Why We Don’t Stress Out About Choosing a School

Back to School1 - Why We Don't Stress Out About Choosing a School featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Gabrielle of Design Mom

Photos and text by Gabrielle.

I get emails about choosing a school all the time, and I’ve had a draft of this post written up for a full year! But I’ve hesitated to publish this because it’s such a stressful topic for so many people, and I don’t want to inadvertently add to anyone’s stress. Please, if you start reading this and you’re not into it, just skip it and move on. I promise, this is not a directive on how to pick a school, and I don’t claim to know where your particular child should go to school. This is just my thoughts on the topic for my own family.

For me, realizing that I wasn’t willing to stress about choosing a school, started when we lived in New York. People that live in New York are crazy when it comes to schools. I’m not sure that statement is even up for argument. And I don’t blame them. It’s intense. Our oldest turned 4 the month we moved there and school started a few weeks afterward. As we settled in, every time we met someone new the big question was: Where is Ralph going to preschool? And the stress wasn’t because we lived in Manhattan. We were in a little town just north of the Bronx, called Tuckahoe.

Since Ben Blair was starting his graduate work at Columbia, and I had baby number 3 a few weeks after we moved in, money was tight, and our only considerations for pre-school were essentially that it be cheap or free. You can imagine my shock when I found out that it wasn’t uncommon in our area for people to pay $20,000 or more per year for pre-school tuition. And these weren’t imaginary people with private jets. These were my friends and neighbors who didn’t drive fancy cars or take exotic vacations.

Back to School2 - Why We Don't Stress Out About Choosing a School featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Gabrielle of Design Mom

Well, paying that kind of preschool tuition simply wasn’t an option for us. So we kept asking around until we heard about other solutions. There was a co-op preschool some mothers at my church had put together — it would switch from house to house each month, with parents doing the teaching. The price was right (free!), but with 3 kids, aged 4 and under, I knew I couldn’t manage it. (We did end up participating in a similar co-op a couple years later for Maude). We also found a Methodist church nearby that offered a preschool with more reasonable prices. It wasn’t a bargain, but it was manageable. It also wasn’t a feeder into the ivy-league-track schools, but we visited it and could see that Ralph would be safe and happy there. We signed him up.

A few short months later, it was time to think about registering for Kindergarten. We knew Ralph would go to the public school in Tuckahoe, though it wasn’t rated nearly as high as the public schools in the nearby wealthier towns of Bronxville and Scarsdale. But even with that decision made, there was so much stress about which teacher he would get. My friends encouraged me to write letters to the school to make sure Ralph was put in the class taught by the Kindergarten teacher with the best reputation. The letters weren’t a guarantee, but they might help.

I found the whole thing just completely overwhelming. I was crushed with worry about who Ralph’s Kindergarten teacher would be. And I felt like an awful parent, knowing there were better-rated public schools available to us if we could afford more expensive rent in neighboring towns. At the park, in the grocery store, anywhere I went, it seemed like the topic of schools was all anybody could talk about.

Well, Ralph didn’t get assigned to that sought after Kindergarten teacher, and my heart was broken. I could barely sleep, wondering if I was sending my first child off to a horrible situation. But it turned out that the teacher he was assigned to was fantastic! Like really awesome! She was a terrific fit for Ralph in so many ways. Plus, she had a communication style with parents that was ideal for me and Ben Blair. Ralph had an amazing Kindergarten year! He loved school and we remained friends with his teacher for the 8 years we lived there. (As a side-note, the following year we didn’t make a teacher request for Maude, but she was assigned the sought-after Kindergarten teacher, and that teacher was excellent as well.)

After our experiences with Kindergarten for Ralph and Maude, I had a mental shift. I realized that I had been so stressed out about Kindergarten when I hadn’t even met any of the Kindergarten teachers. I also realized that the stress didn’t leave after Kindergarten. That these worries would continue till college — I knew my fellow parents were writing teacher-request-letters for every year of school.

At that point, we basically refused to buy in to the choosing a school stress any longer. And it’s not that we didn’t care about school. We definitely care that our kids get a good education! We care that our kids thrive and succeed! But spending time worrying about what school to attend, or paying exorbitant tuition, just isn’t okay with us.

If I find myself getting stressed out about choosing a school, I do my best to return to thoughts like these:

1) Don’t stress out about choosing a school.

I get it. It’s tempting to think about where our kids will go to college before we pick their pre-school, but I think that’s a mistake. Will my child really thrive at Harvard? Maybe. (Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath makes me think otherwise.) At age 5, we don’t know what our kids will be like during middle school or high school or college. And a school that’s working one year may drastically change if you get a teacher that’s not a good fit for your child, or if your son’s best friend moves and he falls into a depression. You can’t control for stuff like that. At different times you’ll need different things.

If you’re an involved parent at all, your child will be able to go to college. And whatever college they get into, can be a building block to the next thing. How many people do you know that went to average public schools, then a decent university, then did medical school or graduate work at a top school? I literally know dozens of these people! And they earn the same salaries as the people that attended high stakes private schools starting in Kindergarten.

Ben Blair and I simply don’t stress about getting into certain schools, and we don’t pick our houses based on school district borders. It’s not worth the worry to me. Instead, I like the idea of using that energy to improve the school we’re assigned to. Or using that energy to improve our home environment. We do not need to get obsessed with choosing a school. It’s unnecessary. We’ll know what to do for our kids. We’ll be able to figure it out, to ask for advice from the right people, to find another option if the first idea isn’t working. Stressing out will not help.

2) You can’t buy happiness.

Paying high tuition, or attending the highest rated school doesn’t guarantee my child will have a happy, successful, fulfilled life. It doesn’t guarantee that my child will be a good citizen or kind person. It doesn’t guarantee that my child will make lots of money as an adult. It doesn’t even guarantee the school will be a good fit for my child. She might hate it. She might be a little fish in a big pond. She might feel pressure to go ivy league, when really, she’d be a better fit at a state school, or even jumping right into a career.

Paying the most tuition in the area won’t guarantee the best or brightest kid. You can’t buy happiness.

So does that mean a quality education doesn’t matter? It for sure matters! We want our kids to have as much quality education as they can. But I think there are many ways to define “quality education”.

3) There are options for choosing a school.

The town I grew up in has since grown, but when we first got there, every kid in town went to the nearest public elementary school. There were no other options. The same thing is true in many towns across America. One public school option. And happily, it mostly meets the needs of the kids. But what if it doesn’t? Until about 10 or 15 years ago, if it didn’t meet your child’s needs, tough luck for you. But that has changed!

If we didn’t like our public schools, we would look around. What are the other public schools like? Is there a charter school? Do we need to do a co-op with other parents? Our kids crave social stuff, but could we do online school and have them get social interaction via extra curricular activities? I know I have options.

In the schools where we live now, there isn’t a ton of funding, so every school can’t provide every program. One high school has a marching band. Another high school has an orchestra. Straightforward options like that can help you choose the right fit for your child. So think about what your child needs. A small class size? Indiviualized attention? A chance to be a leader? Special programs for special needs? A campus garden? A school music program? A Latin and Classics program? A wood-shop on campus? Would he thrive with a diverse group of friends? Don’t assume the best rated school is automatically the best choice for your child.

Can’t find a school that fits your child’s needs? You can make your own education options as well! Maybe you can attend half a day at public school and have a tutor in the afternoons — it would be way less expensive than the typical private school and could be ideal for some kids or families. Does your child crave lots of music education? You could have him attend a decent public school and save your money for piano lessons.

4) I believe in public schools and free education.

My default is public school. I start there. I assume we’ll like whatever school we’re assigned to, and if we don’t, we’ll look at other options. But there are parents that don’t feel they have options at all. Maybe because they don’t speak English well, or are working two jobs and don’t have time to explore the schools in the area. Or maybe they feel like money is too tight and assume that the nearby public school is the only free or affordable option. But their kids deserve a great education just as much as my kids do.

