Monday, September 18, 2006

Don't Worry - After A Couple Of Drinks I'll Come Down Off My Soapbox.

My kids go to public school.

Living in Los Angeles, this is a big statement, one that has the power to alienate scores of people and touch off heated debates around the punch bowl at kids' birthday parties, one that is almost as shocking as admitting that you're a fan of Tara Reid (I'm not) or that you feed your kids Cheetos (I do, but then lie about it.) It's also the reason Rigel practically forbids me to talk to other parents at neighborhood parties, since I have been known to exclaim loudly, over the strains of the John Mayer CD playing pleasantly in the background, "Give me one good reason why your kids aren't going to our local public school." This is usually followed by the sound of breaking glass, the shrieks and litigation threats from the other parent and the sight of everyone in the room deleting our names from their phone books.

(I was reading Mom-101's excellent post today where she talks about the implications of school fundraising. And while I agree that our schools are woefully underfunded, I have to confess an unnatural zeal for these shameful plugs for cash, because in reality it's the only way our school would be able to afford some of the extras we've enjoyed during the past few years. If the pimping of sweet treats is the only way we could afford a performance by a Taiko Drum ensemble or six extra weeks of sculpture workshop for kids that would normally have no exposure to the arts, then I'm your pusher, baby. She ended her post with her conflicted feelings about sending her daughter to a public school, and it got me thinking about my own fierce allegiance to our local public elementary.)

I grew up in South Central L.A., not exactly the most glamorous of neighborhoods, and my siblings and I are products of our public school system. What I usually hear after divulging my public school background is, "Oh, things weren't so bad then. Now, we have gangs." 'Gangs' is usually said in a low whisper, as if the utterance of the word is likely to bring AK47-wielding hoodlums bursting through the doors, knocking over bottles of expensive shiraz and wreaking havoc on our little suburban soiree. And my answer? I'm usually doubled over in laughter, rudely snorting as I fight to keep my teeny plate of crudités from spilling onto the floor.

Because we had gangs then, people. The Crips. The Bloods. Another one that I vaguely remember being named the '39th Street Hoods.' And every Friday the rule was that you don't wear blue jeans because either the Crips or the Bloods or perhaps some confused soul who was actually a member of both gangs, would show up at school and cut you. And your mother. And if you had a dog, or a cat, or even a fish they would cut them too, and make their skins into slipcovers.

But we stayed in those schools, partly because we couldn't afford private school, but mostly because this was our neighborhood, and attending your local school was what everyone did back then. While they certainly had their complaints, for the most part my parents felt that we were getting a good education. They had high standards and we were expected to bring home good grades and stay out of trouble. They key factor is that they were involved in our lives, and with our schooling, and it seemed to have paid off because all five of us went on to college and successful careers. (Okay, I admit - I still don't wear jeans on Fridays.) All of us, at least to my knowledge, have avoided prison, drug addiction and prostitution, all things we've been told to expect from our children should we be so naive as to send them to public school.

And now my girls attend our local elementary. We live in a fairly affluent area, and the school sits on a street with multi-million dollar homes. But few of the families in our neighborhood send their kids to this school, because it also happens to be a part of a district where many of the people don't live in multi-million dollar homes where in fact, a large percentage of our school families are at poverty level. (Yes, Sweatpantsmom's kids go to school with poor people! One wonders what that will do for my demographic profile if I decide to run ads on my site.)

And I put up with the comments from other parents. And the pity - oh the pity, when I tell people where my kids go to school and they are almost guaranteed to answer, "Ohhhhh. Really? And how is that?" as if I had just confided that I was suffering from scabies or revealed a gargantuan wart on my neck.

So why do I send my kids there? Because when we moved into this neighborhood almost four years ago, I was determined not to be part of the majority of people who had turned their backs on the school. I hoped and prayed it would be a good one, and if it wasn't I vowed to stick it out and do whatever I could to make it, at the very least, a safe and decent place for my kids to go.

To my relief, it was a decent school. Not the best, but one with rising test scores and one that showed signs of steady improvement. It won me over completely. I like the principal and I like the teachers. I like the fact that it takes us exactly nine minutes to walk to school. And I like the fact that my kids have friends who are Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Armenian, Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Chinese, Pilipino and Japanese. In the three-and-a-half years we've been there, the test scores have risen steadily, the school has won academic achievement awards two years running and our principal was just named one of the top ten principals in the city. Not bad for a local public school, one that many of my neighbors are afraid to send their kids to.

