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May 2004 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

School of Hard Knocks
By Angela Melson

Oh, if only it were so simple ... my dream to live in the city and educate my children in the city. Yes, I could have done it many ways. I could have even homeschooled — an experiment which certainly would have ended with me in Metro Psych or prison or both.

Griffin Griffin could have attended the neighborhood Catholic school — a good option, I was told by many parents, especially if your child has no special needs and is not too "high" or "low" in any area. We weren't Catholic and didn't really like the idea of explaining to our son, "Well, Griff, we don't believe that, but you have to do it anyway. It's just part of school, that 'mass' thing." Additionally, as a former educator, a school that shied away from special needs children or children on the outer edges of the bell curve didn't provide me with much comfort. I wasn't sure about special needs, but I was sure of one thing, a thing I hope many parents would say about their own child: Griffin was certainly special. I wanted any special needs he might have to be met by his school. I also hoped he was stretching the boundaries of some bell curve, whether in independent thinking (referred to as "strong-willed" in some settings), obsessions with gravity, or the ability to create an elaborate, interesting story from two inanimate objects off the top of his head.

Private schooling is often an option for those who have bought their large home in the city at lower prices than comparable houses in the county. Yes, we considered that option; however, 11K a year (plus a commitment to annual giving) for private elementary schools in the area just didn't sit well financially or philosophically. I was educated in public schools and felt I had been well prepared for my post-high school pursuits. My heart was not in the process. Apparently my son's heart wasn't in it either, after he refused some "testing" during what I had been told was to be a "social visit" at New City School. When my 5-year old son got back in the car after his half-day visit there, he said, "I don't want to go back to that school, Mom. They kept trying to test me." Big surprise — I had prepped him for the visit by describing it as a social visit, a chance to do activities and games with friends at a new school. At that point, knowing Griffin and his feelings and anxieties about being evaluated and realizing my own serious misgivings about schools choosing children to create that "perfectly balanced" classroom, I abandoned the private school option.

My most seriously considered option was to send Griffin to the St. Louis Public Schools. I had considered it and was committed to making that happen even before he was born. Heck, I'd graduated from Little Rock Central High School, an urban public school in an impoverished neighborhood near Little Rock's downtown, that to this day remains fully integrated and the top high school in Arkansas. It also happens to have been the first public school to desegregate in the South. (There's even been a movie about that.) My educational experience had been wonderful. I had somehow been channeled to the best teachers and classes, and was quite prepared for college, even to the point where the Southern girl who talked funny was the one to ask for help with your English Comp. papers.

I so wanted the city schools to work for us. I started early. When Griffin was just 3 months old, I saw my first opportunity to see up close what was going on in the city schools. I joined Metropolis, an organization of predominantly 20- and 30-something St. Louisans dedicated to promoting the city as a great place to live, work and play. As one of the first of its members to have offspring, I felt that if Metropolis was to be about retaining me as a city resident, it depended a great deal on whether the city could provide me with a viable option to educate my child. Metropolis had an Education Subcommittee, and, inside a year, we were volunteering weekly or biweekly at Bryan Hill School, raising funds to build a playground at the school, and holding parent meetings. Test scores began to climb a bit at Bryan Hill, and it was inspiring to see what a difference a dynamic principal and some community support can mean. Yes, the children came from disadvantaged backgrounds, some getting all their nourishment from the free breakfast and lunches offered daily, often arriving on a Monday morning to eat voraciously after the long weekend. Despite these harsh realities, this school was making positive strides, and I continued to remain somewhat optimistic about the possibilities of the public schools.

After some time, I became involved with the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation, a newly formed not-for-profit organization devoted to raising funds and providing for school district needs. The efforts and goals of this organization were right on target, and I enjoyed being part of serving the public schools in this way. However, the things I learned about the school system during my work for the foundation did not give me confidence about putting my child into this system. There was a severe lack of resources at many schools. Tired, worn-out faces often greeted me at schools I visited. There were shining stars at many schools, administrators and teachers that made great things happen for their school and their students, but there was little consistency district-wide to what I saw in a few select schools.

