February 4, 2014 by multiracialsky
We used to homeschool. Birth through age ten for our oldest two children. My children first started any kind of traditional outside-the-home schooling a year and a half ago. They were all together in elementary school: a first grader, a third grader, and two fifth graders. We moved so they could go to school. We made the choice to move out of one of the top-performing school districts in the state to the lowest ranked elementary school. It is one of only two elementary schools in the state where my children can be guaranteed at least a handful of brown faces in every class. (The other school is in the same neighborhood less than a mile away.) We also chose this school because of the arts-focus, but 18 months in that seems a lot less important.
We succeeded in fully integrating at least our younger two children into a racially, culturally, and socioeconomically mixed group of peers and true friends. That part of their educational experience has been a success—and honestly, it was perhaps the most important element to us. Our older two kids spent only a year in the mixed elementary school, with a manipulative teacher and a transient group of peers, several of whom moved out of the state over the summer. Now in middle school, they are in the clear socioeconomic majority and have largely migrated into groups of peers with similar family structures and privilege. However, their educational experience this year has been far superior to fifth grade.
There are a lot of different factors at play when J and I discuss plans for our children’s education. Social, racial, academic, arts, location, cost…to name a few.
The realities (good and bad) for my children as students at a mixed elementary school:
- My children have classmates and friends of all races and religions. (60% Students of Color, 28 home languages, and up to 50 home countries.) My goal that all my children have the opportunity to be friends with—and eventually date—a diverse group of people has been met.
- A quarter of the student body at the elementary school is Black, and more than half of these students are African immigrants. (We have had limited success in getting together outside of school with Somali friends in particular, especially girls.) The middle school is significantly less racially diverse, as it merges three elementary schools—the other two almost all White. The sixth grade population is about 5% Black girls—including only 2 (maybe 3?) African-American girls. My daughter is the only one in her class.
- About two-thirds of the elementary school student body qualifies for free lunch; the school offers free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks to all students. (At the elementary school, our children are/were in the minority bringing home-lunch. In the middle school most of the children bring home-lunch, and the lunch room and tables are basically segregated by a home-lunch/school-lunch division. It is one of the biggest factors that has socially separated my son from his friends from last year. I also know a child who qualifies for free lunch but doesn’t eat so she can sit with her wealthier home-lunch friends. There is obviously some work to be done here.)
- The schools’ student populations are socioeconomically, culturally, and racially diverse—and largely divided along these lines. The cross-over families are few (and they’re pretty awesome, I must say). Birthday parties in particular are really segregated. I have a lot to say about this, so it’s going to have to be its whole own post another time.
- The schools’ teaching staff and administrations are almost all White. Which led to two White male administrators telling me last year that the bullying (they called it teasing) my child was experiencing did not rise to the level of official ‘harassment’ because it was not race-based. The children in question were pulling on, threatening to cut off, and making fun of my child’s naturally kinky-curly hair. I really have nothing appropriate to say here.
- Last year, only one of our four children had a strong teacher. This year we’re (thankfully) at 4/4. (Last year, our daughter’s first grade class lost their teacher suddenly a week after winter break. The class then struggled through almost five weeks of rotating substitutes, and then landed a just-licensed long-term sub who had never worked in lower elementary school. By the end of the year, seven out the the remaining 21 students were on an IEP or EST—many behavior-related. In addition, they restarted the first grade curriculum over at Unit 1—in late February.)
- We chose an art-themed school for our homeschooled artsy kids who play musical instruments and have an artist for a mama. We’ve discovered the music program especially (as well as other ‘specials’) is stronger at the traditional elementary school—the one with significantly less socioeconomic and racial diversity.
- We’ve raised our kids to be tuned in, to empathize and connect with those around them. This has made it so they are close to a variety of kids in their classrooms—including some of the students with more serious behavior issues. (Which means when their friends are acting out, or getting in trouble, or having a meltdown, or having problems at home, our children are also affected. This transferred trauma seems to largely slide over the other middle-class kids in their classes who are not actually friends with any of the more challenging kids.)