And while a majority of the neighborhood children still attend schools out of the area, I'm enjoying that our little school is one of the best-kept secrets in the district. While the others may have brand new iMacs in every classroom and an organic juice bar in the cafeteria, we're relieved that we made enough off of our candy sale to pay for a drama teacher for eight weeks and cake and balloons for the 5th grade graduation party that we have on the school front lawn. Most importantly, at the end of the day my girls are happy, and I'm grateful for that.

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  1. I live in a fairly affluent area. And alot of people STILL don't send their kids to public schools. They are worried their kids will be infected by the "riff raff." And I have to laugh. Like you, I think it comes down to parents being active in their children's lives.

  2. This has been on my mind lately, too. When I first moved into my neighborhood, I couldn't get any information from any of the neighbors about our local school because they had avoided it like the plague. Although none of them had set foot on the campus, they talked negatively about it like it was the local opium den.

    We've been there five years and couldn't be happier. Great post.

  3. You know, I came from a public school system. I spent my first years in catholic school and my last in public. My last were certainly the better.

    My oldest daughter will probably not be going to public school. Her doctor has suggested we have her and keep her in montessori schools until she's old enough to find out her level of giftedness. We already know that she is gifted, but we don't know where she stands.

    I'm on the fence here. I don't want to single her out, but I also want her to feel fulfilled and challenged.

    My younger daughter, though bright, is probably not gifted and will go to public school. I feel sorta sad about this because they are so close in age that I'd like them to go together.


    Now you've really got me thinking.

  4. Icancarryallthebags: Both my daughters have tested gifted, and they receive differentiated instruction within their classrooms, which is mandated by the district. You can find out what your options are by going to the website of your school district.

  5. born and raised in southern california here... went to public school and so did blake. wouldn't change a thing, but then again, we lived in a nice city and it wouldn't occur to me to NOT have him in public school?!?

  6. I love this post!!! Before our boys were old enough to attend school, heck, even before I was a parent, I put much thought and conversation into this topic. I agree with everything you said, and I believe that if people continue to "segregate" their children from real life and it has nothing to do with their culture or religious beliefs, than their kids are the ones who are going to suffer in the longrun.

    Why in the world would I want my kids to be sheltered in a school that resembles nothing of the outside world in which I expect them to be able to navigate as an adult????


    ps. I also believe that parental communication and involvement can make even the worst school a posivive experience. :0)

  7. As if "riff raff" don't exist in private schools. Hasn't anyone seen 90210?

    Kidding. Seriously though, the riff raff in private schools around here can afford a lot more trouble, and usually end up being some of the worst kids around.

    I grew up in public school (that probably doesn't shock anyone), my husband did (he's real smart) and both of my children go to the neighborhood elementary school (they are both gifted). The key IS to stay involved.

  8. I haven't decided about public or private school. Hailey's in private now (obviously at age 2) and she loves it...but I grew up public all the way.

    You gave me some good stuff to think about.

  9. Excellent post, as always. I'm a public school baby and so are my kids.... Then again, out here in the sticks, our only other option is Christian School where Kindergarten through fourth grade is all in the same classroom.

    But I concur, parent involvement is key!

  10. Okay, I loved you already, but now I super SONIC love you because if there is ONE THING that I get all up in yo' mamma's face about it's my unwavering belief that we need to be committed to our public schools.

    I live in the south where there is a "unique market" for private schools. This is another way of saying that everyone still sends their children to private schools because they never recovered from integration. It the nice southern way to say that everyone sends their children to private schools because of racism.

    I get so frustrated. This is the 'new south'. There are plenty of educated, liberal people committed to diversity in this city. Can everyone JUST STOP at the same time? If private school parents (who are most wealthy parents - with last names everyone recognizes in this town) put a tenth of the effort (and CASH) into the public school system that they do into the private schools we could have the best public school system in the nation, but NO!

    My children will be going to public school. I want them to have friends of all races and from all socio-economic backgrounds. I want them to learn that it is our human differences and connections despite these differences that make living meaningful and interesting.

