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An Education on Good Education

I remember hobbies. I used to go to the pottery studio and the gym. I’d find furniture on the street, then strip and repaint it in crazy colors and patterns. I tutored newly arrived immigrants in English. I baked. I read things. Things with more pages than Entertainment Weekly.

These days, not so much. For the past six months, my hobby has been finding a school for Josie. Remember the column I did, back in the Pleistocene era, making fun of parents who obsessed about getting their kids into the 92nd Street Y preschool? This is the column where I eat that column.

Okay, I still sneer at parents who think a prestigious private school is their child’s ticket to success in life, because sneering is a hobby I always have time for and it looks really great with my nose stud. It’s wonderful that every single private school child is issued a Harvard diploma and an offer letter from Cravath, Swaine & Moore. I’m pretty sure that’s true, because I read it on — between the debates about which private schools are truly TT (TT = Top Tier) and how much money your husband has to make for you to turn a blind eye to his infidelity.

But: I now understand the fear that one’s child won’t get a good education if one doesn’t go to the mat for it. I’d had high hopes for Josie’s new school. I loved the progressive educational philosophy, the mixed-age classrooms, the diversity. I loved the charismatic, scrappy and tireless young principal who was plotting to bring in a giant kiln, a filmmaking class and a bunch of Alvin Ailey dancers. Sure, the school’s standardized test scores weren’t great, but the new principal had been in place only for a couple of years. I felt good energy.

Then, over the summer, we got a letter from the fabulous principal, telling us she was taking a leave of absence to care for her critically ill mother. The school suffered without her. The hallways were chaotic. Events were disorganized. One of Josie’s classmates was bloodied three times on the playground, and no teacher or classroom aide ever saw what had happened. A 5-year-old punched Josie in the face hard enough to make her nose bleed. There were no consequences for him. Another kid punched Josie’s teacher in the stomach repeatedly. The teacher yelled a lot. (I’d yell, too, if I were being punched in the stomach repeatedly.) There were moments of fabulousness — the teacher wrote creative musicals for the kids to perform, there were class trips to a children’s theater, Josie made steps toward literacy. But when your 4-year-old tells you, “The most important thing about school is no matter how hard someone hits you, it’s wrong to hit back,” you know she’s going somewhere else for kindergarten.

I spent months parsing, Advocates for Children of New York’s guide to the city’s public schools. I went on dozens of school tours, asked friends with older kids tons of questions, filled out applications, made Josie take the Stanford-Binet IQ test (a requirement for application to some of the city’s selective public schools). I took her on interviews, and pondered, pondered, pondered.

I live in a mediocre school district. Should I apply for a variance to a school in a better district? Lie about my address, as so many people advised? (One of them is an employee of the Department of Education.) Hope that Josie’s name would be selected in the lottery for one of the few precious seats in either of the two best progressive schools in my district? Apply to NEST, the rigid, doctrinaire gifted and talented school, where an administrator direly told our tour that parents should not question the school’s homework-laden, test-heavy approach (which I’d heard described elsewhere as “drill and kill”), because such methods are the only thing that will prevent people overseas from taking all our jobs?

And wait, what about Jewish day school? What about my longtime crush on Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn? I felt a need to go back for a third tour. (I own my ditheriness and obsessiveness.) I loved the spiky energy in the classrooms, the laughter, the confidence I saw on the girls’ faces (they spoke up without fear that boys would think they were stupid), the tiny classes, the kids’ work on the walls, the fact that the fifth graders spoke Hebrew approximately a gazillion times better than I do. I liked that the school was in Brooklyn and had a chiller vibe than Jewish schools uptown. With Mom’s help, we probably could have afforded it. But… for two kids? And I kept coming back to the fact that it wasn’t public. I couldn’t shake my belief that if we middle- and upper-middle-class parents don’t show our commitment to public schools by actually sending our kids to them, what kind of message do we send to all kids? And a shout-out to readers: It seems pretty clear the advantages that private school offers are based in large part on being surrounded by rich people. A study published last year in the well-respected education journal Phi Delta Kappan analyzed data from 28,000 elementary school students at 1,300 schools and found that after the data were corrected for socioeconomic status, public school kids widely outperformed private school kids in math. (Have I mentioned that my gloat is almost as good as my sneer?)

Josie was oblivious to my angst. She enjoyed taking the IQ test with the psychologist; it involved a Mr. Potato Head. She had a blast at her play dates at the gifted and talented schools uptown (I was bummed when one school waitlisted her and one rejected her, but I blame those incredibly crappy rainbows she drew). And I was surprised that after her play date at the lovely gifted and talented program downtown, she said, “Mama, I want to go to this school!” She’d never said anything like that before. “Why?” I asked. “Because if I went here, we’d have to walk past the cupcake store twice a day!” she answered. “You’re not getting two cupcakes a day no matter where you go to school,” I informed her. “Then I changed my mind,” she said. “I want to go to The Neighborhood School.” Why? “Because it’s the shortest walk from our house.”

True. And it mattered. Her school last year was a 15- or 20-minute walk; getting out of the house on time was tough. Schools uptown, in Brooklyn, in the Far West Village and way downtown were even more major travel-time commitments. How would I manage it with Maxine? How would I handle pickup times at different schools?

We reapplied to The Neighborhood School. It had been my first choice last year, with the small size, progressive philosophy and mixed-age classrooms I liked in the school Josie got into, but with higher test scores and a long-established and well-respected principal. Last year, Josie’s name wasn’t picked in the lottery. (The school is kept balanced deliberately by race, reflecting roughly the same demographic breakdown as the neighborhood: something like 31% white, 21% black, 32% Latino and 18% Asian.)

A year later, I still loved the school. It was a block away. Every family I knew there was happy. I loved the self-possession of the students who led our tour — so enthusiastic and so serious about their jobs as ambassadors! I loved the art-filled classrooms and the amount of creative writing the kids were doing. I loved the emphasis on community and citizenship. I loved the creative teaching methods.

One afternoon, I walked by the school and had a Moment. A bunch of fourth or fifth graders were arrayed on the steps and clinging to the columns in front, belting out “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” (“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes… how do you measure a year in the life?”). They sang their little hearts out, in harmony, in their braids and baggy jeans and Converse high tops and stripy tights, looking like a junior version of the cast of “Fame.” As I passed these wee theater geeks, who of course reminded me of myself at that age, a dark-skinned, handsome Mr.-Clean-bald, gym-buff gay guy walked by, as well, coming from the other direction. He was walking a pit bull that looked exactly like him — huge chest and shoulders, essentially the same shaped head. The dog owner and I made eye contact, sharing amusement and happiness at these kids fully loving and living this song from a show about AIDS and loss and tolerance and transvestites and developers and heroin and the history of this neighborhood and true love conquering all. I wasn’t even embarrassed of the tears in my eyes.

And a mekhaye: Josie was admitted. She also got into the lovely gifted and talented program, which we turned down. (If I am not the only Jewish mother ever to do such a thing, let me know.) After mulling over the research on kids and praise, which I wrote about a few months ago, I decided that a gifted and talented program might not be healthy for Josie. She’s already hypercompetitive, afraid to get the wrong answer. I want her to heed the clarion call of Ms. Frizzle in “The Magic School Bus” books and TV show: “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get dirty!” And I think a school that appeals to citizenship and cooperation is more likely to keep her an adventurous, enthusiastic learner than one that makes her worry all the time about whether she’s truly gifted. All kids have gifts and deserve to have them recognized.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].

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