Next year, after six years at our neighborhood elementary school, Longfellow Elementary, our daughter will be attending middle school at a private school, the Polytechnic School.

It may seem self-absorbed to be writing such a long (really long) blog post about why we made this decision. Maybe it is. But people have been asking me for months, and it turns out people have been asking our friends for months “what David and Kristin are doing for middle school.”

Why would anyone would care what we do or why? For the past 10 years, we’ve been deeply involved in public education in our community. Seven years ago, my husband and I co-founded with friends the Pasadena Education Network (PEN) to promote parent participation in and family enrollment in our public schools. In addition, I’ve served on local committees, donated my facilitation services, and worked professionally through a variety of foundations to support our District and others like it across the country.

As a result of our involvement, we know plenty of people are genuinely interested in our perspective on this decision. We’re not naïve though. We also know there are people who will choose to judge us for this decision. I decided I’d rather that both those groups have the story straight from us. So here it is.

 

From the time we started Kindergarten at Longfellow people would ask us, “But what will you do about middle school?” We always answered, “We’ll do the same thing we did for elementary. We’ll assume the best of our public schools. We’ll visit our neighborhood middle school and several other public middle schools. We’ll visit private schools if we feel the need. Then we’ll make a decision that is best for our family.” This is what PEN recommends all families do, and that’s what we did over the last two years with PEN’s help.

We’ve been visiting most of our public middle schools off and on for two years now.  The changes at our public middle schools over the last two to three years as a result of the Excellent Middle Schools initiative are remarkable. Literally every six months, I could see more progress – addition of an advisory period, advanced math options, the start of a foreign language program, new extra-curricular options, and a rise in test scores corresponding to the efforts.

As we visited, David and I both felt that this time around, we also needed to consider private schools. As a family we weren’t willing to consider religiously-affiliated schools nor single-sex schools, so the remaining list was pretty short. In addition, after initial visits to our public middle schools, we concluded that we weren’t interested in the more moderately priced private schools because we didn’t feel the marginal differences were worth the expense.

So we visited Poly, which starts its middle school in 6th grade and where I spent two years as the Director of Technology in the mid 90’s, and we visited Flintridge Prep, which starts in 7th grade and where David’s brother graduated from high school. While I was at Poly, I was always particularly impressed with the middle school because it is a model of exactly what our public middle schools are working towards – a middle school program intentionally structured for that unique developmental stage of a child’s life. When we returned to visit Poly this year, we found that model alive and thriving with block schedules, opportunities for project-based learning, advisory groups, exposure to the full range of arts, and community service projects among other things.

Having visited 4 of our 7 public middle schools, we applied via public school open enrollment to two public schools and applied to Poly. We didn’t get into either of the other two public schools and we were waitlisted at Poly. We decided we would attend our neighborhood middle school, which was the public school our daughter and we preferred anyway, unless we got off the waitlist. Late last week, we got the call there was a spot for us at Poly and we enrolled.

Our daughter was so excited when we told her she’d gotten in to Poly that she was literally bouncing. David and I are very excited for her too. Our excitement however is tempered by the difficulty of this decision – not so much on a personal level but on a philosophical level in terms of what it says about the lack of support for public education in our society.

We don’t think our public middle schools are bad. In fact we think they are improving dramatically every year. We don’t think private schools are perfect, and we do not think all private schools are of equal quality. Our assessment focused on what we wanted for our daughter in middle school, what she wanted, and external factors at play at the moment in time we needed to make this decision.

  • Even though our assessment of the state of the middle schools is very similar to our assessment of the elementary schools seven years ago, key factors in our decision were different at middle school.

In California, 800 is the test score that indicates a school has made it. When we first visited Longfellow when our daughter was three, the school hadn’t yet reached 700. Still we could tell there were fabulous teachers and a visionary principal. We figured we could make up for everything else ourselves – take her to an outside theater class, music, whatever she needed. We would pitch in along with other parents to a school that was clearly on the rise. And we were right. Longfellow has spent two years over 800, and among other highlights now has an amazing orchestra, a garden, and strong parent support.

When we visited public middle schools, we again saw fabulous teachers and impressive principal leaders pretty much everywhere we went. In fact, we really didn’t see discernible differences among the core program at the public middle schools we visited. We did see some differences around the level of student interest in academics and extra-curriculars, student social culture, and the level of parent involvement and support.