When Griffin turned 3, I started to visit more schools. Our neighborhood school was not used by anyone with whom I talked in our neighborhood (bad sign), but I did look into the school, had a visit there, and soon discovered it was a designated school for students learning English as a second language and that it bussed in children from all over the district. That did not feel like the right fit for us.

Then I started attempting to visit magnet schools. I say "attempting" because I was not always successful at being able to visit. I received a notice of a Magnet School Open House day, so I took a half day off of work to visit a couple of schools. When I visited the first school on my list, I was greeted by no one. I found my way to the office, and was curtly asked, "Can I help you?" I said, "I'm here for the Open House." The young woman didn't look up. She said, "Oh, we got a call this morning and they cancelled that." I replied, "Who cancelled it?" "They did — the central office." This was not the first time I got the "us and them" feeling from the school staff and faculty. Eventually, the young woman told me that I could look around if I wanted, and with her arms pointed the general direction of different grade levels. I was not escorted and few teachers wanted me to observe in their rooms. Attempts to visit other magnet schools were similarly difficult, and I never once got to observe for any period of time an actual classroom during instruction time. I was sometimes taken on tours but never allowed to spend time in any particular class. Even when I asked, I was told that had to be handled by the principal or counselor.

I actually did apply for my son to go to preschool at one of the magnet schools I had visited. He had met admission requirements, and, after the lottery process, was the first child on the waiting list. Even though I was told not to expect to get in since these were such prized spots, I remained involved, calling every few weeks to see if there had been any change. I had thought that preschool would be a good trial year. As the year wore on, I realized he would not get into the preschool year, so I began to earnestly look at kindergarten. At this time, I was also pursuing other options described earlier (looking at private schools, parochial schools, etc.) as well as looking at other county public schools. I had been able to visit actual kindergarten classrooms in my visits to other schools, but still was not able to get a visit to a kindergarten classroom at the magnet school for which my child was on the waiting list. After being offered more 1 o'clock tours (the kindergarteners were napping then), I pressed the issue and said I wanted to spend 20-30 minutes of actual instructional time in a kindergarten classroom. I waited several days for a response from the counselor, who called finally and said, "I discussed your request with the kindergarten teachers, and they feel it might mess up classroom dynamics at this time of the year (late October), but I'd be happy to escort you on a tour. This would have been tour number three for me and I said, "No, thank you."

In the end, I guess it was the lack of accessibility I experienced and the lack of accountability I perceived that ultimately led me to abandon my dream of educating my son in the St. Louis Public Schools. It was one thing to support these schools and try to help them as a resident; it became quite another when I began to consider what was best for my own children.

Perhaps I could have stayed in the city schools, stayed involved daily, worried lots, and things ultimately would have turned out. I'd have this renaissance kid who'd survived the system; heck, in fact, he was all the better for being in schools that don't appear comfortable with being observed and an administration that often seems to be unaccountable for what it does or does not do for its children. I'm sure there are children who do find a way to thrive in the city schools — perhaps it's a fine balance of just finding the right school for your child at the right time. And yes, no school is perfect. Perhaps the school in the end doesn't matter. Maybe it's having parents that care and are invested in their child's education. I don't know if the city schools would have worked for my family, and now, I'll never know.

Griffin is now in kindergarten at Old Bonhomme School in the Ladue School District. The school (as well as many other public schools I visited in the county) was open to both my presence and my questions. Old Bonhomme was also open to all comers (no admissions process, no lottery), as long as you lived in the district. So we left our lovely turn-of-the-century home in Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood for a comfortable ranch home in Olivette, a next-to-inner-ring suburb that just happens to feed into a very good public school system. And yes, one year since the move, I'm glad we did it.

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