Is public school a fit for everyone? Nope. But for most kids, public schools work, and it’s worth investing our time in them. Because most children in our communities attend public schools, and it’s only in our best interest to give those kids the best educational experience we can.

I know from experience the instinct is to look out for our own kids above all else. And that feeds into our worries about finding the best possible school for our child. The school with the best ratings, or the best reputation. We want to give our kids every chance at success. And we assume the better the school, the more opportunities. It seems like the best school we can find is the ultimate gift to our kids, right?

Well, I actually disagree. If we are so concerned with our own kids that we put them on an elite track, and make sure they’re only rubbing shoulders with the most successful families in our city, while ignoring the needs of other children in the community, that’s not a gift at all. Giving your kids special status while the rest of the world struggles and crumbles is no gift. You’re giving them a worse world instead of a better one.

If we want to give our kids a better world, the most effective way of doing that is making sure every kid in our community has the best possible chance at success. We need to make sure every child in our community has access to an excellent school. And supporting your local public schools is a great way to do that.

Here’s a way to look at it money wise: Our public elementary school raises approx $75,000 per year and that money pays for a choir program, school band, an art event, a campus garden, and more. These programs benefit 300 kids. In comparison, if Ben Blair and I put Oscar, Betty & June, our elementary school aged kids, into the nearest private school, we would be paying $90,000 per year in tuition ($30,000 per student). And that money would benefit only our 3 kids. Of course, we don’t have that much money to put toward tuition, but if we did, I would much rather see those funds go toward a public school, where it could improve circumstances for a hundred times as many kids.

It’s the same with donating time and volunteering in the schools. I think the parents and community members who get involved with public schools are doing amazing work, because they’re not just providing a good educational experience for their own child, they’re also building the entire community.

I believe in public schools and free education.

(That said, I also completely understand there are reasons parents choose private schools as well. Olive will be in public school for 8th grade this fall, but she was enrolled in a private school for the last two years. So I get it, I promise. And in another post, maybe I can talk about how we made that decision. My intention isn’t to shame anyone for not using public schools, I’m just trying to express why I think public schools are so important.)

5) YOU can change things.

When I first wrote about our Oakland public elementary school, I received an email from the woman responsible for transforming it. Not a school employee, she’s a parent in the community. And yes, it really did start with ONE person. In her email she said, “My work at [elementary school] over the past nine years is one of the things in my life that I am most proud of. I don’t think you would believe the changes that have taken place in a relatively short time.”

Be confident you can change or fix things. You like your school but it doesn’t have a strong STEM program? You (yes you!) can make it happen. You are empowered! You can improve your school. You can provide what the school can’t provide until the school improves. You can do it. Parents do it all the time. Sometimes they have no choice but to dive in and improve the situation.

You can volunteer in the classroom. You can organize a group of supportive parents. You can organize a schoolyard clean-up day. You can do it!

6) Worrying about choosing a school is a privilege.

Realize that if you have time to think about these things, and have time to explore options, then you, like me, are very privileged, and that many parents don’t have the luxury of worrying about which school will be best for their kids. But even if they can’t worry about it, their kids deserve a good education every bit as much as your kids do.

I think anytime we find ourselves saying that a certain school is fine for other people’s children, but our kids deserve better, that there is a problem. Providing great education for everyone in the community, helps EVERYONE in the community — even those that can afford to opt out.


When we announced we were moving to Oakland, the main message of emails in response to the news concerned schools. Be careful of the schools! You can’t use the middle or high schools! The schools are awful! It’s hard to find a good school! It’s too late in the summer to get a spot in the good schools!


It was New York all over again. But I was determined not to worry about it.

So I did my best to ignore the passionate school-related conversations and knew we’d figure it out when we got here. And that’s what we did. A few days after our move, we visited the district office and registered the 5 oldest. They were all put into the geographically assigned school for our address — no surprises.

Did we know we would like the schools? No. We had no idea. But we chose to assume that we would like the schools. And if it turned out we were wrong, we knew we could try another option. We’ve been here for two years, and still have people raising their eyebrows at us that our kids are enrolled in Oakland public schools. But we continue to love our public schools. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing a great job for our community and they continue to improve.

Now it’s your turn.

What’s your take? Do people stress out about choosing a school where you live? What have your experiences choosing a school been like? Do you have a preference for public or private schools? Or maybe you favor homeschool? Do you live in a place that has lots of choices, or do you live in a town where 90% of the kids go to the same school? Do you think we’re crazy that we didn’t give a single thought to the school district when we bought this house? Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

P.S. — Want more education related posts? Here’s a link to all the posts about schooling in France. Here’s a link to all the posts about schooling in Oakland.

226 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Stress Out About Choosing a School”

  1. I love this post and all your insights. My kids are still too young for school, but I plan to send them to either our local elementary school or a charter school that happens to be within walking distance (walking to school sounds really appealing!). I live in Richmond, VA, where a lot of middle class people choose to move to the county when their kids become school-aged. We’re planning to stay, but I will admit, I do worry about it sometimes bc the schools don’t have a great reputation. That being said, I had lots of teacher friends, some of whom work in the city schools, and they assure me both good and bad teachers are found everywhere.

  2. This topic, like so many you write about, highlights what I think is one of the most (if not THE most) important aspect of parenting – and that is being engaged and involved (not helicopter parenting). Choose a topic; education, fashion, drugs, social popularity, teen sex, social media bullying etc. – show me a kid with engaged parents and chances are these are non issues, show me a kid with disengaged parents and chances are more than one is an issue.

    When your kids know you pay attention, that you listen, that you care, that you “get” them, that you pay attention, that they are not going to slip something by you … then I’ll show you a successful kid! … IMO

    1. This comment made me so incredibly sad. It is filled with kind and hopeful words but ultimately so naive. I have a 19 year old who just dropped out of college and is on his way to drug addiction. We are involved, not hovering, loving parents. His friends and our nieces and nephews, also teenagers, are all close to us… But he just couldn’t make it so far.
      I attended k-12 in an elite private school
      In South America, as is the norm, and never became a short sighted, judgemental snob. My husband grew up in foster care in Los Angeles and attended Public school. He has a Ph.D. We are huge advocates of public schools and the absolutely amazing and inspiring oportunities this beautiful country offers. We moved from a small college town where our teenager attended public school and we loved it! We came to NYC without having family or friends here. We didn’t stress about the school situation, well because we had no one to stress us out and because we KNEW we would be ok… After all our kid knows us, and our family values, and we are a multicultural family, bilingual, educated, with a strong extended family, very open minded, from 2 huge cities…
      We plopped him in a 4500+ student high school rated 10/10 in NYC. Every possible club, academic opportunity, extracurricular, race, color, etc imaginable. The school letters came in 38 languages/dialects. Heaven!
      Well, our son is NOT a fit for that. He is not a fit for public school in NYC, not even close. When another kid would be taking advantage he was, for the first time, deep in drugs conversation, traffic and use. It took us until NOW, when he dropped out of college, to know what we’ve done. After all kids that do drugs do not have to do bad in school, or be rude, or act out, or have dark circles around their eyes or be zombies. Some, like ours, are smiling and helpful and organized and smart and manage to get good grades AND to hide everything else for a very long time.
      All this to say: I LOVED this article, as usual, not because it advocates for public schools, which Gabby obviously feels strongly about, but because her experience has been a good one and she wants to share that… But most important: because all I read is “know your kid, your family, wing it and stay alert. If you need to correct or step in then do what you need to do”. It is simple, smart and stress free. I am sure if the Blair family felt like they are losing their kids to something as terrible as what we are going thru they would have no problem up and moving them to a different school, even country.
      This comment, however, gave this incredibly naive message: kids with good parents will be ok. That makes me a bad parent- that makes all parents of troubled kids a failure and we are not.
      It takes a village. The school is part of that village. Sometimes the public school in your nice neighborhood, where you have your beautiful house with the open doors for kids and friends to be safe and where you volunteer to help the community thrive is a dangerous place for your child.

      1. Oh Fernanda. Your dear son! I’m sure every person that reads your comment can’t help but send well-wishes and love and strength your way.

