Today I went with my sister to the St. Paul School's Open house at the River Center. Like my youngest, giraffegirl, my nephew will be entering kindergarten this coming fall. Today was an opportunity for us to talk to people from all the elementary schools in one setting, to compare and contrast both the positive and negatives of these 40 or so public school choices. We started the day with a list of five or six schools that were possibilities for her to consider. We talked to the staff that was there from each school, asked questions and spent much of the day overwhelmed. By the time we left the event (over 4 hours after arriving) we had tossed out some schools from her list, added one new school to the list, and narrowed her choices to 4 schools, each with pros and cons. Does she choose the school with the staff that was obviously incredibly passionate about teaching and the principal everyone raves about, but has less perceived parent involvement? Does she send him to the school in which she loves the feel when she has been there, the school he is most familiar with from taking community ed classes, even though the school is predominately white and my nephew is biracial? Does she send him to the sole St. Paul school that has a year-round schedule, which offers science daily in the classroom and lots of diversity, even though it would eliminate some of his summer vacation time with his cousins, and everything she has read says there is no benefit to year round schedules in elementary school? Or does she pick the school with the greatest quoted diversity, but which she is least familiar with and hasn't really felt a draw to before? How do you make that choice? And is there really a bad choice among them? She isn't done with her decision-making process, and has a little over a month to go tour the schools and to possibly attend a PTP meeting at each to see about parent involvement. We've grown up in a family that believes that you can get a good education wherever he goes, that parent involvement and student motivation is more important than the physical building he attends school in, so regardless of where he goes I think he'll end up okay.
The whole experience left me extremely reflective though. I started the day so envious of my sister's choices. We live in one of the farthest out suburbs of the Twin Cities, and we have only one elementary school our kids go to. There isn't a choice for public schools. What a magical opportunity she has to mold her child's educational experience. I expected to be blown away with all the options, and to come home wishing I had stayed in the city where I grew up, instead of following my husband out to his place of origin. And I did see an amazing amount of options, was blown away with all the choices and the difficulty one has making that decision. I don't have a clear idea of what my sister should choose. But somewhere after we left this afternoon, as we over-analyzed her four options over lunch, it dawned on me. Had it been my children I had been searching for a school for, the questions and criterion would have been different. We would have focused less on diversity and how they split up specialist time (gym, music, art, science). Our number one concern would be how they'd be prepared to care for two children with special medical concerns. We'd ask questions like "Have you heard of marfan syndrome?", "What is the break-down of the recess area and will there be a safe place for our children away from balls and impact sports?", and "How flexible will the gym teacher and classroom teacher's be in adapting the curriculum to our children's needs?" Our choices would be less about the options than about our child's safety, less about the dog-and-pony show and more about the general flexibility we felt from the staff and principals. And the repercussions if we would choose wrong seem so much greater. Would they suffer emotionally at a school where differences were less socially accepted, regardless of the flexibility of the staff? And how do you really tell what school would be most open to that, especially when what your children suffer from is rare, when you don't know parents locally who have pioneered this road before you? How do you chance it? How do you live with yourself if the choice you make is wrong? Suddenly I think home schooling may have been a more realistic option for me, that I may have chosen to keep my kids in my own safe cocoon for a long while more.
I'm grateful today for that lack of choice. As I said, we had one school to send our child to if we wanted transportation. So I arrived at that school without another choice, asked those same questions above anyways, and learned that the answer to the first one was "No". Our school hadn't heard about marfan syndrome and had no prior students with it. But then something magical happened anyways. My initial conversations with the nurse happened the spring before my son arrived. For his kindergarten year we met with the teacher and explained his condition, filled in the nurse, and since there was no gym that year, felt safe with the "no balls" rule for kindergarten that they implemented. I felt safe for that year but so fearful of what would happen once gym started. We wrote up his 504 medical plan, with the necessary accommodations for marfan syndrome needed for gym and recess (no high impact sports, shooting hoops, or other things where he had a high chance of getting hit in the head with a ball or getting hit in his body. No forced running, rest when he feels he needs to). And we started the summer wait before first grade started. And here's where the real magic happened. I read about people's school experiences with marfan syndrome on NMF connect and other marfan blogs. I somewhat expected a battle for my son. Instead, we met before this school year began and were greeted by a staff that had not only researched marfan syndrome but had discovered it qualifies as a disability in Minnesota, automatically qualifying him for special education services in our state in only one area (you normally need 2). Pretty soon they were helping to advocate for what is best for our son, and the majority of the fears I had disappeared. Really, what I've found in this school that wasn't our "choice" is more valuable than a million options at a hundred other schools. I've found peace-of-mind, security, a caring staff, and my son flourishing. It doesn't hurt that our school happens to be in the top 40 schools in the state for test scores and other things they compare. But it isn't perfect. I crave the diversity my nephew will get in his school he goes to. But the grass out here is green enough for me, I don't need the other side. Today I was reminded that sometimes having no choice is what I still choose. Sometimes, having choices is overrated.