Today is my son’s last day of kindergarten! This has been his first year in public school, and we are very pleased with our neighborhood public school, Pittsburgh Colfax. It’s a great example of how an urban school can thrive when faculty encourage parent involvement. On “Take Your Special Person to School Day” last month, I spent a whole day immersed in the experience of being one of the 700+ Colfax kids and never once felt like just another brick in the wall. Sure, there are some systems in place to keep everybody organized, but none of it is harsh or disrespectful.
Daniel and I always planned to send our child to public school. We feel strongly that public schools are important. Every child deserves to learn both academic and social skills. That includes our child. We believe that our public schools, supported by our tax dollars (and 1% of the money I spend on my Target Visa card), are good enough for our child. If our local school was horrible, it would be our responsibility to help improve it . . . but, gosh, it’s wonderful that we have a good local school where many parents are very involved so that we don’t feel like we have to do everything! We are supporting all efforts to make every Pittsburgh public school as good as Colfax.
Both of us attended public schools for most of our education. While each of our schools had some flaws, overall we feel we benefited from:
- learning from sources in addition to our parents and thus getting a broader view of things
- being exposed to other points of view, which, even when they were factually incorrect or philosophically objectionable, gave us the opportunity to critique and strengthen our own beliefs
- being around other children on a daily basis and developing an understanding that people are different, particularly that not everyone is as smart as we are (Seriously, that is an important thing to know when you go out into the real world! If you assume everyone is brilliant, you get very impatient!) and that some people have skills we never would have thought of trying
- being required to keep a regular schedule and to meet deadlines for assignments
- being required to try things we would not have tried on our own initiative or under the guidance of our parents. For example, my parents dislike sports, and most physical skills were difficult for me as a child so I preferred not to try sports, but the school insisted. I still don’t like sports, but I know I’d be even less coordinated and more clueless if I’d never tried to hit a baseball, flip over a bar, dribble a basketball, etc.
- having access to the school’s library, science lab, musical instruments, computers, athletic equipment, etc. While these resources often were less complete and well-maintained than one might wish, they still offered options we wouldn’t have had at home and even some that would’ve been hard to find elsewhere in the community.
We know that public school is not going to fulfill all of our child’s learning needs. We expect that he’ll do at least half of his learning outside of school, from unstructured exploration, self-guided reading, talking with us and others, visiting museums and such, and various after-school and summer programs. Still, we’re very impressed with how much he’s learned this year! We feel that school has been giving him daily opportunities beyond what he would have at home and that an expensive private school could hardly be better than Colfax.
The curriculum is great! From the very beginning of kindergarten, kids learn to think of themselves as “authors” and practice writing in different genres–even though their first “writing” is mostly drawing pictures–they aim for great writing and gradually improve, with lots of discussion of structure and technique. They’ve learned to sight-read a few words each week, and some of the kids have made the leap to fluent reading, but there’s not a lot of pressure; they learn the basic skills and have lots of books around, so reading can come naturally at the right time for each child. They work with numbers in practical ways, like rulers and clocks and coins. They have some cool geometry toys that they get to just play with, in small groups, figuring out how shapes work together. Each kindergartner chooses two science projects per month to do at home and share with the class–my favorite was, “Ask all your family members what is their favorite color, and make a bar graph,” which Nicholas did at Thanksgiving so he could include 23 responses! Yes, they’ve already learned about bar graphs. They even learned some formal logic—Venn diagrams in kindergarten! All year, I’ve been glancing at first-grade work hanging in the hallways after I drop off Nicholas, and I’m really looking forward to next year!
Colfax also has an Edible Schoolyard, where Nicholas has learned about organic gardening and nurtured several plants. Music and art classes have inspired Nicholas to learn to play the piano (well, electronic keyboard is what we have, and the school has a classroom set of them!) and practice new art techniques at home. He’s had fun in gym class, and a few weeks ago he reported, “We learned in gym that a drug is anything you take that changes the way your body or brain works,” and launched into an accurate explanation of antihistamines. Colfax has a swimming pool, and in a few years he’ll learn to swim. He’ll also learn Spanish!
Even kindergartners get homework at Colfax, and we were a little nervous about that, but the weekly homework packet turns out to be a fantastic concept! Every Monday, Nicholas brought home approximately 6 pages of work to be turned in by Friday. He could work on it whichever evening(s) he had time, fitting it in around family activities without staying up late. It was a lot less stressful than the “due tomorrow” assignments that made up the bulk of my childhood homework. The worksheets were mildly challenging but not frustratingly difficult for Nicholas, once we read him the directions. We saw his handwriting, spelling, and arithmetic skills improving over the course of the year. (I could not print that neatly until I was about nine years old!)