        Reading ideas about good parents having good kids, and feeling crushed by the opposite implication, that bad kids have bad parents has clearly caused a ton of pain. I truly want to apologize for the heartbreak that false premise has caused. I’m sorry to imply anything like that, because of course, that idea is not true to reality.

        As you know, when kids are young it’s easier to see if they are struggling, but when they’re so close to adulthood, it’s a different story. And I just want to tell you you’re not alone. We’ve all either lived a similar struggle ourselves, or seen it happen in a sibling’s or friend’s life. And though it’s no fun to think about, even the most earnest parents in the world know they can’t keep their child from all harm or danger. It’s impossible.

        Please know, I’m rooting for your son, and I wish your family the very best as you work through this heartbreaking trial. And I think you’re right when you say, “Sometimes the public school in your nice neighborhood, where you have your beautiful house with the open doors for kids and friends to be safe and where you volunteer to help the community thrive is a dangerous place for your child.”

      2. Fernanda,

        I am sorry about the situation with your son. While my comment may have implied “good parent, good kid” it was not intended to imply “bad kid, bad parent.” However, I firmly believe that when you are an engaged parent you have a much higher likelihood of being able to recognize the signs of trouble and try to turn the tide. Like all situations nothing is 100% but I think the overall chances of success are much higher. I was raised by very dis-engaged parents and it would have been very easy for me to make a bunch of bad decisions – and they would have been none the wiser. Our personal experiences definitely inform our opinions.

  3. Gabby – Thank you for posting this. You have articulated exactly how I feel about public education! I attended both private and public schools as a child; while the private school had smaller classes, it lacked diversity in every way. An education is so much more than academics — it’s how we teach our children about the world. These two paragraphs especially resonate with me:

    “I know from experience the instinct is to look out for our own kids above all else. And that feeds into our worries about finding the best possible school for our child. The school with the best ratings, or the best reputation. We want to give our kids every chance at success. And we assume the better the school, the more opportunities. It seems like the best school we can find is the ultimate gift to our kids, right?

    Well, I actually disagree. If we are so concerned with our own kids that we put them on an elite track, and make sure they’re only rubbing shoulders with the most successful families in our city, while ignoring the needs of other children in the community, that’s not a gift at all. Giving your kids special status while the rest of the world struggles and crumbles is no gift. You’re giving them a worse world instead of a better one.”

    1. I was cheering when I read these two paragraphs and had to immediately read them aloud to my husband. We are both educators and are heavily involved in our local district. I teach at the more “elite” middle school, while we send our son to his neighborhood school across town, where we live. I get lots of raised eyebrows, but, like you, I default to the neighborhood school ASSUMING IT WILL WORk! And it has! It’s not perfect, but I love that my kids have a wonderfully diverse group of friends.

  4. Gabby, your first article you posted about the Oakland 2 out of 10 school rating has stuck with me since I read it when newly posted. And I often tell people about it! I am always so impressed by your balanced views on a lot of things. Especially this. I know it’s taken work (like you’ve mentioned) to have this mindset, but I applaud you and Ben Blair for doing so and installing these values in your kids, which hopefully they can instill in their friends! I posted this article to fb hoping many of my parent friends (and everyone!) will read it.

    1. That first post has stuck with me too! It’s funny how those ideas can bounce around in the backs of our heads for months or years and become inspiration for us.

  5. What a great post! All 4 of ours went to private preschool at our synagogue-I didn’t care about the “academics” , I just wanted a loving environment that helped promote our values. Then they’ve gone off to public school-with a few homeschool stops along the way for our oldest (3rd grade) and then 7th & 8th grades. Where we live the public schools are very highly rated-and a lot of that is due to the money the parents donate, and high parental involvement. I still think a lot of it comes down to the individual teacher-we’ve had wonderful ones along the way, and a few duds. I’ve never written those letters requesting a specific teacher. Through the years I’d hear horror stories about particular teachers, and then lo and behold, one of my kids would have them-and they’d be just fine. I also feel like in “real life” you don’t usually get to pick your boss or co-workers or clients-you need to be able to get along with a variety of people and make the best of each situation.

  6. Yes! People stress about some of the silliest things, and it is all avoidable. Whatever happened to being okay with okay? I also feel like perpetuating the elite status pushes people apart. And not only by economics, even neighbors and friends. Why anyone is so concerned with the decisions other people are making for their own family is beyond me. If no one is in danger, let people be and mind your own business.

    Thank you for this!

  7. I read the post you wrote awhile ago about this subject, and I only wish more people could think like you. My two oldest were enrolled in charter schools only during their elementay school years and went into public schools once they started junior high. My two youngest have only been in public schools and it’s just like you said, there are good teachers everywhere. My kids love their school and even when it’s one of the lowest scoring in our area, I can see how much the principal and the staff are working hard to provide the best education for all these kids. Your participation as a parent is what really makes a difference whether your children thrive or not. Teachers already are being underpaid and many times spending their own money on supplies and things for the children in their classrooms. I cannot think of a better way to support and show them gratitude than by keeping my kids in public schools and volunteer or help in any way I can. Our kids deserve the best, the best parents who are involved in their education and then they will continue to do the same when their time comes.

    1. “My kids love their school and even when it’s one of the lowest scoring in our area, I can see how much the principal and the staff are working hard to provide the best education for all these kids. Your participation as a parent is what really makes a difference whether your children thrive or not.”

      Perfect! I think you summed up my whole thinking in two sentences. : )

  8. Love this post! I agree with all these points, especially numbers 4 and 6. I have struggled sometimes with conversations with other parents about what school is best, as my kids have moved from an amazing public elementary school to public middle school that has more challenges. I know there are more academically rigorous middle schools we could have chosen, but those weren’t a financial option for us. So we stay involved in their academics. And I think my kids have learned a tremendous amount about how the real world works through being exposed to a more diverse community, instead of being sheltered on an “elite track.”

  9. This is one of the best pieces I have read regarding public schools in a LONG time (and I’ve read a lot). I truly, truly believe in public schools for the very same reasons you do- for most kids, they do work and I believe EVERY SINGLE CHILD should have access to quality education. I grew up in a town where the only option besides public school was traditional homeschooling. I attended the (very low-ranked) public school from kindergarten-12th grade and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It isn’t perfect, for sure, but there are so many things the school does right that outweigh the arbitrary low ratings and test scores. Thank you so much for sharing this- you put into words what I have always thought and believed.

  10. Speaking from personal experience, I attended public school in a middle-class town my whole life and then went to an elite, expensive, private university. College was awful – I ended up in student loan debt and spent the entire time I was there feeling not good enough to measure up, not academically (ie where it really mattered) but socially. I never want to put my kids in that position. I love your point of view on public school, I agree with it 100%, and it was refreshing to read something so well written stating what it is in my heart and mind.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with you about supporting our public schools. I think a school should really be the heart of the community. But if it’s not a good fit, then try something else.

    We live in semi-rural Minnesota. There are two options for us. Public school or homeschool. It’s frustrating that so many of the options are centered in urban areas, but I choose to not worry about it and make the best out of what we have.

    Our oldest daughter has had a great experience overall in the public school. There was one year we had to meet with her teacher regularly, but that was because her teacher was retiring and honestly already had one foot out the door.

    My son, on the other hand, has struggled. He struggles being part of a large group learning environment. We found having him meet with a tutor after school helps immensely.

    I think volunteering in your kids school is one of the greatest things you can do for them. I love volunteering in many different ways all around the school. Some may say – oh it’s so easy to volunteer when you don’t work – but I do work full time outside the home. I have 4 kids – 2 school age and 2 not yet in school. I find ways to volunteer. For me, I rearrange my work hours so I have every other Friday off. I use that time to help out in the school store, by making copies for teachers, or helping out with the ESL program. No matter what I’m helping with, my kids love seeing me there. Their friends come up and wave and say Hi Mrs. S. My kids run up and give me a hug. Teachers are so appreciative of the help. Any way we as parents can make their jobs easier, is more time they can focus on their classrooms. I think it’s the best way I can show my kids that I value their education.