    Sorry to go OFF in your comments. I just feel really strongly about the importance the vitality of public education.

  11. Substitute Marietta,GA for LA and we have the exact same situation and the same feelings about public school. The thing I hate the most is the bad press all public schools get. Everyone assumes that private is better and yet the statistics prove otherwise. The National Center for Education Statistics released a report with results showing that when factors such as race, ethnicity, and income are taken into account public schools outperform private schools. I find it interesting that only the failures of public schools are broadcast by the media. In my area people who send their children to private schools feel the need to bash the local schools in order to justify their decisions.

    My children are safe, happy, and getting a fantastic education. Our district is doing a massive PR campaign to combat the smear of local schools. My hope is that it will at least shut up those who don't attend public school and force them to admit the real reasons they send their children to private schools.

  12. Excellent post. I believe that one gets out of school (any school) what one puts into it.

    Yes, I ,too, went to public school. And I ain't dumb cuz my teachrs learned me good! ;D

  13. My daughter is only 1 year old, so I have a while to think about this. But I can't imagine that I would send her to private school. First of all I'm not religious, and are their even private schools that aren't religious? And Second, I've never set foot in a private school, so why would my daughter And Third, I couldn't afford it anyway! If I can put away some money for her to go to college, she'll be lucky!

    As far as the candy bar thing. I happily buy the candy and stuff my face with them adding pounds to my thighs all the while thinking it's for a good cause!

  14. I struggle with this one, even though WonderBaby is barely ten months old. The public school in our 'hood is ranked pretty low. But it *is* our 'hood, and if we stay here, I don't want (as you say) to turn my back on it. But I also want my children to have good teachers, small classes, etc. So I get stuck. For now, while she's still *pre* school, I can afford to be idealistic. We'll see what happens when kindergarten approaches...

  15. My hubby and I both went to public schools. My first two years of high school, I actually went to a semi-private college prep school and it was a the worst experience I had ever had in school. Back to regular public school for me. So when I brought up the public/private school thing regarding our son, he said we aren't putting him in private so he can turn into the very people who turn their noses at us...I wholeheartedly agreed. Public school it is, and betcherass I will be VERY involved.
    Great post. I knew I loved you for a reason.

  16. Thanks for the great post, Marsha. As I said on Mom-101's blog, I actually happen to be a product of one of those elitist NYC private schools. However, I'm determined to send my daughter to local public schools. Many of the reasons are similar to the ones you've stated her. I'm also a big believer in diversity. Also, I think that the future of public education depends on parents taking a more active involvement in the schools. As always, I loved hearing your perspective on this.

  17. Good on you...
    I do admit it drives me CRAZY with all the fundraising... and it does not end through the year...
    The energy that is spent trying to earn money during schooltime is what I take exception to... Especially children are placed in an auditorium and given the pep speach about raising money...
    When some have families that can barely make rent...
    And yet peer pressure, public schoolpressure, with the rallys in the auditorium with prize incentives for those that hustled the most money can seem overpowering...

  18. Class does not matter when it comes to schools. It comes down to parental involvement. I can think of tons of "rich area" public schools that are shitty because the parents are not involved.

    I'm not against public schools at all, however, my feeling is that while the teachers can be great, if no one is parenting their kids and being involved in their education at home, then you're not going to get the best education.

  19. I love hearing your take on this, and am so proud that there are parents who could afford otherwise, that still commit to public. For all the right reasons. Not just that there are parents like this, but parents that I know! Well, virtually know. Know-dot-com. Like you.

  20. Great post. I admire your loyalty and hard work.

    I am so glad to see that Kim commented here, because this was one of those times when I thought, Hmm, do Kim and Marsha know each other? Because they would get along famously. So since she didn't link to it, here's her post on the same subject.

    (Oh no, I'm one of those pushy women at parties who puts two people next to each other and says, "You two WILL LOVE each other." (But you will.))

    We have a few years to think about these things, though private school will never be a realistic option for us.

  21. I can't help but wonder if we as parents want the same as what we had growing up. I came from a great public school and hope that my daughters get to enjoy the wonderful school experiences that I did.

