Noe Valley Voice October 1998

Your Neighborhood Public School: Ugly Duckling or Fledgling Swan?

By Addie Lanier

Fall is here. The leaves are coming down, apples are in season, and in San Francisco, it's time for the parents of next year's kindergarten class to start agonizing about which school to send their children to. I have a perspective about schools I would like to share. My perspective is that of a Noe Valley parent and public school teacher.

When my children started school, I volunteered in the classroom. I liked working with the students so much, I decided to become a teacher. While studying for my credential, I was an assistant teacher in an affluent private school in San Francisco. Seeing students with significant behavioral problems and students who needed additional tutoring even in a smaller, exclusive setting was an eye opener for me. Naively, I had thought affluent private schools were immune to those kinds of problems.

Later, I worked in an Oakland public school where the poverty was so extreme it made me weep. I got my teaching credential, and soon afterward I started working as a kindergarten teacher at an inner-city school in San Francisco. Later still, I worked at an alternative public school in the city.

When most parents look at schools, they look at test scores first. But I think test scores tell very little about the quality of a school.

Children are individuals. In every school I worked in, public or private, rich or poor, I found academically gifted students. I found children who were struggling with family issues such as divorce, abandonment, and sibling rivalry. I found children who had to cope with learning disabilities. And I found children who believed they could conquer the world.

I worked with many students who proved the negative stereotypes wrong. Some of my brightest students were the children of teenage mothers, children with single parents, and children of immigrants who did not speak English.

From my experience as a teacher, I believe that the family is the most important educational environment for every child at every age. The home is where children learn values such as kindness, respect, self-discipline, determination, and a willingness to try. A child who comes to school with these positive values will thrive in any school setting. A child who brings poor values to school has a much harder time, whether the school is private or public, whether the child's family is affluent, middle-class, or impoverished.

Because family life is so important to the education of children, parents need to consider the demands that the school makes on parents. The school and parents are partners. For the six to nine years that a child is in primary school, much of the family's time will be devoted to school activities, friendships made at school, sports teams -- the list goes on and on.

Sending your child to a neighborhood public school can make a big difference. For one thing, you can't beat the public school tuition. Working extra hours to pay private school tuition puts a strain on working parents and takes time away from the family. After a long day at work, reading to children and helping with homework can be exhausting. It's hard to find the patience to teach children to be responsible and self-reliant when you're tired and overworked. Furthermore, most well-paying jobs also happen to be full-time jobs, which means that parents have to pay for after-school care. Young children need the love and attention that parents provide best. There is no substitute for time with your parents.

The time in the morning sets the tone for the day. All parents know how hard getting kids fed, dressed, and out the door is. Neighborhood schools are close to home. A leisurely walk to a local school sets a good tone for the rest of the day, whereas a hurried drive across town in morning traffic is a drag. Commuting is not quality time and doesn't contribute to a young child's development. A 30-minute commute to and from school over the course of a year translates into 22 eight-hour days spent sitting in a car.

But that's only half of it. Children form friendships with their classmates. In a school that draws children from all parts of the city, parents have to drive hither and yon to drop off and pick up their children for play dates. Add music lessons, team practices, dentist and doctor appointments, and you might as well buy a mobile home.

A neighborhood school attended by neighborhood children, where neighborhood parents volunteer regularly, is more than a school -- it is a living, breathing community. Children love it when parents come to their school. Seeing parents at school tells children that they are important, learning is important, and that parents care. Of course, parents can volunteer in their children's classrooms no matter where the school is, but they don't volunteer as often when the school is far away.

Seven years ago, when I went looking for a school for my daughter, I didn't know what to look for. My only experience with schools was in nursery schools with children under the age of 5. I could not imagine how my precious 4-year-old daughter could attend a primary school without being knocked down, run over, lost in a hallway, or lost, period.

For this reason, my husband and I wound up sending her to a public alternative school outside Noe Valley.

Today, when I look at my 11-year-old daughter, after having worked with kindergarten kids, I know that my daughter would have been just fine here in the neighborhood.

A 4-year-old and an 8-year-old are worlds apart. When you're visiting a school, especially when you look at children playing in the yard, remember that your child will be 8 years old soon. What looks like rough-and-tumble play is normal, healthy play for an older child. You can't judge a primary school by the standards of a nursery school.

On our block, there are seven families with school-age children. The children attend seven different schools that follow seven different schedules. Not one family is attending Alvarado Elementary, our neighborhood public school, although it is a five-minute walk from our homes.

My children have had a great education. I have no complaints about their experience, but if I were looking for a school today, knowing what I know now as a teacher and parent, I would investigate my local public school more carefully.

Take the time to call and talk to the new principals at Fairmount and Alvarado. I happen to know they're great. Visit the schools more than once and at different times during the day.

Our neighborhood public schools might look like ugly ducklings. But I think they will turn out to be swans.