    1. Thank you for being a great volunteer! I work at an elementary public school and we love our volunteers. But we really appreciate the volunteers who come to help in whatever capacity we need. Unfortunately, some volunteers look down on jobs such as copying because they feel it is menial. But you said it perfectly that teachers appreciate and need as much time in the classroom as possible. Their work extends far beyond their face to face time with students and it is great to have community support.

  12. I’m with you on so much of this and appreciate that you’re a voice swimming against the stream on this important issues. I too believe in free and public education. We LOVE our neighborhood school. although it is far from perfect, for so many reasons including that it is incredibly diverse.

    That said, I cannot imagine not even considering schools when we bought our home. That seems pretty extreme in the other direction (just as extreme as competitive pre-school and ivy-league track elementary schools) We were newlyweds dreaming of starting a family when we bought our house and researched the local schools thoroughly. The very sad truth is that some public schools are just not safe or adequate in providing basic education (middle school and high school can be such a vulnerable time for girls especially) and we avoided buying a home zoned the schools that were in serious trouble.

    Also, feel like no public school conversation would be complete without a discussion of that GREAT SCHOOLS website and scoring system (I think that has come up here before) It’s such a bummer that site has become so powerful and that so many people seem to think it’s the definitive answer to how “good” a school is. It’s just as ridiculous and simple minded as a bunch of frat boys labeling some women “10s” and others “3s.” Our school happens to be a “7” on that site but I feel like it’s a much better match for us than the “10’s” just a couple of miles away.

    1. Hah! I know we’re the odd family out as far as not looking at school districts before we move. No doubt our thoughts are influenced by our good luck — in Colorado, France and Oakland we didn’t consider school districts/options and had good experiences in all 3 places. I’m sure if we’d ever had a majorly negative experience we might feel differently.

      I imagine how long you plan to stay in a place, or if you’re renting vs buying, makes a difference as well.

      1. Love this entry and I couldn’t agree more, you nailed it! Also, and maybe it’s different in the States, I am from Canada but this is a great example of white privilege (which I benefit from). Let’s be honest, if we’re economically privileged enough to buy a home (bonus points because it’s large enough to accommodate a large family) and can afford moving because you are cultivating a life with intention and not out of necessity what is the actual risk of land in a really “bad” district? Here in Canada, my race and economic privilege, without even thinking about it will put me in a geographic area where my kids will benefit. Ironically, we just moved, I didn’t consider the school and my three year old will be going to an amazing public school in a year. What is the hashtag for this? #whiteprivilage ?#let’stalksystemicracismpoverty? I am rambling but I really appreciate the conversation because it’s an opportunity to highlight the perceived versus actual risk in the education debate! Anyways, I loved all your points!

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I get asked this all the time since we live just north of Washington, DC in a city that isn’t known for its schools but is known as a very diverse county. I want to re-read this post already and share it with everyone who has ever asked me how we feel about the schools in our neighborhood with a tone indicating we haven’t made a good decision about where we live.

  14. Oh – this speaks to me!! We are currently house hunting and our oldest is 1 year away from kindergarten. It is SO hard to not obsess about those Great School ratings, but I also believe that my kids will be fine no matter their environment because they have me and my husband as parents. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Bebhinn Shine

    This is a wonderful post, and expresses everything I believe about how schools should work.

    However, please spare a thought for those of us who truly do NOT have a choice of school.

    I live in Ireland, a Catholic country, but am not a Catholic.

    Over 90% of the schools in Ireland are Catholic, and give preference to children of that faith. The remaining schools are other Christian schools, and a very few multi-religion schools.

    I live in my home town, where I grew up, and am in the terrifying position of not having a school to send my daughter when she reaches Kindergarten age in 2016.

    Though I have had her name on waiting lists for 15 schools since she was born, every time someone moves into the area with a baptised child, my child moves down the waiting list. I have heard stories of people who have had to homeschool their children due to the lack of a school place. People have had to emigrate to the UK just to get their child into school. And worst of all, parents have felt forced to baptise their child in a faith that they do not share, just to get their child an education.

    I hope this is allowed, but there is a huge campaign currently ongoing in Ireland for equal access to school for unbaptised children. If anyone would like to lend their signature the petition is here.

    1. Oh Bebhinn! Every country handles education so differently it boggles my mind. Thank you for commenting about what’s happening in Ireland. And please know that I was picturing U.S. schools as I wrote this, so I apologize if it just seems totally unbelievable for you.

      I will be thinking of your daughter! I hope one of those 15 schools has a spot!!

    2. What? Your child has to be baptized in some form of Christian faith to have access to schooling? Am I reading that correctly? I hope that does change for you soon!

      1. Bebhinn Shine

        Yes, it’s true. If she were baptised Catholic (specifically), she would have a choice of 4 or 5 schools in our area. As another type of Christian, she could get into the one non-Catholic Christian school in our town.

        As we are not Christian, and are also not willing to fraudulently baptise our daughter, we are left without a school place for her.

        Currently, we have her name on the waiting list for all of the non-religious schools in the greater Dublin area and will probably have to move house based on where she gets a place. This will involve long commutes for us, afterschool care for her (rather than grandparents/family) and living far away from our community.

        It’s an absolute scandal.

        We are (no joke) considering relocating to the US to avail of the public schools there.

        1. As an American, I do find that outrageous! I hope you can get your lawmakers to see sense before you have to take drastic measures!

        2. I REALLY respect your choice not to baptize your child into a religion that you don’t believe in simply for the school, and I thank you for it. I wish more people had the courage of their convictions that you have. And I’m truly sorry for your struggle.

          As a counterpoint, we live in the SF Bay Area in a place with good public schools, but are Catholic and have made the sacrifice (via substantial tuition payments) to send our children to Catholic school. There are plenty of families in our parish who would send their children to the school if they could afford it, but they can’t. The school, in need of tuition to stay open, accepts many kids who are not Catholic and some who don’t even believe in God.

          As someone who is Catholic and who sends my children to a Catholic school because I believe in it as a ministry of my church, I feel this affects the learning environment for my children, but the school has no choice. So no situation is perfect.

          So you see, even when the option of a perfectly good school is available, people still choose to send their child to a religious school with an ideology that they don’t believe in. Crazy world.

  16. I love that school is a non issue for you. We love homeschooling our 4 kids. Sadly, often people assume that your choice is a judgement of their own choice -for most things! It couldn’t be further from the truth. Just because I do one thing (in this case homeschooling, but it could be religion, family size, jobs, where you live, what-have-you) doesn’t mean I think you should do the same. I love the freedom we all have to choose and do the best we can for our families. I would love to see more women especially give up the competitive atmosphere of who’s doing it best. Yay for all of us doing our best.

  17. I offer two comments: you assume the local school will be fine and if it’s not, you can figure out a solution by changing schools or supplementing. For people like me, who worried and toured schools before I bought a house and again when we moved, I chose to do my homework first. Maybe the legwork was for naught. Maybe we would have been fine winging it. But investing time (and minimal time really. Maybe three mornings touring 5 schools?) up front made investing – financially and emotionally – in my neighborhood right from the get go worthwhile. I didn’t what to “figure it out later”.

    To me, this is a far cry from 20k preschools or writing letters requesting teachers. Do they even allows that anymore?

    The thing is when you and I went to school, it was the community as a whole. Now with charters etc, the involved parents are skimmed off leaving the parents without the time or social capital to change things. It’s much worse than when we were young. I knew I didn’t want to be a parent taking my kid out of a school and moving to a charter. Charters have been so harmful to our city schools. So, I found a neighborhood school I liked and dove in. And it has nothing to do with money, btw, our school is a title 1 school.

    On flip side, I’m 100% with people paying tuition for private schools. Not every decision people make has to hinge on how it builds our community. I know so many people who have gone without vacations or houses in France say ;) and spent instead on tuition. Maybe it doesn’t help ALL kids but I don’t ever assume that the presence or MY kids at a school somehow raise the bar for others. I’m not sure of that at all!