The challenge is that unlike at elementary school, we don’t feel we can make up for the gaps we do see, nor that the best parent involvement can make up for those gaps either. Class size is one example. Our daughter has 35 kids in her 5th grade class right now, and that can work when you have an amazing teacher with them all day like we do now. But when that teacher is teaching four or five classes of 35 – 40 seventh graders a day? Grading 140+ papers every time a paper is assigned? Foreign language is another example. The couple of elementary dual-language immersion programs in our district launched too late for us to take advantage of them and we struggled and didn’t find alternatives to teach our daughter a foreign language before age 12 which is when research says is the best time to learn. Our public middle schools have just begun to offer Spanish, and it sounded like we could maybe get a semester or two of Spanish as an elective. At one school it sounded an awful lot like the Spanish teacher didn’t really speak Spanish and it was more of a Spanish culture class.

Another thing that’s different about this transition is that our daughter’s needs and interests are clearer, and she was involved with the decision-making. She visited all the schools with us and talked with us about what she wanted and what she saw. For example, our daughter has been doing musical theater year round since she was five, and the performing options and student involvement in performing were next to zero at our neighborhood middle school and only marginally better at others that we visited. Middle school is precisely the time when we wanted our kid to be able to explore her interests AT school so that she could find friends at a time when peers become very influential. We felt we would struggle to find outlets for our daughter’s particular interests at the schools we were considering and would have to continue to support them outside of school instead.

  • In our opinion, the gap between what our public schools and even the high-end private schools offer at elementary school is very minor; at middle school the gap is far wider.

Last year, in a single week my husband and I visited our neighborhood public middle school and then that weekend we took our daughter to the Flintridge Open House.

We came away from that juxtaposition fundamentally depressed. We were viscerally saddened by the chasm between the two schools and by the fact that our society could ever let there be such a huge difference between the education you get if you can pay top dollar for it, and the education you get if you can’t. Further visits to more public middle schools and Poly itself simply confirmed that initial assessment and deep disillusionment.

At the public middle schools we mostly saw classrooms that were full of more students than the room seemed designed to hold. Kids were engaged and working, but the rooms felt packed and sometimes claustrophobic. Our daughter noted immediately as we visited one of the private schools, “Look there are only 16 desks in the room!”

Our public middle schools offer extra-curriculars, sports, and instrumental music in particular seems to be thriving.  The options seem to vary by school and the longevity and support for them seems inconsistent and often dependent on parents. Given our interest in theater, we noted that at one school a theater club was starting after school and hoped for a performance the next year. At another they were adding a drama elective this year. In contrast, both private schools had two first-class performing spaces on campus, dedicated drama instructors, and multiple performing options for middle schoolers every year.

As I mentioned above, our public middle schools have begun offering foreign language – only Spanish and only for a semester or two across all three years. Both private schools we visited offered several languages at middle school and students would take 2-3 years of a language before even getting to high school.

Our public middle school had to pull a rabbit out of a hat to hire back a librarian after the previous one had been part of the budget cuts. At both private schools we visited, we saw brand new libraries, with rooms of new computers all with subscriptions to online databases for research. The librarians had been there for years developing the program and their connections to the students.

These are simply examples of some of the things most relevant to what our family cares about at middle school. Foreign language, theater and a student culture that supports performing, class size (especially as it supports teaching writing skills), and 21st century libraries matter to us.

  • Our timing stinks.

We are making this decision in a year where we happen to be on the bleeding edge of PEN families. We just don’t have that many connections to families at our school that are moving on to the same public school or public school at all. Our daughter’s closest three friends are going to three different schools – two to private, and one to public after they got into the 6-12 public school only available via lottery. Even within her slightly bigger circle of friends at her elementary school, they are mostly scattering to a variety of public and private schools. Our discomfort with this confirms part of what PEN does and why. When you are connected to other families, it’s easier to take a leap of faith together and then pitch in to contribute what you can. I fully expect that families we know a year or two behind us may make different decisions as a result.

  • There’s a HUGE amount of uncertainty in public education in this particular year.

