School Dazed & Confused

I've been meaning to blog about this for a while... but, well. Time seems to slip by a lot quicker these days. Isn't that always the case?! I think it's safe to say that one of the biggest things we have dealt with over the past few months has been choosing a school for Spencer to attend for Kindergarten. I started the year in a sea of elementary school information packs, eyes glazed over, thinking "How in the world does one make this decision?!" It used to be that you moved to the best district you could afford, and then it was all downhill from there. (Or so it seemed to me.) So when pre-school or kindergarten rolled around, you just sent them off to the closest public school. Now, It's a whole different ballgame...

When we bought our current house we didn't even know if we were definitely having children, so the fact that the elementary schools were "good enough" was, well, good enough. We knew the high school left a lot to be desired, but there are lots of excellent private schools in the area... so we weren't really concerned. We figured that was a long way off... and if things didn't improve, we'd find a way to make private school work. Or we'd move. Bottom line... we weren't worried. Flash forward seven years. We now definitely have a child, and he's not really a child whose brain is meant for "mainstream" learning... so "good enough" has quickly become "not so much." The final nail in the public school coffin was last June when a tax override was voted down and it became apparent that Spencer would be in a class of way-too-many students. In short, that would be disastrous for him, and his education.

I've referenced before that Spencer is "spirited." (This alone deserves a whole post) For now, let's just work off the line "Spirited kids are the Super Ball in a room full of rubber balls. Other kids bounce three feet off the ground. Every bounce for the Spirited child hits the ceiling." (quote from "How to Raise Your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka) That's a very basic visual of my spirited child... but I think it works. Just picture Spencer, the Super Ball, in a traditional classroom setting. Not. Gonna. Work. Right?!

There are other, smaller factors that made us uncomfortable with the public school path... but I can honestly say that if the above two issues were non-existent then these other factors wouldn't really matter. But still, they sat in the back of my mind as I read through this information. They included cultural diversity, length of the school day, lack of non-academic offerings, and required parental interaction.

We quickly decided that we would explore true alternatives to mainstream/public education. This led us to look into Montessori Schools, Charter Schools, a Reggio Emilia school, and a collaborative school (which is also the closest to a true "private" school.) Before starting this process, I didn't even know there were this many types of schools! I thought there was public, and there was private. Boy, was I wrong. One one hand, it's exciting to know that my son has so many educational options... but on the other hand, it was a wee bit overwhelming. I thought that I would make the decision to send him to a private school and that was that. Not the case. At all.

I'll be honest, I found that I needed to do research in order to do research. I found myself looking up terms and phrases in one browser window, while reading about schools in another browser window. And then I flipped over and started reading through the packets sitting on my desk, on the couch, and the kitchen table. (There are not really so many packets as there are pieces in the packets. And I'm a "spreader of information," thinking that if I can see it all at once, the whole picture will magically appear.) These packets were where all the nitty-gritty details are. The prices, the dress code, the philosophy on religion in school, the curriculum, the field trip information, the extra-curriculars, nut-free school information, bathroom rules. In short... EVERYTHING. So it's very easy to get sucked into irrelevant details, and I found myself reflecting on questions such as "Can I commit to keeping my son's hair trimmed off his neck and higher than his eyebrows?"... This should not matter at all, right?! Yet, there I was... contemplating it.

I was kind of hoping that by reading these packets, I'd immediately know which one was "perfect" for Spencer. But that's just not the case. They all have wonderful qualities... but they also all have weird little quirks... or things I need to get over, like the "haircut rules." We never planned to make this decision based on paper packets alone... but I was kind of hoping to narrow it down to just a couple this way. But, it looked like we would have at least four or five school visits over the next two months before all the enrollment forms/applications were due in late February. I quickly found that, just like with the adoption process, we were going to need to trust our guts and find the place that just "feels right." We also had to accept that there is no guarantee that Spencer actually makes it into any of these schools. We knew for sure that there was a waiting list at one, and an extremely competitive lottery at another. So, depending on how things shook out... we could still end up at our third choice school—or worse—none of them! Egad.