    1. Lucia, how have charters been harmful to public schools in your area? In mine, charters are helping the public schools be more accountable and educate differently. I know not everyone sees it that way, but we have charter systems that are truly making a difference where the public schools have repeatedly failed.

      1. I live in a city with extremely ethically, culturally, and economically diverse schools. Charters have come in with a strong marketing campaign about the so-called failing public system and taken a small but important subsection of parents who tend to me more “involved” than families who work shifts or whose legal status is tenuous or who don’t speak English etc.

        .. And the local school suffers.

        Of course the charter can counsel out kids who are ELLs or have special social or emotional or educational needs. Those kids don’t test well! That part – the kids in need – all falls back onto the local public.

        I guess if I really believed our local schools were “failing”, I’d be more willing to hand our educational system to a web of networks without much oversight. But I don’t.

        1. I do research on educational options in urban centers, and the data show–even controlling for such things as parents’ educational levels and family income–that charters improve outcomes. (We don’t put much stock in standardized test scores, as they’ve become generally poor markers of outcomes.) We consider such things as drop-out rates, college entrance, college completion, etc. Traditional public schools with charters within about a 15-mile radius perform better than schools of similar demographics that don’t have nearby charter schools.

          1. Interesting, because according to multiple sources (Marzano, Wiggins, Ravitch come to mind off the top of my head), the exact opposite is true. Multiple articles and studies document that charters, on the whole, perform the same or worse than local public schools. Are there exceptions? Absolutely (the original KIPP school is an example). However, KIPP schools nationwide demonstrate that not all charters are created equal, as very few of the KIPP schools outside of NY have been able to replicate their success.

            The number one most important thing a parent can do to ensure or foster their child’s academic success is to expose them to words. Read to them, encourage them to read, tell stories, talk to them while you’re driving, engage them with words as much as possible. Research shows that fostering literacy is far more important than fretting about which school or teacher your child will have.

    2. Hi Lucia,

      To your first point, I would say, of course, any family is welcome to look into schools in an area where they are moving. We don’t, but I’m very aware that we are strange that way. (I speak more about that in my response to Jenny above.) I would also say that looking into the schools ahead of time, doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have to switch schools or try other options once you move there. Pre-research is fine, but it isn’t a guarantee of anything in particular.

      I suppose I’m troubled by the idea of finding a wonderful home that you can picture your family thriving in, but then choosing another house, one that you don’t like as well and that might be more expensive, because there is concern about the schools. For us, our kids spend a lot of time in our home, and they do a lot of their learning when they’re here, so having a home we love to be in, is just as important to me as their school. I realize others may feel differently.

      To your second point about private school. I agree that not every decision has to “hinge on how it builds our community”. And I agree there are families who make big sacrifices to pay private school tuition. Very true.

      You mention our house in France, and you’re right. It cost about $30,000 — enough for private school tuition for one child for one year. Which we could have chosen to do instead. But it never even occurred to us. For us, we love what our kids are learn from attending a diverse public school. Putting money toward local and international travel, (and I get how privileged we are that we can travel), is another one of the ways we’re trying to educate our kids. I suppose we value what they’re learning by traveling, more than we value what they would get from private school. Again, I don’t expect everyone to feel the same. And that’s fine.

      Maybe it comes back to how each person defines “quality education” and how much of it happens in school and out of school.

      I’m particularly struck by this line you wrote, “Maybe it doesn’t help ALL kids but I don’t ever assume that the presence or MY kids at a school somehow raise the bar for others.”

      If you have a stable family that has the ability to get involved, to contribute to fundraisers, and to volunteer in a school, then yes, I think your family attending a school can have a big impact. Especially if the school is struggling. If the school is thriving, then maybe your presence won’t be felt as much.

      1. 1 Im sure most of your commenters have homes that allow their kids to thrive. But yes indeed, I’m more drawn to a community than to closet space. I can’t really imagine buying a house and not considering the schools as part of the equation, a mark in the pro or con column. But maybe I’m strange that way

        2. I don’t mean your house in particular. Or anything you buy. Just saying I think we all look at our lives in total. How it impacts the world, the environment, the community. This includes so many parts of your life. Picking this one thing out in isolation – private v public – eh, I’m not sold on that.

        3. The kids who contribute the most, who really set the tone of a school, often (usually) have parents who never attend a single PTA meeting. I’ve seen it over and over.

  18. It’s just such a different mentality in suburban-rural MN. Most people just automatically send their kids to the local public school for preschool-highschool. Some send their kids to the small private schools, but typically it’s the public school. Preschool is about $80-100 a month and the teachers are awesome and caring. For us, it’s just one less thing to stress about as parents.

    1. Ha, and I’m in a Minneapolis suburb paying $60/month for preschool at a friend’s house down the street (it’s two days a week for a total of four hours). In our city, we have the choice of regular public, magnet, and three charter schools, all within 20 minutes. And of course, a few private schools if you’re willing to drive.

  19. Don’t you think sometimes as a parent we try to buy our way out of concern? Rather than staying attentive to the needs of each individual child and really investing our energy in what is going on at school, we want to pay for something that allows us to believe we no longer need to invest. We attend public school here–and they are GREAT schools! And, I find that even if one child had a teacher that maybe wasn’t our favorite, when the next child gets that teacher it can be an entirely different experience… simply because the children are different! So I have to agree with you, Gabrielle–it’s worth being optimistic and paying attention to the needs of your kids!

    1. “Don’t you think sometimes as a parent we try to buy our way out of concern?”

      Oh yes! Totally. I’ve been that parent before. And of course, it doesn’t work. But it’s so tempting. If we’re paying a premium price than we don’t need to be involved or volunteer, right? Turns out that’s not true.

  20. Your very grounded and ‘back to basics’ approach to this has been very helpful to me as I tried to figure this out for my soon-to-be kindergartener. As someone who did not attend school in the US, this whole process was even more confusing, and the social anxiety i saw about this did not help. So, thank you! And I hear you about investing in our society’s education, rather than just our kids. The phrase that has stuck with me recently is “feed the soil, not the crop”.

  21. I deeply appreciate your comments and perspective on this. My husband is an educator, and it drives us both crazy to hear people lambasting perfectly good public schools in our area. Parents say it’s because of test scores, but sadly it’s usually thinly veiled racism toward the schools that happen to have more Hispanic or African-American kids. My husband teaches at one of “those” schools, and it is full of amazing, passionate teachers. On the flip side, I have friends whose kids go to the “good” schools, and some of their kids are a year behind in certain subjects because of poor teachers. It’s so important to judge the school after meeting the teachers and administrators and not make assumptions based on test scores.

  22. P.S. Congrats on June starting kindergarten! We’re in the same situation; our “baby” is going to attend kindergarten at the same school his big brother (going into 4th) has been attending for years. All of us are so excited, feels like a big milestone, and I’m guessing this is an exciting time in your family as well.