Our Superintendent, one of the best I’ve ever met, just resigned. We have no way of knowing who will be leading and hiring for middle and high schools next year. The school board is divided and a runoff election in April will likely determine the future for the next 6-8 years since that board will hire the next Superintendent. (Vote Tom Selinske April 19!). The state budget is in total meltdown and schools are waiting on a special election that may or may not happen in June to learn just how much they have to cut next year and how that will impact class sizes and the ongoing work of improving the programs. That’s just too much uncertainty for us at this particular moment in time.

  • Our community, our state, and our nation are not stepping up to the plate to properly support and resource public education.

Our local parcel tax failed last year after receiving 54% of the vote but needing over 66% to pass. Try explaining that to a 9 year old. “I don’t understand mommy. How did they win if we got more votes?” Though improving greatly, much of our community still holds outdated perceptions about our public schools and the level of support needed from the community isn’t there yet.

Even once the state budget situation for next year is certain, it’s not getting better anytime soon. Our state has allowed itself to slide from a leader in education to the target of jokes for our lack of investment in education.

At the national level, people seem to prefer fighting over unions, teacher pay, charter schools, and the like over really working together to support and resource a collaborative transformation of education as we know it. In my humble opinion, it isn’t that public education has gotten any worse since I was a student, it’s that the world has completely transformed in those 20+ years and we haven’t yet figured out how to work together to help education catch up.

Any one of those three is enough to give you pause, all three together add up to a crippling lack of resources and support right now.

We are keenly aware that we are one of the fortunate few who have many options. We are keenly aware that we are repeating a history in this community that David himself lived through. He was bussed to two different elementary schools as part of the desegregation order, went to a private middle school, and back to a public high school. Our “liberal guilt” is nothing compared to what it feels like for families who don’t have options or what it feels like to teachers and administrators who do amazing things in the face of devastating cuts in resources.  Our own sadness is nothing compared to the loss of economic and human potential we as a society face if we can’t come together to support public education so that every child gets a first-class experience.

We expect to re-examine all options again at the high school transition. We also expect to remain involved in and supporters of PEN and of public education in our own community and beyond. We hope that our openness about our decision and our reasons provides an opportunity for conversation with us and not about us.

I welcome your questions and conversation here.

PS. If you are interested in education issues, you might be interested in this recent post Education Needs Remodeling not “Fixing”

 

23 Responses to Our Middle School Decision

  1. Wow, Kristin. It is very clear that you’ve put a huge amount of thought into this, and in the end, you are doing what you think will be the best for your daughter. I similarly agonized with the public/private decision this year; I am the product of excellent public school myself and was hoping that my kids would have a similar experience.

    However, that was not the reality of the situation, and in the end, we did what we felt was right for our kids. They are thriving, with interests that they never would have developed had we stuck with the public school plan. I think it is a very personal decision, and one where you need to trust your gut. I’m sure next year will be terrific!

  2. Kim says:

    This is a courageous and thoughtful post, Kristin. Thank you for all you have done to move our community as far as you have in support of public education. And I know the story isn’t over yet. We are just beginning a new chapter.

    • Thanks Kim. It is definitely a new chapter. In some ways the process has reignited my commitment to public education and figuring out the best way I can make a difference.
      Kristin

  3. Clif says:

    Kristin (and David): Thank you for your courageous post and decision. You remind me of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” (titled way before motherhood got remodeled, but apropos despite the outdated title.) http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/trsorbonnespeech.html
    While that reference may seem a bit over the top when discussing middle school, if you live in Pasadena, you get it. And the critics and “I told you so-ers” are also over the top. Moving forward.
    Peace and blessings,
    Clif

  4. Melissa Moore Castillo says:

    Kristin,
    Thank you for your honesty. I truly appreciate your thoughtful and heartfelt interpretation of the current state of public education, and PUSD in particular. This must have been an extremely difficult decision for you, in light of the fact that you have spent so much time advocating for public education.

    However, in the end you are, first and foremost, an advocate for your child. You have listened and responded to your child’s needs in this present moment and, as parents, that is the very best we can do.

    I understand your feelings of sadness for those who do not have the same options and for the public educators facing seemingly insurmountable odds, but at this moment your child needs you elsewhere. Your contributions to public education are not diminished by your choice, nor does it preclude continued belief in the potential for excellence in our public schools.

    Let go of any guilt you might be inclined toward as this surely will keep you from living fully in the present for yourself and your family. Know that your middle school decision has been made, and now you can move on to taking care of the next thing that needs your attention. A legion of families will continue to work toward the goal of making our public schools a better place for our students, our future. Thank you for everything you have done, and will continue to do, for public education.