Another big advantage of attending the neighborhood school is that Nicholas now has friends his age who live nearby! Previously, he knew the kids on our block and the kids from church, who are either older or younger. His friends at preschool lived all over the city and some in faraway suburbs–many of their parents had chosen the preschool because it was near their work, not near home–and that school did not publish a directory or otherwise help parents get in touch with each other, so it was difficult to see those friends outside school. Now, Nicholas has friends who come over to play, invite him to birthday parties, and bump into us spontaneously around the neighborhood. Yesterday, and many other beautiful spring days, several friends and their parents decided to go to the park together after school.
Not all those friends are from families exactly like ours, and that’s great! I hear so much fear from other parents of my generation that public school will expose their children to horrifying outside influences that will corrupt them and tear them away from their parents’ influence–to which I say, I am not afraid! I love my child; I can see how very deeply my words and actions matter to him; I know what I believe and am happy to tell him all about it; I am confident that, like Daniel and me, he will end up being a person who is more like his parents than he is like his peers. At the same time, I believe that getting to know kids of different ethnicities, cultures, religions, family configurations, and political ideals is very enriching for him. It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself if you are sheltered from knowing your neighbor.
Furthermore, at Colfax there is no one norm to conform to, so Nicholas will not have my childhood experience of being unforgivably unfashionable (because I didn’t have designer jeans and permed hair and glitter lip gloss in third grade) or Daniel’s experience of being a racial minority, nor is he likely to get picked on because his parents are unmarried. His class this year included kids with single moms, kids with divorced parents doing split-week custody, a kid with two moms, a kid living with grandma while mom’s deployed, an only child living with four adults, and a kid who is the fifth of six brothers. There were kids from Japan, kids from Turkey, kids with heavily accented European-born parents, African-American and mixed-race kids. Nicholas was not the only long-haired boy, and nobody made fun of his rainbow unicorn lunchbox. He was not the only one observing Epiphany and Maundy Thursday, but he also learned that some kids keep kosher and others don’t believe in God. Different people do different things.
We like the curriculum, we like the kids, and then there’s the school building! To me, as a former aspiring architect, a building’s style and atmosphere are as important as what rooms and facilities it offers. Colfax has high ceilings, large windows, wide hallways, and an overarching sense of quality, solidity, and beauty. It’s celebrating its centennial this year and has been excellently maintained. It has beautiful woodwork, some stained-glass windows, and two tiers of steps leading up to a main entrance between brick turrets that seems to say, “Welcome to this important place!” Everything about the architecture of Colfax expresses the love and care of people in 1911 who believed children deserve a real building in which to do the important work of their days. There’s also a new addition, carefully designed to respect the style of the original building.
(By contrast, all but one of the public schools I attended were concrete-block boxes slapped onto the prairie, in which all the fixtures were cheap and visibly deteriorating, although those buildings were only 20-30 years old. The message conveyed by my elementary school’s main entrance was, “Duck under this slab to get out of the sun.” Teachers did their best to make it a cheerful place, but the building did nothing to encourage them!)
Almost every morning this school year, I’ve walked Nicholas to school before I go to work. It’s a short walk along pleasant streets lined with trees and houses, where other kids are walking to school and there’s a crossing guard at the busy intersection–because we live in a civilized neighborhood, with sidewalks and lots of things within walking distance; I love it! Each day we investigate the progress of the flowers (or the icicles) and meet at least one squirrel. Then we get to school, where kids of all colors and styles and a wide range of ages are mixing about in the shade of the big trees or in the two paved, low-walled “courts” alongside the front entrance–our second-grade neighbor told us, “The courts were made for kids to play in, and a hundred years of kids have played here, and my dad played here when he was little, and now it’s our turn!!” When the bell rings, we walk down a hallway lined with students’ exuberant work on a variety of projects, into a classroom (twice the floor space and almost twice the height of the classroom for the same number of kids in the private preschool Nicholas attended) filled with great stuff, thriving children, and a teacher who impressively manages to keep track of it all!
AND IT’S FREE!!! I mean, we have to pay taxes anyway, but we don’t pay any extra for Nicholas to attend this school. If we were too poor to pay taxes, this school would be here for us anyway. Almost every morning, I’ve walked out of that building a little choked-up with gratitude. The neighborhood public school works for me!
Read about why other writers like public schools!
A mother who has taught public school, including teaching former home-schoolers, explains why she chose public school for her children and addresses the idea that you “have to” home-school to be a good mother.