  23. This post is timely for my family. We live in a town that we (mostly) love but are looking to move for better schools for our children or, if those areas with better schools don’t pan out, for a more urban area with more support for homeschooling. Your post was articulate and thought-provoking; I’ll be re-reading with my husband to see if we should re-evaluate some of our recent thought processes. Prior to our eldest beginnning school, we gave school zero thought. She would go to the local school and we just assumed it would be great…or good enough. But after a few months, we felt there were issues we couldn’t ignore. Our issue with our local school is the quality of the education. We don’t need the best or fancy for our kids, but our school is rated, based on the standardized tests taken in grade 3 and 6, as a 2/10 (or, put another way, out of 3037 schools in our province, our local school is currently sitting at 2986/3037 with a continuing downward trend. 1/3037 is the school with best scores, 3037 the one with the worst scores). Most children in our local school fail these tests, read below grade average, and are performing math far below grade average. They’re behind their peers in our province which bothers me considering how many hours of childhood are spend indoors, inside a classroom (from kindergarten to grade 12, it’s approximately 15,000 hours). If my children – or any children! – are spending all that time in a place, I want to know that time is used wisely and that it isn’t just a place for kids to go while parents are at work, basically a glorified daycare. Of course, if other parents are happy with the school or don’t think wasted time or kids being not learning the provincial curriculum is a big deal, I can’t change their minds. All I can do is make a choice for our family. So while I appreciate the argument that keeping our kids in public school benefits the community as a whole, I’m also not willing to keep my kids in a sinking ship so the school can reap an extra $5000/year per child for the benefit of our community. Playing devil’s advocate to that argument, perhaps withdrawing children will be the wake-up call that things need to change, which could better benefit the community by forcing the school to improve for its survival. While I don’t think test scores are everything when it comes to a school’s success (happy kids, extracurriculars, etc matter a whole lot, too), they’re one of the only ways of assessing how well a school is functioning at what I think should be its main function – which is educating kids. This data combined with our observations of the school while our child was there has caused us to want to move elsewhere. I refuse to send our children to a school where it is a given that they will watch a movie (or several!) every day, but not a given that someone will read to them every day. Ultimately, the school is a business. If any other business isn’t performing the service they promise to, then business suffers and people take their business elsewhere. Personally, I don’t see the point in romanticizing our local schools if they aren’t doing what they should, which is teaching the majority of kids the majority of the curriculum to an acceptable standard. I think public schools can be wonderful…I attended a wonderful one and our friends who live in a different catchment and others out of town are quite happy with theirs. I would probably be happy with their schools, too, from their descriptions. Unfortunately, not all schools are created equal and I think that those who find themselves dissatisfied with their local school should feel free to either try to change it (which we tried and failed as other parents did not seem concerned, nor was the principal open to change or our volunteer help to find other suitable educational alternatives to watching Pixar movies) or look elsewhere. We don’t think we are selfish or concerned only about the wellbeing of our own children but, given our situation, what other options do we have? I would have given this post a whole-hearted “Amen!” one year ago. But after our disappointment with our educational choices where we are, I would strongly urge people to at least check out the scores and take a tour of the local school or in a place they’re looking to move (and to ask involved parents for their honest assessments…but take these with a grain of salt. Most parents are defensive about parenting choices and questioning the school where their child spends the majority of their waking hours is no exception). Sending your child to a school that not only isn’t teaching them, but is causing them to regress academically, is a really terrible feeling.

    1. “Personally, I don’t see the point in romanticizing our local schools if they aren’t doing what they should, which is teaching the majority of kids the majority of the curriculum to an acceptable standard.”

      I agree, M. I don’t think every public school is great. But I would say that if you find yourself in a crummy public school, but don’t want to move, that you don’t have to despair. Even just a few parents getting involved in a school can make a major impact. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

      So I suppose my words are aimed at the families who feel stuck and are afraid their public schools aren’t up to snuff. If those families feel “called” to dive in and make a difference in their community, it’s possible to turn those schools around. (And yes, I realize not everyone will feel “called” to get involved, and there are probably schools beyond redemption.)

    2. removing your children does not , in the end, work as a wake up call. The main thing that changes is that one less family that cares deeply about their child’s education is gone. These schools are often left with the parents who don’t have any other options or don’t care. These children are already at a disadvantage in life with parents that can’t or won’t give them the extra boost at home. And the already low scoring school keeps going downward. While I completely agree that you need to worry about your children first and make sure they have a good chance. I just wanted to stress how children with parents who care can make a big difference. The parents often have the means to be more involved, but the children make a difference too. A well adjusted child with caring parents can often thrive in these situations and having children of different levels of skill and confidence can help bring everybody up. I think the key is to know your child and the specific problems and make the most of it.

  24. I was raised in Denver when the public schools were under court ordered bussing and my parents sent us to our assigned schools. They felt strongly that you invest your time & energy in the community. It was a struggle, and my sister did go to private school for a few years because that was a better option. But so much of what you wrote resonates with my philosophy as well, which is refreshing because we’re only at the picking daycare stage and that’s already pressure-filled.

  25. This is fantastic. Our family is moving to the Bay Area shortly, and it’s stressful hearing about how all the “good” schools are in the crazy expensive areas (that we can’t afford). I love the mindset of assuming the best, and making the best.

    1. Check our Alameda (especially central and west if price is a worry) it’s the gem, hiding in pain sight, of the Bay Area. Great schools, parks, cafés, beaches, ethnic food. Easy commute to San Francisco, oakland, and berkeley for work, culture, and fun.

  26. Wow! I did not know it was like that in the States. As a kid I went to a Christian school and a Christian high school, so in my country that is considered a private school because its not funded by the government. My parents wanted us to have an education that reflected our beliefs and was centered around that. Our 5 year old daughter goes to the Christian school in our city, and again, its considered a private school but the tuition for kindergarten is $5900 for the year and it maxes out at like $12000/year per family of three kids or more. So if you have one kid in any grade between 1 and 8 it is $9900 but if you have three kids or more in any of those grades the most you pay is $12000. Thats it. For the whole family. It’s not a per kid price like that private school you listed in your article. It’s a family price I guess.
    It’s a small school, with only 100 kids, small class sizes which is a huge draw for us, and of course its centered around God. Is the education better than a public schools? Absolutely not. But its different. Different in the way that they have Chapel every monday morning, they learn about bible stories, that the earth is created by God, they pray before they eat their lunch, things like that. That’s important to us. We have a handful of friends from our church who think it’s crazy to spend that much money on schooling, but we think they are crazy for spending that much money on disney trips and new cars so to each their own right. As Amy Poehler says “Good for you, not for me.”

  27. Great post, as always Gabrielle. I love the conversation it is generating – so interesting.

    But one thing that eludes me (as a non-American) is why parental activism to improve schools is not aimed at adequate funding across the system. While you have covered so many topics, so thoughtfully, I don’t actually expect you to have a discussion about tax policy, taxation levels and orders of government here on Design Mom. But it is baffling why a first-world country with so many resources would allow such discrepancy in the public system.

    Every time I hear about parents having to become involved in the schools at such an immediate level, I am shocked. Parental involvement is a great thing, but it shouldn’t be as band-aids for a wounded system. Is political activism not a viable/useful route to ensure the greatest number of children get the greatest education?

    1. Well said— and it’s important to consider that schools with heavily-involved parents usually skew to one end of the socio-economic spectrum.

    2. “Every time I hear about parents having to become involved in the schools at such an immediate level, I am shocked. Parental involvement is a great thing, but it shouldn’t be as band-aids for a wounded system. Is political activism not a viable/useful route to ensure the greatest number of children get the greatest education?”

      I hear you, Linda. Shouldn’t we be focused on improving schools so much that parental involvement isn’t required?

      My first instinct is YES. For sure. We don’t always prioritize educational spending at the government level in the U.S., and we need to do better. But there are two other thoughts that come to mind:

      1) Change at the government level takes time. So much time and advocacy! And in the meantime, empowering parents to improve their schools can help with immediate concerns.

      2) Maybe it’s an American thing, but even in expensive, endowed private schools, parent involvement is expected. Parents are asked to fundraise, and to volunteer in many ways. So I don’t know how likely we are to improve schools without involving parents. It just seems to be the thing here. Oh. And in any school, not EVERY parent needs to be heavily involved (some parents simply can’t be). If there’s a small, core group of parents that is very involved, and then a much larger group of parents who are generally supportive (attend school wide activities, contribute to fundraisers, etc.), that can be enough to make a big difference.

      1. Thanks for the response. Yeah, I get it and agree….political change is a daunting prospect. Wish it weren’t so!

      2. Kimberly Hatch

        So interesting to read these discussions! So many perspectives. I have always always considered my kids education as my responsibility. I have always been so grateful for some of the exceptional teachers who have helped me with that task. It honestly would never occur to me that parents should not “have to” be involved in school!

  28. I love your positivity and for going against the grain. I’m a 1st grade public school teacher and you wouldn’t believe the kinds of things parents put in their teacher request/placement forms. Thank you for your refreshing perspective.