  5. Mary Trunk says:

    Hi Kristin, I understand that personal decisions regarding our children are frought with complications and difficulty and I completely respect any personal decision a parent needs to make. I wonder if publicly posting your reasons for leaving the district might make others feel justified in taking their children out of public school because they can locate the cause in the schools (and your blog) rather than in their own fears and anxieties. We are definitely experiencing difficult times in our schools and it will take a lot from all of us to keep them afloat. I hope we can make it happen. Thanks, Mary

    • Hi Mary –
      First, thanks for your thoughts. As a founding family of PEN, we felt it was a big deal to chose a private school at this stage in our child’s education. That’s why we felt compelled to publish our rationale for others to read, and take the risk that some might take offense in such rationale no matter what we said. We knew people would hear about our decision and either they could interpret it through rumor or assumptions or we could share the whole thing ourselves. We preferred the latter and feel sharing makes it less likely for people to misinterpret our decision as a reason to avoid doing their own real analysis or as a reason to believe “all public schools are bad, all private schools are good.”

      We helped found PEN because we realized everyone we knew was having conversations at their own kitchen table, often informed by little more than rumor, and we felt the community would benefit from connecting people for that conversation instead. Same is true here. We could have done this quietly, but we feel the community always benefits from more open conversations about public education. Because like you, we also hope that together we can all make it happen.

      Best,
      Kristin

  6. Pam says:

    I heard about your private school decision yesterday, and felt a bit shell-shocked. It was not just because of your news, though, but also because of what’s been going on during the past couple of days in state government. It’s so much to take in, when you feel like everyone appears to be giving up on quality education for our kids. This is not directed at you personally, because I know that is not your intention. I’ve seen and heard what great work PEN has done in your school district and how it’s an invaluable resource to your community. Good luck and enjoy your new adventure at Poly!

    • Hi Pam!
      Great to hear from you! We were a bit shell-shocked too. We had every reason to hope that by the time we got to middle school we wouldn’t feel the need to even consider this option. And our district has moved mountains at the middle schools over the years. As you point out, it’s really the stuff happening over the last couple of years at the state level – and the local level with our parcel tax failing – that we didn’t and couldn’t have anticipated. It’s frustrating because especially as resources dwindle, parents spend more and more time and energy trying to shore up their own school and often have little time and energy left for the bigger fight we need to tackle – the one at the local, state and national levels that insists on increasing resources and decreasing divisive politics around education.
      Best
      Kristin

  7. mike says:

    Hi Kristin. Would you mind writing an op-ed based on your story for the LATimes and StarNews? Given your history, I think this would be a good catalyst for the public discourse that is very much going to need to happen surrounding the level of priority we as a society place on funding educational resources. I’m not sure your blog is a place that can happen. I dont think the focus needs to be as personal as you’ve made it here, however, I do think the component of this story that makes it critically important for people to hear is the fact that you came at this decision with probably more education-related knowledge and activism than virtually anyone else in our community. If that cannot be a wakeup call for our society, nothing can.

    • Hi Mike –
      I hadn’t thought about it but that is a good idea to write an op-ed. As you note, it would need to be much less personal while still making the point that we had every reason NOT to make this decision, and if it would do some good catalyzing conversation it would be worth it. On a related note, I’m noodling a follow up post because one of the things my husband and I have found very interesting is that the handful of emails I’ve gotten offline about the post all included a message that we just shouldn’t have talked about it, or at least not so publicly. That talking about it does more harm by being so discouraging. Our interpretation of getting that feedback is actually that it reinforces how much we need the conversation and lack the public discourse tools to have it productively.

      I’ll think about an op-ed, if you have any other thoughts about what would be most compelling in such a piece, please feel free to share. I’m curious – how are you connected to this issue? Sounds like you are here in our community? Kids in school? Share your story. : )

      Kristin

  8. mike says:

    Hi Kristin.

