Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Flying across the country

But before I get back to the tour, I had to have one more little dose of Philadelphia. As crazy as this is, after arriving in LA on Sunday, I turned around and caught a plane out of LAX on Monday morning. The reason? Masterman School Open House.

For those readers who are not from the Philadelphia School District, a word of explanation.

The Philadelphia schools have been known as generally atrocious for as long as I can remember. But when we actually went to look for kindergarten for Baz, we found out that it's not so black-and-white... While the schools are usually underfunded and overcrowded, there are gems to be found - pockets of excellent teaching, devotion to children, involved parent-teacher associations.  We leapt through a series of hoops in order to enroll Baz at one of these schools, C.W. Henry in Mt. Airy.  Although Henry's academic credentials were less-than-thrilling, we believed that in the younger grades, no harm would come - so much of the first few years of school is about socialization, learning new routines, establishing a life away from home.  

I felt we were right in this.  Baz attended kindergarten and 1st grade at Henry School, and there were many things I loved about it.  I loved sending him off each day in his little uniform, and I loved that only about 1/4 of the kids in his class were white.  I loved the Gifted Support program, which pulled Baz out of the classroom each week for enrichment programming.  Henry has an outstanding music program, lots of assemblies and special schoolwide events, and a great amount of family involvement.  The academics were easy - but the environment was nurturing for him, and that was most important.  

I knew, however, that my priorities would shift in the upper grades.  Beginning in 5th grade, Henry's handful of top students are lured away to Masterman School, Philadelphia's one truly excellent middle school.  Masterman is top-ranked in the city, the state, and even the country, for its rigorous curriculum and high standards.  Getting your kids into this school is the challenge - 5000 students apply for 5th grade's 165 slots.  

We are now at that time of grappling with educational decisions for Baz, Ayla, and Isa.  And this conveniently coincides with the Philadelphia School District's most catastrophic budget crisis in memory.  Here's another great article about the situation.  Schools opened this fall without counselors, secretaries, or lunchtime aides.  Beloved programs (such as Gifted Support at Henry) were cut; some schools were closed entirely.  

I had already been biting my nails over the prospect of sending my kids back into the public school system.  But when the media is teeming with quotes like "No parent can comfortably send their child into a school under these circumstances.", and hearing anecdotal stories about drastic supply shortages and classrooms with 40+ students and not enough desks feels like the straw is breaking the camel's back.  Particularly for my youngest - the idea of sending Isa (who is already a fairly needy kid, and who wasn't detached from my hip until age 6 1/2) into a jungle with minimal adult attention, gives me a shudder.  

Baz and Ayla have a good option, and that is Masterman School.  While it's still part of the Philadelphia School District, and is still suffering from some of the funding shortages, it is weathering the blows better than most.  Everyone is confident that at Masterman, kids will still get a good education.  Some of it simply comes from putting the most motivated students, and the most talented teachers, all together in one building.  

I'll skip the saga of what is required to apply to Masterman School - it's another series of hoop-jumping.  The Open House was my only chance to visit the place and ask questions.  So, Greg and I decided it was important enough for me to get on a plane.  I arrived late Monday night, stayed at a cheap airport hotel, and took the train to the Open House early Tuesday morning.  I caught a plane back to LAX a few hours later.  

It worries me a little that I have crossed into psycho-parent territory here.  Who flies across the country to attend an Open House for an elite school for their 5th-grader?!   But one thing I have learned as a parent in Philadelphia is that advocating for your kid's education is an endless, critical, and complex task.  

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