  29. Fantastic! As a public school teacher and a mom with 4 kids in public schools, I applaud this article. What a refreshing perspective-we need to assume the best about our neighborhood schools. Great things are happening for kids in warm, challenging and engaging schools around our country. Academic snobbery will be our undoing as a democracy.

  30. I totally agree with what you say about public schools, but as a parent of a kid in a large school district several hours south of you, and after several years of investing a fair amount of energy in trying to make things better, I see a lot more obstacles. Even with good teachers and good principals (not always a given, sadly), the school district does as much to hamper education as it does to help. And it is horrible — because I know my kid will be OK, but many many kids in this city are being very ill-served by an educational system that should be providing them a step up.

    1. Oh man. I’m so sorry to hear it. I feel like I need to seek out a source for stories and models that are working. From time to time we hear of troubled schools that have turned things around and it seems like there is probably a collection of them somewhere that could inspire schools and parents.

      1. We will probably homeschool this year — and here I’ve been inspired in part by your accounts of alternative schooling for your kids—but in the future I will look for other ways of helping students in public schools.

  31. I love your posts about this topic, Gabby. I always feel reassured — even though we had the exact opposite experience. And I disagree that tuition dollars only benefit your own kids, at least in our situation.

    We were one of those who said “Let’s give our neighborhood school the benefit of the doubt!” and were truly devastated when it was a horrible fit for our child. After two months of experiences and incidents that I won’t detail here, she became a withdrawn, unhappy little girl who was losing weight and having bad dreams every night. I was stunned. I kept telling myself, we’re just adjusting, it will be fine, I thrived in public school and so can she … I loved tests! I excelled! She’ll come around! I can help make change!

    But it was a disaster. I tried “putting my energy into improving the school” but was stonewalled and ignored at worst, given blank stares at best. I knew I couldn’t live like that for 12 years. Finally, our daughter was injured in a gym class and went completely unnoticed, likely because there were 100 children in the class. After a frantic search (and yes how lucky are we that we had options at all!), we enrolled in a small but growing private school. It took two days for the color to come back into our child’s cheeks, we had no doubt she was safe and loved and nurtured all day long, and now she can’t wait to get out the door in the morning.

    My tuition dollars don’t just benefit my child. I am passionately involved in our school’s growth, and I know exactly where every dollar is going — to pay our teachers, fund our curriculum, build our playground, and sustain our scholarships. We literally would not exist without tuition. And I get to put a ton of my creative and entrepreneurial energy into growing a wonderful community and making a real difference in the lives of many families.

    So, yes, absolutely give your public schools a chance! I completely agree. So many public schools do wonderful things, and are a perfect fit. BUT (and I know you agree with this Gabby, and you aren’t saying otherwise) — if it *doesn’t* work, don’t feel guilty about making a change for your child. I was consumed with feeling like I was betraying my core values by abandoning public education, and meanwhile, my child was suffering. I wish I’d made the change much sooner.

    1. Amy, I agree with you! My sons go to private school and I know each and every dollar is carefully spent. The tuition paid doesn’t just help my children, it helps every child in that school. I am very active at school, using my time and talents to make a difference. We live in an area where people are very critical and judgmental about private schools, although make no effort to find out anything about it. They think it is white, white collar, Republican… and it is so much more diverse than that. Thank you for your comment and know someone in Wisconsin is in your corner!

  32. I have so many thoughts on this, especially having gone to (excellent) public schools all my life and then an elite private college, and now living in a place where people are also pretty crazy about schools (DC), and hire consultants to help them navigate the public school lottery. I have also decided not to stress about schools, mainly because I think it rubs off and I don’t want my four year-old and his younger siblings to stress about it. I think the craziness stems from a false sense of scarcity, and the sad belief that an ordinary life is a life without merit. I have also seen, in my husband’s family, some of his siblings who have come out of 12 years of private school, exposed to a very limited peer group, and we realized that’s not what we want for our kids. So our son will be starting free preschool at the local public school next year. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have this option, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll look for another. I also think that technology, economics, and other factors are changing education so rapidly; what we think of as the current landscape will undoubtedly look different in a few years, and perhaps all the effort to get kids into the “right” school will come to nought.

    1. “I also think that technology, economics, and other factors are changing education so rapidly; what we think of as the current landscape will undoubtedly look different in a few years, and perhaps all the effort to get kids into the “right” school will come to nought.”

      Oh my goodness yes! I agree. I can imagine big changes coming.

  33. Such a great topic Gabrielle! Thank you for posting. You have echoed my sentiments exactly on why I’ve chosen not to get caught up in the school stress. We lived in NYC before my daughter was 2 but ended up moving so never felt the full force of school stress there. We now live in Minneapolis and the local public school is not ‘top Rated’. However, my husband and I have decided that the number rating alone is not the most important thing to us. Plus, although I grew up going to top rated public schools, my husband did not, and he’s doing more than fine in my book! Even went to one of those Ivy Leagues for graduate school. It’s definitely not just the school rating that makes a successful school or adult! We want our children to be happy healthy people, not just ‘best at school’ because, one day, school will be over.

  34. This is so refreshing! I went to top-rated public schools in one of those super-competitive northeast states (and my parents chose our towns based on the schools, landing us in elite, upper class environments)…. On the one hand, I do my best to never take for granted the extreme privilege and amazing opportunities this schooling granted me, and I did go on to attend an elite, private university.

    On the other hand… tens of thousands of dollars in debt later, my self-worth tied up in ridiculous notions of prestige, and alongside colleagues with the state school/top grad school trajectory you described–I too have this deep seated belief that EVERY child deserves access to quality public education. But I’ve wondered if I’d be ok not giving my children this same opportunity, if I am able to do so. Your post has pushed me to reimagine how I might approach my future kids’ education! ;)

    As a side note, I was also fortunate enough to be exposed to a fair amount of diversity as a child (international background, family outside of the U.S., urban schooling for some time), and I’ve lived abroad for the past 5 years. I now value diversity and exposure to other cultures way higher than school reputation!

  35. My husband and I have been long supporters of public schools. We have lived all over the country and our kids have been to many. We decided to stay put when our two oldest got to middle school though. I love our small town and our schools. My little 1950’s no air conditioning K-3 school is the highest rated in the district. It wasn’t when we started but thanks to a strong pto, teachers who aren’t afraid to give it to you straight and parents that listen, it’s become that and the children are excelling, teachers are excited.

    I’m always curious how people think we can help our public schools if they choose to go the private school route. I know in some instances it’s warranted but in others I wonder if scare tactics don’t come in to play; common core? the effects of fully funding? Bad influences? Teaching evolution? We’re rife with bad teachers? Congress has done a disservice to our children by holding their education hostage in order to pay for wars and pork barrel projects and legislators should be taken to task.

    I have never stressed about it. I look at it as partnering with the schools. Let’s face it, our country does not make education a priority. Prison is more of a priority.( Look at how much is appropriated there and how much money the government makes on prisons!) So the parent has to make school a priority. Every year at parent-teacher conference, we tell the teachers to call us for anything. To not be worried they’ll offend us. If there is something we need to do better, let us know. If our kids are acting up, tell us and we’ll try to fix it. We give them every number to reach us. We’ll never be the ones who think ‘it’s not our kids.’ And every time, the teacher tilts back her head and says, “I wish all parents would say this to me.” (We also get to know the school counselors as well as they are a valuable resource.)

    There is so much to write on this subject. I can go on and on..

  36. I’m an advocate for public schools too (though I think having other option is great!). I live in an area with very few private schools but quite a few “young” charter schools, and one thing I hope people realize is that public schools have lots of great, free services for kids who have developmental delays, behavior disorders, learning disabilities, and the like—resources that might not yet be available at newer schools still getting on their feet.