    I have been mulling over whether to respond because I think its impossible to talk about doing something to improve public education without implying that there is currently something lacking. But highlighting its flaws might clearly also lead people to question their dedication to it. I’m guessing this is one of the reasons some people were less than happy with your candor. If it were impossible for things to get better or there were nothing to improve then I would have to admit talking about it in a negative light is counter-productive, however, if something can and needs to change, then understanding what that is is the first step. As long as we succumb to the belief that political will is lacking, we will be doomed to silence and its consequences. I read a Frederick Douglass quote recently that said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

    The primary compelling aspect, which I previously mentioned, is simply your circumstance. The fact that you have been such an advocate for public schools–meaning you fully understand the consequences of such decisions–and the fact that you have an insight into public schools on a level few other people have, makes your decision all the more important in the barometric sense.

    But you are right that your circumstance is not the only issue here. The other reason your post matters is that you were able to offer a candid and concrete list of ways in which public schools fail to provide the resources that many people would consider a prerequisite for quality education and, more importantly, what role that played your decision-making process. Granted, resources are not the only way in which public and private schools differ, but they are the primary difference as it applies to the question of funding priorities, which, in my opinion, is the thing we most need to discuss as a society, especially right now.

    For most of our voting populace, the connection between funding levels and school resources is simply too abstract. Most voters dont know their local superintendent’s name, let alone understand how their district prioritizes funding decisions. Even then, setting funding policy at the state level is procedurally disconnected from district-level funding-related policy decisions. I think many people would lament hearing about the thousands of pink slips issued by LAUSD but would have no idea how their behavior results in or could possibly avoid such a situation (even though it does and can). The widespread voter’s remorse that happened after the measure CC fiasco showed us that the same disconnect exists, surprisingly, on even local issues.

    To be sure, changing any of that would be a quite complex task, but the first step on the road to anything different is for people to be able to internalize the current state of our schools, and more importantly, be clear on how that differs from what we think it should be, and why. I think your post, as much as your candor may not be appreciated by all, forces us to accept that there are people who believe we are clearly depriving a large portion of our kids from the education that we know they deserve, and provides one view on how we are doing that. It also forces us to accept that, as a result, parents need to and will make decisions that may be better for their own kids now but are worse for public education and thus eventually worse for society overall. It also makes clear that they make those decisions based partially on just those differences you so clearly outline. In other words, those differences, from your point of view, I think is the other thing that the public needs to understand because that will help to remove some of the abstraction that obscures the real impact of our voting decisions. And it is through those decisions, after all, the way in which we as a society are responsible for the state of our schools.

    To be sure, I don’t intend to imply that there are not other, very real factors in the public-vs-private decision. I think its absolutely appropriate to debate the validity of comparing Poly with a PUSD middle school, or even how important resources are independent of other factors in a school, however, those are quite complex topics and not relevant for why something like an op-ed would be useful right now (even though I have strong opinions on those topics).

    And btw, yes, I am a public school parent. But to be honest, my concerns for public education extend much further than our own district. The problems we are going to have over the next couple of years are not specific to our district, even though we are going to have no choice but to solve some of them ourselves.

    There is admittedly going to be an increased incentive in the coming years to abandon our district (and any public district for that matter), however, this is not going to solve any of society’s problems, and, I believe, will eventually make them worse. So we need to figure out how to address that issue in spite of that incentive and the decisions it effects.

    Sorry for the verbosity..

    • Mike –
      I realized I intended to post in response to this comment and never did! So just a quick and heartfelt thank you for putting all your thoughts here. I find them very thought-provoking, and found myself nodding in agreement with your observation that if things were impossible, then being negative is counterproductive but if it is possible, then candor is the first step. I do still believe it’s possible. And I subscribe to Jim Collins Good to Great mantra that real change requires “Confronting the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith).” Both are necessary.
      Kristin

