching tool to broaden the children's knowledge of other cultures in a hands-on way. This was only one of the reasons why this school was chosen; other reasons include the Montessori style of teaching, which my child took a natural liking to...and is very unlike the teaching methodology in our public school system.

(**To Anonymous #3, In researching "the Montessori option," I would recommend actually visiting the school and talking to some real parents/teachers/students instead of googling the school)

Thanks for the thoughtful and honest article. Definitely fodder for thought.

Melanie said...

To #13

I responded to the post that was written and the point that was made.

The original post seemed to say that the assigned public school was rejected because there were too many brown people. I didn't see anything about the methodology used at that school, the standards, the curriculum, etc. In fact, just going by the article makes it seem like there was no further investigation of the school.

That's what I was responding to, and Stacey did ask for thoughts about the article.

Given the overculture in which they live, I have a hard time worrying about my kids (who are African-American) missing out on something because their school is majority AA.

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