    On the other hand, my husband went to private school and he says he wouldn’t be the person he is today without it. To keep it in perspective, as long as they are happy and thriving, it's all good.

  22. Thank you - great post!

    My husband and I moved to our nook in CT primarily for the excellent public schools. It takes parents like you to step up and get involved - and sadly, too few people seem to want to do this nowadays.

  23. My daughter goes to a private Montessori school. Can we still be friends? I have her in the smallest school I could find because she has some special needs (and yes, I mean outside of being brilliant. Aren't all our kids brilliant?)

    But I love your post and it makes me wonder what I could do for the local school even though my child does not attend.

  24. You pointed out that your parents had high expectations of you and your siblings and were involved with your education and your school experience...

    I think that, not where your kid goes to shcool, is what is going to make the difference in your kid's success.

    Good post. My kids are in a private school but that is because we wanted them to have a Catholic based education... in fact, our public schools are so good that people think we are nuts paying for tuition!

  25. Except for preschool, my kids have always been in public schools. My two youngest go to a Title 1 school, which I guess means that above a certain percentage qualify for free or reduced meals. Does that make it any worse than any other school. I certainly don't think so. In fact, because it's Title 1, the district has to offer certain educational programs to make sure that the less privileged kids are granted the same opportunites, but they have to offer those programs to ALL students. Last year my youngest was in a special reading program, because he was behind (kindis are expected to be reading before school starts here), and now he's where he needs to be. Our old, more affluent school didn't have anything like that.

    I do hate the fundraisers with a passion. I would love to be able to just make a yearly donation to the school and not have my kids receive those stupid gift wrap packets.

  26. I'm still fence-sitting on this topic myself. On the one hand, the bleeding heart liberal in me screams "send the kids to public schools!". But then the mom in me thinks "I only want the best for my baby". I know the bleeding heart is going to win out since I've been a liberal longer than I've been a mom. I really enjoyed your take on this!

  27. Ha! I went to public school in LA too and there were definitely gangs. I had a knife pulled on me at Palms Junior High one time. But that being said, I'm all for public school. I want to know which one your kids are going to. Can mine go there to? You may have to email me privately to tell me.

  28. I mentioned this on Mom-101's comments, but we had to fight to keep our local public school open because no one sends their children to public school here, either, and funding is determined by enrollment numbers. I enpected to be involved with Moon's school, I just didn't expect to be fighting for her elementary school before she was even two.

    Thanks for your comments on your own school experience for your girls. It gives me hope.

  29. Our situation is similar. My daughter attends public school...the one all the rich people in the 'hood won't even consider because of the poor kids that come from the wrong side of the boulevard. I like it so far. I mean it's not perfect but what school is?

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  31. When The Goon Squad is old enough to go to kindergarten, we're sending them to public school too.

    I know that I am fortunate (or to be honest we moved here because) I live in a county that has some of the best public schools in the country. But a lot of people around her still send their kids to private schools.

  32. I love this post. Love it. The affluent people need to bring their kids back to the public schools for sure. They should be using their clout to make sure the schools are fit for their children and by doing so will help make it fit for all children. I admire you.

  33. My granddaughter just started kindergarten, in a public school, in Los Angeles, in Hollywood. Scared yet? My daughter is committed to public education for her daughter until it doesn't work and she has decided that she will be the judge of that and that she will try and make it work. For now, she is very happy. She hopes to remain at least satisfied but is keeping an open mind about it all. Good public education is a foundation of this country and should remain so.

    When I was a girl (in public school in Montgomery County, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC), there were two other school districts with which we always compared our district's test scores. The two districts? L.A. Unified and Westchester County, NY. The top in the nation in the 1950s and early 60s? L.A. Unified. People need to wake up and understand just how devasting certain propety tax initiatives were on the education of this area.

    Now you can cue some bad music as I fade out here. I'll choose, "Did you ever know that you're my herto..." Don't gag, you are!

  34. What a great post. We are poor as dirt, but could still relate to your point. I was reading your post saying to myself, "yes! good point! Rock on sista." Like I really know a difference between public vs private schools. I am a dork. :)

    My kids go to public school, obviously, but despite, or maybe because of, the fact we have lots of economically disadvataged families in our school, it is an awesome school. My son, Trent who is 8, has went to this school since preschool and he is getting an excellent education. He scored VERY high on the State's standarized testing last year. Connor just started K and I think he will be reading any second now. AND our school rec'd a award that was only given to 3 schools in our WHOLE county. I can't remember the name of it or I'd tell ya....