  9. Wendy Cobleigh says:

    I am having flashbacks reading your article. The most depressing part is that it was 25 years ago that our family was making the same choices for exactly the same reasons, and yes, with the heavy burden of “liberal guilt”. How could so much time have passed and we find ourselves in the same place with the disparities between public and private education? The answer to that question could fill volumes but the short answer is money and priorities. Quality public education needs to become a priority in California like it once was. Sadly, until we get through this difficult economic cycle the changes cannot be made at the state or local level even if fresh priorities are set. There needs to be a long term vision and continuing efforts at all levels. You can’t wait for that to happen when every year is important for your own child.
    What we chose for our three children was based on the individual child and their interests. For the oldest, your friend, the public schools were working primarily because there was a continuing peer group at each school. When I worked on the Court Appointed Committee to Rewrite Pasadena’s Plan for Integration one of the primary goals was that children that started in school together could stay together through the years. With all the school programs for choice, charters, magnets and private the peer group has been lost.
    You experienced that as we did for our two younger children. We also found the lack of “extra-curricular” programs to be a deciding factor. For one it was a junior high sports program and for the other it was art, music and dance. Like you we wanted those activities in the schools as they had been when we went through the public schools.
    Feel confident that you made the right decision for your daughter. The guilt eventually fades when the results are validated. I couldn’t be more pleased with the results from our decisions decades ago. I do have one warning, however. We fully intended to return to public high school for both children after the middle years in private school. When that time arrived their peer groups had a strong influence as did a genuine loyalty to the new school. As is appropriate, the extent to which the child is a player in the decision making continues to grow with age.
    I believe that it is the things considered “extras” that keep students engaged in their education. Creative arts, languages, and sports all enhance the learning experience and brain development in different ways. Sometimes it is the only thing that keeps kids going to school! So how do we make a complete education available again? Keep your good ideas coming!
    P.S. I really appreciated Mike’s comments.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments Wendy – and sharing the generational perspective. We asked ourselves that same question “How could so much time have passed and we find ourselves in the same place with the same disparities between public and private education?” And our hope was that in starting the Pasadena Education Network, we would contribute what we could to accelerating progress in such a way as to get us to a different place by the time we started secondary. What saddens me is that our decision is not a commentary on our schools in Pasadena – we have seen mountains moved over the last 10 years and believe strongly in the progress the schools and District has made and continues to make. It is more a commentary as you note – on the money and priorities at the community, state and national level. I would also add one thing to your list – politics. Local, state and national politics also get in the way of progress. You can’t hire the best people and sustain intitiatives long enough for results with a divisive local board of education. You can’t have honest conversations about state funding of education if certain options – like taxes, or Prop 13, or allocating funds based on student needs – are off the table. And we can’t have a national dialogue about education if people have simply retreated into their corners (Dem vs Rep, or Choice/Acctability vs Community/Collaboration) and won’t entertain discussion of anything in the middle.
      Personally I would like to see us (locally and otherwise) get out of the mindset of “fixing” and start in earnest to talk about our vision for education in the 21st century and a renewed commitment to public education that delivers it to all students. Then we can discuss the conditions that vision would require. “Fixing” mindset always sets up divisiveness whereas starting with what we all want sets us up to collaborate.
      Kristin

  10. Eric Mulfinger says:

    I have been tangentially aware of your work supporting public education over the years and I recall being on a discussion panel that you organized maybe ten years ago on this topic. I recently learned about your decision to send your child to private school. I find it discouraging, while at the same time understandable and predictable. I also understand your daughter’s excited anticipation in attending a place like Poly. It would indeed be odd if she did not notice the difference.

    Forgive me for singling you out here. None of this is probably new to you, but you have built a following and a strong reputation as a public school advocate, which I applaud. That means, of course, your personal decision also has wider implications for the community. As you know, it is a well established tradition in this district for the social and political leadership to abandon the public schools, and your example unfortunately reinforces and amplifies that. This is what I find most discouraging and demoralizing, both as a PUSD teacher and parent.

    Regardless of your more global outlook on the state budget and priorities, the middle school your child might have attended will now miss your involvement as an active and constructive parent, as well as the ADA dollars. Many outstanding kids have successfully navigated their middle school years in PUSD, in spite of a yawning gap in relative funding between public and private schools. That gap will always be there to one degree or another. How else will a place like Poly or Flintridge Prep (or whatever) stay attractive to those with enough disposable income?

    To whom much is given, much is also expected.

    • Hello Eric –
      Of course I remember you, from the panel 10 years ago, and from hearing about you off and on in your teaching role, and of course I have Laura’s book on my shelf. I’ve been out of town but wanted to reply to your comments.

      I have to say I agree with most of what you shared. I find it discouraging that I and others I know have made decisions recently to either use private secondary schools or even move out of Pasadena. I too find it discouraging and demoralizing when social and political leadership abandons our public schools – a history that goes back decades. And I agree that the middle school we might have attended will miss our involvement and our ADA dollars and that both of those resources are no small thing to our schools.

