School Choice: There Is no Right Choice

Boy spelling with blocks

Years ago, I stood in a circle of kindergarten parents that were talking after drop-off. One parent said, “We picked the right school! My son is reading chapter books!

Great. There are at least a few parents in this group who are now thinking, 'Why isn’t my child reading chapter books? Did I pick the wrong school?' my brain silently replied.

Since I was the parent to the probably dyslexic girl who would actually have to repeat kindergarten the following year, I also thought to myself that this child of said parent would have learned to read while living in a box by himself. That chapter-book reader was born to read, and any school he attended would foster that innate ability.

Yet we all still believe somehow that school choices directs our children's likelihood of success.

This universal parenting conversation, about which school is "the right school," plays out for me still today. It’s not like the private school my child is enrolled in now is wrong, I just wonder if she would thrive in a different type of environment.

Would she do better in a more creative, co-op-style public school? Or do I need to work full time so she can go to a smaller private school designed for kids with learning disabilities?

All over the country, parents mull school choice all the time. Today in Seattle, parents are filling out last-minute enrollment forms for public school. Some of these parents go a step further, filling out school choice forms so they can try to get their child into a school that is not his or her neighborhood school or into a specialized learning program.

Parents pony up to the dog-and-pony shows put on by all the public schools that highlight the schools strengths, whether it’s Friday morning all-school sing along time or a multisensory approach to learning.

It was hard not to feel like a lost baby calf as I waited recently to talk to a teacher at one of these open houses. Soon enough I realized I wouldn't be able to chat with this teacher, as the parents already talking to the teacher knew her and planned on picking her mind for as long as possible. I talked to the school principal and the lead special education teacher instead. I joked around with parents I haven’t seen since preschool days. We all realize our chances of getting into this alternative school are slim to none. But still and yet: Someone has to get in; it could be one of our children that receive a coveted spot.

But is admission to any of the schools parents visit the Golden Ticket? Is there a right school for every child? I have children in fifth and first grade, and both of them are completely different. But I still think there isn’t some perfect school for each of my girls.

Yes, there is the good-enough school that works on many levels. Perhaps both of my children have that now. So why do I bother visiting schools then? Because my youngest is being tested for learning disabilities, and her tester already told me we will be talking about schools when we meet to go over her test results. He has observed her in class. And several mornings a week my daughter moans about school. Did I mention that I pull her out for two half days every week to get special education services?

But still and yet: My daughter has friends at her school, and she keeps making more friends. She is learning and actually the happiest we have ever seen her since she started attending school at age 2. She not only leaves school to receive tutoring, she has several tutoring sessions at her own school too. Perhaps I need to leave well enough alone.

Who knows what I will decide about school for my girl? All I know is I loved talking to people in line as I waited at the Seattle Public Schools District Office to hand in a school choice form. We all worried about the illegal parking lots where we had parked our cars because we read the signs that said our cars would be towed from these lots. There was nowhere to park, though, and the enrollment specialist I talked to on the phone before I drove down said not to hand my forms in online, that I would never know if it worked and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Mostly I relished hearing pre-kindergarten parents talking about their school choices. One didn’t like a kindergarten teacher she met, saying the teacher had taught forever and didn’t seem enthusiastic, and furthermore the school was so dark and old. Good points, but you never know how your child will do until she is actually in that school setting. We are all guessing, playing our own form of God, praying if we pray, sending out positive affirmations if we meditate, and parking illegally so we can make the best choice we know how to make in a sea of choices.

And then the school district decides which schools our children will attend, ultimately taking the choice out of our hands.

There is no right choice. There is only choosing and then figuring out if it is working well enough. We are lucky if our kids are thriving, and we are not lucky if they are not thriving. Many children are somewhere in the middle, liking parts of school, hating parts of school, and doing well enough.

As parents we fret and worry and change our minds and play whatever hand we can play to the best of our ability. There is no ribbon to tie into a bow as I ponder school choice for my youngest child.

But at least I didn’t get a parking ticket on the day I handed in her school choice form.

nancy-altonWriter, editor, and writing coach Nancy Schatz Alton is finishing the last draft of her memoir about the beginning of Annie’s learning journey. She is co-author of two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. When not navigating parenthood, she uses her brain power to write, edit, and fact-check articles for websites and magazines. She lives in Ballard with her husband and two elementary-age daughters. Find her blog at Within the Words.

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