    I agree with you too that our schools are what we put into them. If you don't like your kids school then get busy & get involved. And buy the chocolate from the kiddies for God's sake. Eating a little expensive candy never killed anybody! :)

  35. Where I live, there are no private schools. You go to public school, or you home school.

    I work for the public school system and I agree, it's really not perfect. But when you find a good school, it's better then striking gold. :)

  36. We have been having similiar discussions lately at our house, as our three year old will head to kindergarten next year. I'm also a big fan of the public school system, and really want Alice to have friends in her own community (i.e: the shithole in which we live).

  37. Ok, I will admit, my kids go to private school. Not even the same one I went too. I went to montessori all the way through. I see both sides, I really do. But there is diversity in the schools my kids go too and I do live in a very diverse neighborhood and come from a diverse family. I don't know, I just don't think I turned out so bad. Or that I am somehow lacking socially. I think it really has to do with the parents and their involvement and how they raise their kids. Also, I don't send my kids to private school because I couldn't think of better ways to spend my money. I am not rich. I did not drive a BMW at 16, I bought a old beat up Orange Volvo Station Wagon. And I won't buy my kids cars at 16 either. But Maya is a genius, yes a real one, not in my imagination and public schools don't have the programs she will need without skipping her tons of grades, which I'm not willing to do.

    Oh and I can't stand kids havig to sell shit...mine included. Trust me, I have wrapping paper coming in a month or so.

  38. It's a bit different in the great white north (having dated a pretty but dumb teacher in Michigan for some time I can say this with some authority) but my kids (when they come along which is no time soon) will be going to public schools. I'm a product of one and I turned out (mostly) okay. I'd rather kids learn some other lessons about real life and the challenges others face than be sheltered in a private school. If something's not good, then work toward fixing it instead of running the other direction.

  39. Your post is so timely - I have a pre-schooler and I find myself feeling pressured about where to send him to school when the time comes. I'm not one to cave in to pressure, by any means, but it does weigh heavily on my mind. Reading your words has brought me peace. I, too, am a product of public schools. My mother, my grandmother, two aunts and two cousins were/are teachers in the public school system. I think you hit the nail on the head ... parental involvement. We are naive to think we as parents can simply drop our kids at the door and leave the rest to someone else. We must get involved. Very involved. Well done!

  40. I've been thinking, ever since becoming pregnant, that I'd end up voting to send the kidlet public, because I really believe that a) making sure I'm involved with him and his learning is going to weigh more heavily than which school he attends, and b) the exposure to a variety of lifestyles, not to mention ethnicities, that are different from his family would be just as enriching, if not more than, for his growth, and all that that entails. I don't want to raise kids who don't have a sense of what people outside of a certain economic echelon are like.

    anyway. thanks for putting this out there, because it's reassuring. and cool.

  41. Good for you! I totally agree. One of the reason that public schools are "so bad" (in reputation) is that they've been abandoned!

  42. I give you a lot of credit for your zeal. I had it. But lost it. I sent my daughter to Kindergarten in our Public School. Cheerfully did the fundraisers and such. But then I started paying closer attention, and little things started to get me angry.

    Our town's budget divided by student is almost $15,000, and they can't find the money for programs?

    Then started the whole Uniform in Public Schools issue which annoyed me to no end.

    Then I looked and saw my daughter lagging behind friends that were her equals that were getting just a bit more attention in a slightly smaller class.

    That was enough. I am not going to short-change my daughters education and future on my ideals. She is now enrolled in a private school. Somehow they can manage to give students a better education for less than 1/3 of what our local school board is paying per student.

    I support the idea of the Public School System. But it is broken, and needs a serious overhaul.

  43. JayMonster: I don't think that any of us here are 'short-changing' our childrens 'education and future' for our ideals.

    Quite the opposite, I feel that we have found a way to keep our children in enriching, safe learning environments while still keeping with our ideals.

