My oldest daughter was born two months before the Columbine, Colorado Massacre in 1999. Her mom and I lived in Memphis, where it seemed the news reported every week of another baby left to suffocate in the van of yet another careless daycare. Needless to say, we were scared for the life and safety of our first child.
We had my sister-in-law move in with us to take care of our daughter while we worked and solved the problem of daycare, but when it came time to find a school, the only discussion was which private school to put her in. We weren’t wealthy by any means. In fact, we had been divorced about three years by the time our oldest went to school and her sister, 21 months younger, was close behind.
Quite honestly, our decisions were made in fear. We were afraid for our children’s safety, afraid other public school kids would corrupt them, and even felt like the private school community might make up for the fact their parents were divorced.
My children stayed in private school from kindergarten to sixth and eighth grades, respectively. Having gone through my own educational growth, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the religious message taught to them. More than that, I was uncomfortable with the lack of diversity, the impossible peer pressure to have the latest and greatest technologies, the preferential treatment to families who supported the school beyond tuition, and the moral judgments my kids began to feel about having contrary opinions to the status quo.
Research shows that it’s actually parental involvement that helps kids succeed academically, not the school they attend, in most cases. We have a great school district in our area; I just didn’t know it at the time.
We decided to pull our kids out of private school and enroll them in public school at ninth and seventh grades. I remember sitting in the parking lot of the school district, filling out the registration form and wondering if we were doing the right thing. Would they be safe? The schools offered many more opportunities than we had at the small private school, but would that be enough to prepare them for college?
It turned out our kids had some catching up to do, particularly our new high schooler. She was a straight-A student in private school, but not up to par when it came to her math skills. She struggled, but now it was because she was challenged. Our seventh grader seemed to have an easier time, but it was a new school with new people and we didn’t know any of their families. We took great comfort in knowing the families of the kids our girls went to school with. We were essentially starting over.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t do this sooner. My kids fell in love with school and became involved with cheer and leadership programs. Their high school is part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, which prepares them for a global workforce and gives them credit for college coursework. My oldest daughter just graduated with a 4.125 GPA and left for college, where she plans to earn a Ph.D. in the physical sciences and work in academia. Her sister, now a junior in high school, is also part of the IB program.
Had I saved the nearly $90,000 I spent on private school, and invested it, I could have paid for my kids’ Ph.D. programs. Instead, like most parents, we are paying what we can as we go and likely putting their graduate degrees on student loans.
What I love most about the public education my kids have received is the diversity of the friends they’ve made. Our house looks like a young United Nations gathering when their friends are over. The rich conversation, diverse opinions, and unique experiences these kids share have enriched all of our lives. My kids don’t operate in the fear I did when we put them in private school. They are much more open to new people, new experiences, and opposite opinions.
There are extenuating circumstances where private school may be helpful, particularly in school districts where public education isn’t well funded. Parents should ask themselves what they want to accomplish by putting their kids in private school. What drives their decision, and what benefits are achieved through public or private education?
Most importantly, set aside your own fears and prejudices. Fear of others, especially those who are different from us, is a strong motivator. We don’t think clearly when we are driven by the fear. Often, private schools reinforce that fear, and soothe our quivering souls, by promising to uphold stringent ideologies. Unfortunately, those ideologies sometimes rob our children of their creativity, uniqueness, and inquisitiveness. As parents, the best thing we can do for our kids is commit ourselves to involvement in their education, and our own lifelong learning.
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