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Friday, June 8, 2012

Guest Post: How 44 Days of Kindergarten Changed Everything



Eliana is married and has kids and a dog and is the only woman in her ward who kept her maiden name, which has provided thirteen years of awesome conversation. She writes and teaches English at a community college and swims and travels and tries not to go crazy.

image via deviantART

I’m a champion of public education. I spent six years teaching high school English, work part time at a community college currently, have a master’s degree in multicultural education, and share my opinion with pretty much anyone who asks. But all that was before I had a kid go to school.

When we got our class list, my son Cole was number 18 in the class. Score! I thought, nice and small. By the time we met the teacher, Cole was 28 out of 32 kids. The little tables were so squished together with tiny blue chairs, even without bodies, that I felt claustrophobic just walking into the room. But the teacher was a veteran of more than twenty years and a reading specialist to boot, so I figured she could handle things.

The first two days of kindergarten went well. Things were exciting and new, Cole got to wear his awesome new Spiderman shirt. Things fell apart on the third morning when he wanted to drive instead of walk. No big deal, till I looked in my rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of my boy when he couldn’t see me. Slumped in his booster seat, looking at the window more like a defeated teenager than energetic 6 year old. My heart broke a little.

I knew public school would be an adjustment. Cole went to a private Christian preschool near our house, one with nurturing teachers and a warm environment where he felt smart every day. He’s also a kid who takes time to handle new things—we call it ‘getting nervous,’ others might call it worrying a lot.

That third day of school, Cole’s teacher had to drag him inside crying. He was fine after I left, but he didn’t want to go. The next two weeks had tears most days, usually around lunch time. I did the good mom thing, letting him rest after school and giving extra hugs and fun. I came to have lunch with him to figure out why the cafeteria was setting him off.

What the problem boiled down to, after talking to Cole and his teacher and observing the class, was the sheer number of kids. Class was loud. They spent tons of time waiting around to do anything. The cafeteria was cavernous; as soon as I walked in I knew why Cole hated it. Echoing, it sounded like being trapped in a zoo. No wonder my quiet boy lost it every day when he had to sit there.

Each night after getting the kids down, my husband and I would talk about school. Our son was struggling more than I’d anticipated. I’d always been against homeschooling—fine for other people, not for me. School was the reward for making it through those hard early years with kids. And all those parents I knew who sent their kids to charter or private schools? I liked the idea of school options but always felt like you shouldn’t abandon your public school.

I didn’t need my son to love every minute of school. Not even like it. School is for learning—academics yes, but also how to get along with others and the skills that make society work. But Cole wasn’t learning anything. He’s smart and well behaved, so he spent his days not causing trouble and essentially doing nothing.

After two months, I started looking at other options for school. I’d talked to the teacher and principal and counselor and superintendent and school board about the ridiculous class size. Everyone agreed it was a problem but one that they weren’t going to do anything about. I volunteered, teaching reading groups, one morning a week. I hated leaving when I knew they needed another adult in that room, but I couldn’t stay all day.

My husband worried about the academic side of things. Cole would help other kids, acting as a little tutor, but he wasn’t being challenged in anyway. I wasn’t too worried about that part of things. I was worried that Cole was getting turned off of school already; imagining the next twelve years of school made me tired and I couldn’t fathom how he must think of his future if it would be more of the same.

Finally, after a brush off from the school district, I checked out another school in town. Still public but far away from my home. Our community has open enrollment, meaning that we can attend any public school if there is room. I went to talk to the principal and sit in on a class before even talking to Cole about the possibility.

The difference was staggering. With only twenty kids in the class (the recommended number for kindergarten to third grade), the teacher could interact with the students. No one was on the floor or at a separate punishment desk. There was space for you to move around. I left that day and almost cried in my car as I realized that I didn’t have to settle for my son surviving kindergarten—there were options where he might thrive.

And so we did it. We switched schools at the start of the second quarter. Cole didn’t mind at all when I explained our reasons. We haven’t had tears even once; he’s never told me he doesn’t want to go to school or complained about the kids in his class.

I’m not delusional, I know the first school helped break him in and made this transition easier. I don’t fault his first teacher either. She did everything she could to teach a challenging bunch of students.

What I learned from this experience is that every parent has to do what is right for his or her child. I’ve thought and preached so much about public education and its part in our social contract that I forgot—like so many in government—that the point of school is for the kids. I don’t want to home school, I don’t want to leave public school, but I will if I need to. I never thought I’d say those words but I mean it now—I won’t let my son waste his childhood learning time in a negative environment.

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