  37. This is exactly what I needed to read today! Seriously, your timing could not have been better. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  38. This post was written for me! I sat on my back porch and cried as I read it. My family and I have just moved to Louisville, KY into a neighborhood where no one sends their children to public schools. In fact, the first question everyone ask me (at the store, church, neighborhood pool, etc.) is, “What school are your kids going to?” And everyone has a different opinion about which school is the best. We are huge advocates of public school, but we haven’t ever lived anywhere with charter or magnet schools until now. I think it’s crazy to start specializing schools at the elementary school level! This will be our fourth school in four years because of moves, and we have loved each one for different reasons. All the stress of moving plus the stress of choosing the “best” school for my kids has really gotten to me though, and I’ve been losing sleep over it. I wish I could hug you! This post was timely for me, a good reminder that my children will do well in most any school, and if they aren’t doing well we can always try something else. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  39. I agree with you so completely on this subject. Thank you for putting into words exactly how I feel. Our kids have both attended our local public schools (one of which had a bad rap) and have been very successful there.

  40. Thank you for this post. It was one of the best I have read about picking schools and I agree with your thoughts whole-heartedly. I also grew up in a small-ish town where we only had one option (the neighborhood public elementary) or the local Catholic school and for junior high and high school it was public schools. With that said, we just moved back to Idaho (albeit a bigger town) after living on the east coast for 6 years. We were in Washington DC and Boston where families could be so obsessed about picking the school that they were moving kids around in pre-school to make sure they were on the right prep school/college trajectory. It was eye-opening for me as we had our child while we lived in the DC area (you know preschool waiting lists at the first contraction). But, even after moving to Boise, there is still more school jockeying than I thought there would be. I had to laugh because at lunch the other day a friend said “oh, the elementary in your neighborhood is okay but… you know it is really small so if you don’t like the teachers or your child has a conflict with another child you only have 2 classrooms to choose from instead of 4.” It’s funny my reaction was oh.. it would take a lot for me to move my child from a class because she couldn’t get along with her peers. Isn’t that just preparing her for life. :) Thanks again for a great post today… hit the nail on the head.

  41. Thank you! I love your wisdom on this subject. I feel exactly the same way, although this balanced view was hard won in my case. I so wish I had had this attitude when my kids were younger. Removing myself from the stress, competition and fear around finding “good” schools was one of the best things I have done for myself and my kids. Embracing the imperfect, enjoying the process and making the most out of the diversity in public schools are now my goals. I still have to learn to not be rattled by the people who infer that our average public school isn’t “good” but I am more centered and content and so are my kids!

  42. Bravo, Gabrielle. It is so refreshing to have a level headed, cup half full, perspective. I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful public school system for my children, but it just makes me laugh when I see so many parents continue to get caught up in always wanting “the best”: the best 2nd grade teacher, the best soccer coach, the best swim program. I love the refusal to let yourself get stressed out about it, and instead focus on your ability to make the best of it.

  43. I grew up in the number one rated school system in the nation, Montgomery Co. Md. and it wasn’t until I was grown that I learned that they were rated so high because of the amount of money spent on the children, and had nothing to do with test scores or college admission statistics. Did you like the schools in France?

  44. I wholeheartedly agree! My daughter is 2.5 and people have been asking me lately about getting her into preschool and even elementary school! I’m fortunate enough to be a stay at home mom for now so I am not stressing about preschool at all, but when they time comes I’m just going to find whatever is a good fit for our family. She will also go to our local public school later when the time comes because I believe in the community and being a part of it. Ironically I was a preschool teacher at a few “elite” preschools and went to private school for k-12. I definitely enjoyed all my schooling but hope for something different for my daughter.

    My cousin just graduated this year from Skyline High in Oakland and is headed to ucla..and I tell this success story with pride to everyone I can.

  45. Great post! Like you, we bought a house in a neighborhood without considering the school because we didn’t have kids and didn’t plan on living there long. Well, as these things go, we did live there for a long time. And the public school, well, let’s just say underperforming, with a burnt-out principal, and teachers trying to transfer is the way to describe it. So, as someone who has worked long hours to keep her two kids in private schools their entire academic career, I’d like to share the other side:
    * philosophical differences in education: ever since No Child Left Behind came into play, the emphasis on standardized tests has increased. In my state, students lose 4-6 weeks of their academic year to standardized tests (school district, state, and federal tests). My oldest, now a college sophomore, is taking a class at a local state university this summer. He was surprised that he was being tested in biology using a scantron bubble test. He noted that there was no critical thinking, just fact memorization. He is used to small classes, taught seminar style, where work may be collaborative and the students are rigorously challenged. There are fantastic teachers in public schools. It is the philosophy of education this country currently has that is difficult for me.
    * differences in learning: the private schools my kids have attended cannot attend to as broad of a spectrum of kids as public schools can, but for kids with mild learning issues, e.g., mild dyslexia, mild attention issues, etc., the schools actually provide enhanced learning because of their small class sizes. And we are fortunate to have a couple of amazing private schools specifically for kids with dyslexia. The kids go there for a few years to learn how they can learn, then go on to whatever junior high or high school is best for them.
    * diversity: the schools my kids have attended are incredibly diverse, with children from all over the world, and the main racial/ethnic groups in the US well-represented. Robust fundraising has increased economic diversity, as well (even though that’s a work in progress).
    * lack of tracking: at our large public high schools, you are put on a track based on standardized test scores. Private schools can be more flexible if, say, a kid is gifted in math but average in Spanish. There is more fluidity and individual learning.

    So private schools have worked well for us. It has been expensive, though, and we drive old cars and don’t have a vacation home and it has definitely been a sacrifice. But I only have two kids. We could not do this with any more. I love the Amy Poehler quote above “Good for you. Not for me.”

    1. I love that your son gets to learn through seminar style and collaboration. I could totally be done with the standardized tests. They are a way for government officials to gain more control over the conversation and shift the focus away from teachers and parents inspiring a child to get the best education they can. Plus, they are expensive and major time-suckers!

    2. Amy, I have had the same experience as you with my son attending private school. I actually live in Oakland, just like Gabby. And I agree that there are many “good” public schools here in Oakland . . . but they are only as good as the state funding, which is dismal. Not even a superstar teacher can teach every kid effectively when there are 32 kids in their classroom. In addition, my neighborhood elementary school (a “hills” school) just wasn’t racially diverse enough for my family. The private school we send our son to has 51% kids of color. So it’s really complicated . . . I don’t know what the answer is to fixing Oakland/CA public schools, but I do know that my property taxes help support them, even though our son doesn’t attend one. And I’m glad about that.

  46. I live in Canada and have both my children in an expensive private school. My oldest spent just 1 year in public school (kindergarten) with a teacher who appeared to have lost her enthusiasm for teaching. When my daughter started grade 1, she tested very high on intelligence tests, but was markedly behind all the other students for reading. With excellent teachers and support she is now, just 2 years later, among the top students in her class. There is a support network of qualified people in place that does not allow for children to fall behind. I know this is incidental but I can’t help but wonder how much impact one not so great teacher can have on learning outcomes, let alone multiple not great teachers over the course of a child’s education. Like it or not poor grades may not just change which college you attend but exclude you from college or university altogether.
    I also feel differently about parent involvement. I’m not a teacher. My husband and I are both successful and educated but I don’t want to teach my kids. Contrary to popular belief parental involvement in schools does not always indicate better students. I can care about my daughter learning algebra all I want but unless she has a good teacher it won’t make her understand it. Great teachers make the biggest difference. Private school, for us, means an assurance that my children will get consistently great teachers in an environment that fosters both the kids and the educators. When asked by friends or family what private school is like I often answer that it’s what you think public school should be, but isn’t.
    Public vs Private schools is a heated topic. I am very aware how privileged we are to have private school as an option. It’s also, at the heart of it a choice based on our means and options, not an indictment of teachers in the public system, which I think is sometimes the perception. I believe that we need political and financial support to develop great schools and more parents that demand high standards for teachers.
    One of the best books I’ve read on education was Amanda Ripley’s, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. It’s a fascinating read and got me really fired up about education. She examines the education systems in various countries and highlights the pros and cons in a very compelling way. There were some take-away lessons for me as a parent about what I can really do to help my kids. http://www.amazon.com/The-Smartest-Kids-World-They/dp/145165443X

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