  44. Can I just say thank you on behalf of all those dedicated and hardworking teachers out there? Yes, the system is not perfect but staying involved with your child is key! Both my children are products of the public school system and I am happy to say that one just graduated from Barnard/Columbia University in New York with honors and the other is at Pepperdine University in Malibu... not too shabby for a public education. I have been a public school teacher for 29 years in a very low income area. I have visits often from former students, many who are now doctors and teachers. Others are attending 4 year colleges like UCLA and USC. It can be done with the support of their parents! Thanks again Marsha! I appreciate this blog more than you know.

  45. I went to public school. I was "rich" because I wore Guess jeans, and kids chased me home every day from the bus, threatening to beat me up if I didn't make it home to my "castle" in time. (They called it a castle because it had a few skylights. Yeah.) I was the only kid who didn't smoke by about fifth grade.

    My parents say it was good for me, and I think they're right. When I hit college, I was amazed at the naivete of the other girls in my dorm--girls from rich Chicago suburbs. Girls who often ended up making bad decisions because they couldn't see that DUH, not everyone is working from good motives. They had grown up in an environment where the entire affluent community worked to make sure they were happy and educated and safe, and they had no idea what to do with Skeezeball the Ecstasy-Pushing Frat Boy.

    They also got their stuff stolen all the time. I had gotten that out of the way in elementary school and now knew that "Bro, you gots to lock that shit UUUUUUP." (Which is exactly how I said it, too, because I went to public school. All right, not really.)

  46. I think it is a bit different in the states than up here. At least from what I read....

    Our school straddles an affluent hood and a not so affluent hood.

    aside from ONE family I know, everyone goes therre.

    It was the same experience I had in high school....priviliged and not as priviliged, and not privileged at all.

    I would love to come to one of those cocktail parties with you...

  47. Zowie! Thanks for having our back. Teaching and employing public ed for my own kids makes me proud. When our ten year olds started kindergarten a friend and I graciously agreed to disagree as she sent her child somewhere fancy. We never compared and contrasted intentionally and generally avoided the topic, but one day when our girls were hanging out and reading some books the other mom looked crestfallen. She noted that my public school daughter read more fluently than her private school daughter. Then, when my girl whipped out her school published and bound self-authored fairy tale, private school mom cried, "Our school never does this." I just shrugged.

    I love your community of readers. You have mucho fans. Excellent!

  48. Late to this, but like you, I'm very committed to sending my girls to public schol, and very much in agreement that money helps, but parental involvement is key.

  49. Thanks for that tip. I will do that. I doubt that we'll still live in this area when my kids begin school, so I'll hold off on it.

    I would prefer for my children to attend public school because I think that the only way to improve the funding and programs is to have dedicated students and committed parents involved in their childrens educations attending.

    Also... I just don't see what the big deal about private school's are. The teachers are paid WAY less... and that seems so unfair.

  50. Your girls are lucky. When I lived in LA, right after college, I taught in a private school atop a hill and behind a gate in Brentwood, and I felt sorry for those kids. So sheltered and out-of-touch with their city and their world.

    And you can walk to school. What a boon, and how great for your family's quality of life.

    I always wonder how people think our public schools are going to get better when so many people (esp. people with education and money, thus influence) decline to send their kids there.

  51. Applause, Applause!

    Any school is only going to be as good as the parents that are involved in it. It's a public service & you get out of it what you put into it.

  52. This is a very thoughtful and well-written post. I have to admit to being a private school mom, but for a very specific reason that has very little to do with the school in the town where my kids grew up and everything to do with our faith - we are Sikhs and my kids went/go to boarding school in India ( - one is now in college. The school is owned and run by our American Sikh community. On the other hand, they both did go to a public charter school before India, and we were very very happy with that. They both got a good foundation education to take to India with them.

    I'm a >gasp!< liberal, and I do believe in the public schools, and am myself a product of the public school system. If our school in India didn't exist, my kids would go to our local schools. Being involved in their school in India involves a lot of emails and phone calls :-) but I absolutely agree that's the key to a kid's success in school, and the success of the school itself.

    Can I stick around and still read your blog? pretty please? :-)

  53. Thanks for this. We're Ohio transplants and have always worried about having our little one(s) in L.A. public schools. I went to public schools, but they didn't have the Californian reputation.


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