- The academics, at the elementary school in particular, are weaker than we had hoped. I was definitely in denial about the number of functionally illiterate students our public schools are socially-promoting from grade to grade. My children ‘graduated’ to middle school last year with a frighteningly high percent of their class reading at a second grade level or below. How can those students possibly succeed?
- School performances: chorus, orchestra, variety show, school play…moments in time I will never forget. My son’s five-word solo: “You gave my life direction”…priceless.
The good and the bad of homeschooling (what we miss and what we don’t):
- Number One Awesome Thing: Being together all the time. Seeing all the success and witnessing all the flailing.
- Number One Really Hard Thing: Being together all the time. Personally present for every single moment of every day with every single child.
- The morning: I am not a morning person. I am a feeling really productive-from 10 pm to 2 am kind of person. I suck at getting my children excited about getting up early. Why should anyone have to go outside at 7:30 a.m. when it’s -10 degrees?
- The morning: Getting my kids up and to school on time starts my day by 8:30 at the latest. I can get a lot done before lunch. I cannot think of another thing that would consistently (and unresentfully) get me up and out of bed before 8:00 five days a week.
- Flexibility: I miss running our own schedule, thinking of my kids trapped inside on 65 degree spring days, traveling whenever we wanted, pajama Mondays after full hockey weekends. It often feels like there is no ‘down time’ for any of us anymore.
- Childcare, part 1: Dude, my kids are gone from 8-2 five days a week! As someone who never used childcare or preschool, this time (physical and mental) for me has been huge. (As an artist and a writer, I just recently recovered that internal space to start creating again. What a gift school has given me!)
- Childcare, part 2: When things at school were pretty sketchy last winter/spring, it all seemed almost ok if I just thought of school as free childcare. (Yep, it was a seriously low point.)
- Sick days/tardiness/absences: I’m tired of the phones calls telling me my middle school kid has been tardy x number of times. I can get them up. I can feed them. I can push them out the door (all four of them) the best I know how. But I cannot make them hurry. If you think you can, you are welcome to come over and take a shot at it. Good luck. And if my kid is absent? That means they’re with me or their dad all day. Maybe it’s a mental health day, maybe they’re playing in a hockey tournament, maybe they have a fever of 102. I’m their parent, and it’s up to me to decide when what is going on at home is more important than being at school. Stop looking over my shoulder and second-guessing me.
- Music: we used to have weekly lesson and daily practice. There is simply not time right now, not with school and sports. I want my kids to have regular free time, and that is almost non-existent as is.
- Academics: with homeschooling, I individually designed each of my children’s education programs. We tweaked as necessary throughout the year. We home schooled year-round. We spent probably two hours max on traditional academics five days a week (not including independent reading). This left us all a lot more…
- Free time for kid-designed projects, forts, stores, towns, huge lego buildings, plays, puppet shows, art shows, novels in progress, all-day reading on the deck, letters to great-grandpa, invented sports, and so much more
So what’s the takeaway? This is what we believe about education/schooling:
- Social is most important. You can backfill academics, but there is no solution to a toxic social environment.
- Studies show the way to predict a child’s educational success is predicated on the parents’ educational level(s), parental involvement in the child’s education, and parents’ socioeconomic status. Our kids are privileged in all these areas; we are not worried about their long-term academic preparedness, even at the weaker school.
The successful cross-over social connections that our kids are making is the reason we moved and brought them to this school district. They spend time with friends and their parents who are college professors, waiters, grocery store clerks, and unemployed. They have been to a friend’s single-wide trailer, a friend’s ski-condo, and a friend’s apartment in Section 8 housing. Our tiny fifth grade graduation party last spring included kids from three countries, four cultures, and the full socioeconomic range.
I want my children to be equally comfortable in situations with people of any race or class. I hope for them to move smoothly between groups and help forge connections between the segregated social groups who represent different parts of their identities. This is perhaps the most important thing they can get from their education. We’re working on it.