      If I’m honest with myself (and I try to be), I’ve often felt as you seem to as we went through elementary. I found myself disappointed and angry and unforgiving with families we lost along the way to other options. To be frank, I still have a lot of trouble understanding a decision not to use our public elementary schools for anything other than religious reasons. There are just too many good elementary schools. That said, I’m forced to see the other side now.

      Expecting parents to make a school decision based on anything other than their child’s and family’s best interests is unrealistic and unreasonable. To turn it back on me – or any individual family – as some moral failing of ours when we make a different decision is to ignore the realities and the feedback these decisions provide to the schools and the community – and the opportunity for a deeper conversation about why we haven’t been able to overcome this historic dynamic.

      Over the years when my husband and I shared with others at benefits or social functions that our daughter is at our neighborhood elementary school, we regularly got an “Oh, that’s so admirable of you!” reaction, as if we had made a questionable decision for our child because we wanted to serve a larger purpose. That was not the case. We chose her school because it was best for her and our family – a great free education, half block from our house. We believed in and wanted to support public education, but we would not have made that decision if we felt it wasn’t in her best interests. And we made that clear to anyone who assumed otherwise.

      Our elementary schools have improved much more dramatically in the past 10 years than our secondary schools. Because of that, a decision to go to a public elementary school when you have other options is decidedly not a self-sacrificial, altruistic decision, it is a wise one.

      At elementary, PUSD has tipped the scales of that family calculus.

      Six years ago, our family had every reason to hope that similar improvements in secondary would work in our family’s favor by the time we reached middle school. In our opinion, it hasn’t happened.

      Despite the spoken emphasis on secondary the last four years, PUSD hasn’t had the District leadership in place to lead that charge. I believe our middle schools made such progress in part thanks to a strong cadre of principals who worked together. I have not seen the same level of school site leadership and collaboration at the high school level yet – which to be fair is far more difficult without the right District leadership in secondary. And made even harder with the state budget cuts and failure of the parcel tax.

      That doesn’t mean kids can’t get a good education in our secondary schools today – as you point out, many have (like my husband) and many do today. It means our secondary schools haven’t improved enough to fundamentally shift family decisions writ large.

      It would have been far easier for us personally to decide on a public middle school. We went into the decision with a belief system that predisposed us to see all the good in public schools and minimize the not so good elements. We WANTED to believe. Many in our shoes go in with the opposite set of beliefs and need to have negative assumptions disproven.

      Our middle and high schools don’t have to match a place like Poly. As you point out, by definition they never will. They do have to close the gap between the two enough to shift the family calculus if we want our entire community to be part of the promise of public education. Scolding those who make a different decision as failing in their social responsibility shuts down conversation and simply continues the historic us vs. them dynamic that got us here in the first place.

      Finally, I do want to thank you for commenting here. I really do believe that open conversation is part of the solution and appreciate your willingness to be frank in sharing your own perspective.

      Best,
      Kristin

  11. mike says:

    Hi Kristin. This may seem like an odd question (and apologies for putting you on the spot), but given your decision and what you’ve said about the reasons for it, is it even possible for you to continue to justify the existence of public education? I am not trying to be facetious here, but given your historical priorities, it seems like you being ‘forced to see the other side’ might have more implications than just where your child goes to school. Would you mind talking about that? Sorry, but I am truly interested in understanding this dilemma. :-)

    • Mike –
      I definitely take your question in the spirit it is intended. My immediate answer is a resounding yes, I not only can justify public education, I believe deeply in it as a foundation for our social and economic prosperity as a country. That said, let me noodle on your question a bit more. Certainly our recent experiences have caused me to reexamine many of my beliefs about what it takes to make change in public education and the communities within which they sit.
      Kristin

  12. Mike says:

    never thought i’d be posting a comment from this guy on education (since i usually disagree with him wholeheartedly) but this is exactly the kind of discussion we need to have. Maybe now is your chance to run with this Kristin. :-)

    “Here is another simple idea that our children understand but that we adults seem to have lost sight of: fair is fair. It is simply unfair to send some children to good quality private schools for $25,000 or more and then maintain that $7,000 — California’s average per-pupil spending — is anywhere close to adequate to educate the rest. In Los Angeles, 84% of our students are Black or Latino and 76% qualify for free or reduced lunches. They deserve the same educational opportunities as their peers. The educational futures of these children must not be determined by their economic status or zip code.”

    – mayor antonio villaraigosa