So I basically just made appointments to tour the two closest schools... and then was going to take it from there. I knew that the two other schools had open houses shortly after my tours were set up, so we'd get to see all four schools and meet some of the staff within a two week timeframe. This was the beginning of January. And then... our world turned upside down. Doug ended up in the hospital for a week, Spencer and I ended up with the stomach bug, and we had snowstorm after snowstorm after snowstorm. We ended up having to cancel the tours and we missed an Open House. All of a sudden, it was the beginning of February and registration deadlines were looming. And I, quite simply, was freaking out. I had a week to make one of the most important decisions of my son's life! Or so it felt.

Then one of my friends said something brilliant to me. They said, "Whatever you decide doesn't have to be forever. It just has to be for a year." And just like that... the pressure was off. Of course, we hope that the place we love as our Kindergarten choice is also the place we love for elementary, middle, and junior high. But at the end of the day... nothing is written in stone. Suddenly, this became manageable.

So we chose to look at the schools in the order that we liked their philosophies. We'd done plenty of online research not only into the particular schools that we were looking at, but also into the general philosophies behind them. (An aside... how did people do this stuff before the internet?!) This meant that Montessori was first up. This had been one of the schools we had arranged to tour, and then had to cancel when Doug was in the hospital. Spencer is a very independent thinker, who is also scary smart. But, he's definitely a kiddo who learns by doing. And he needs to learn it when HE wants to learn it. (I had to learn that lesson myself many times before I got it!) He's a perfect match for the Montessori method. We were just worried about how he would function in such a small, independent setting. He's a kiddo who, uhhh, pushes the limits. You know, like Thomas Edison. Or at least that's what I tell myself on the trying days.

The decision was almost made on the phone when I called to reschedule... and the first thing I was asked was "How is your husband feeling?!" I had not brought it up; they had remembered. Aside from a great school, we were also looking for a community. That one question made me feel like I may have found it. It's nice that my son was already more than a name... and they hadn't met him yet.

The Montessori school was great -- they got us in for a make-up tour immediately. When we went for the tour, I was a little a lot nervous. Mostly because my child was over the top excited. And antagonistic about the whole concept of Kindergarten. Not necessarily the best combination for making a good impression. But, at least it was honest. As we toured the school, he had more questions than I did. Which I took as a good sign. An even better sign was when the woman giving us the tour got down on his level to answer the questions, as well as ask some of her own in order to help him answer the questions himself. Again, the decision was almost made. At the end of the tour, I was told a spot was being held for Spencer while we did our due diligence of touring other schools. It was in no way meant to pressure me... and I was kind of blown away by that. While, yes, they are courting us as much as we are courting them... there was no reason for them to do that for us.

I'd love to say that on the tour, I fell head-over-heels in love with the school.* In many ways, I did fall for it. The staff was clearly amazing. Seeing the method in action was wonderful. The small class size, the exceptional student body, and the classrooms were incredible. But, there were still some downsides for me. Silly downsides, but downsides none-the-less. (To be fair, I also had some very silly upsides.) But in the end... it was still the front runner. A very strong front runner.

After the tour, Spencer didn't want to talk about it. At all. I think he's pretty much in denial that he has to go to school. But I felt that his dawdling when it was time to leave spoke volumes.

So I let it be. The following week we went to the other school on our list. It was more of a traditional learning environment with emphasis on small class size and an appreciation for cultural arts. (That made this graphic designer Mama's heart sing!) We were going in to pick up the applications and the financial aid forms; the open house and tour was the following weekend. We had to navigate from the guest entrance to the office. As we did, my Lil' Guy was very quiet, taking it all in. We hadn't been there long when Spencer looked up to me and stage-whispered, "Mama, I like the other school better."

And that, my friends, was when the decision was made.

Now, we sit and wait for the information on the new school year to roll in. Maybe by the time that happens I'll have accepted the fact that Spencer is old enough for Kindergarten?!

* It should be noted that I am not a "love at first sight" gal. Never have been. So it was a little unfair for me to think that it would happen with a school. It's a process for me. And in the past few weeks since we made our decision, I've fallen even more for the school. I guess that by taking away all the emotion devoted to making the decision, I've allowed for more emotion regarding the actual school.