The McNeels Choose a School – Part One

The McNeels Choose a School – Part One

 

 

For the past six years, I’ve been there every time San Antonio ISD sneezed. I’ve done so from a safe distance, where the propulsion of mucus and saliva can’t hit me.

I stayed noncommittal when, hugely pregnant, an SAISD principal asked me if I would send my unborn daughter to the neighborhood school. Again when another school administrator told me my daughter would fit right in at one of the specialized schools.

Friends have asked “would I consider…” enrolling my kids in the schools I write about. Of course I would consider, I said. Considering seems safe enough.

Ambivalence and neutrality are the advantages of being the reporter in those conversations.

But now I have a rising kindergartner, and it’s time to stop considering and decide. I’m not reporting on this…

But I am going to blog about it!

And so, my friends, you are invited to follow along on my choosing-a-school journey. It’s like going from casual surveillance of rollercoaster blueprints to keeping your hands and feet inside the car at all times.  Here we go.

Part One- The inherent privilege of choosing a school

We begin our journey from a place of privilege. Our children, ages two and four, are in the loveliest private Montessori school in the city. I cannot loudly enough sing the praises of St. Paul’s Episcopal Montessori School. The teachers and staff there have nurtured the McNeel littles for three years.

We love Montessori curriculum. It’s beautiful, intuitive, and respectful of child humans. Our kids are thriving. We love hanging out with the other parents, many of whom were or would have been my friends even if our kids didn’t go to school together. It. Is. Glorious.

So why, I ask myself every day, are we not just continuing on until 6th grade?

First, tuition. We aren’t financially hurting, but two tuitions per month will take the wind out of your budget. As a freelance writer, I don’t know what my month-to-month earnings will be, which makes our whole household budget sort of mysterious. In those situations, low overhead is advisable.

Second, integrity. I write about privilege, segregation, and inequity as a privileged person in our segregated, inequitable city. I write about it all day every day. I write about the people trying to solve those problems. If I don’t seize the opportunity to actively be part of the solution to the problems I’m always talking about, what am I demonstrating to my kids?

Lewis does not have the threat of public hypocrisy, but he doesn’t need it. He wants to support public schools and equity, and being the thoroughly integrated person that he is, this all makes sense to him.

Third, true belief. We can “be the change we wish to see” without sacrificing our kids’ education. I’ve watched the SAISD schools we’re considering for at least a year, some longer. I’ve reported on them. I honestly believe they will serve my kids really well. We are applying to three specialized schools within the district. They are “diverse by design” meaning they have a 50/50 economic split, and the ones we are applying to all have special curriculums. There’s even a Montessori option.

I’m not without trepidation leaving St. Paul’s, and every time we talk about a possible new school, we always say, “and if it doesn’t work out (i.e. if our kids are miserable for some reason), we know we love St. Paul’s and can go back.”

That little reassurance, though, tells you a lot about us. All options are open to us without hazard. That, to me, is what privilege is. Everyone makes choices, but the relative costs of those choices that define our true options.

We can send our middle class kids to private school and still afford our house payment, car payment, etc. We can send our white kids to any functional public school and not have to constantly fight the system for them to be served. We can even enroll them in a charter school without driving an hour each way.

So when I say we have “choices” or “options” I mean that we have valid choices and good options. Ones that won’t require much sacrifice. For me school choice is not a political discussion. It’s a function of being white and middle class.

We kid ourselves to think that school choice is a new thing. It has long existed for those who could afford it. Private school and homeschool are obviously choices, made by those willing to pay the fees in time and money.

Moving to a “good school district” is another form of school choice. For us, public school is not the ultimate goal. If we’re going to uproot and move across town just so our kids can go to a school with hoards of kids who look and vacation like them, or even to schools with more resources…I’m not sure how that’s any different from leaving them at St. Paul’s. It’s not different for them, and it’s not different for the kids in San Antonio ISD, the district where we currently live and pay taxes.

This relatively new version of school choice – charter schools – is available to us as well. We are surrounded by them. I’m agnostic on most things regarding charters. I take them on a case by case basis, and I’m not sold on them as the anti-christ of public education, nor on them being the savior. I just don’t know. (And not for lack of lobbying from either side.)

But I do know this: at their best, they are offering choices to families that did not have them before. Families who could not move, could not afford private school, could not homeschool. We—policy makers, activists, taxpayers, and educators— are having necessary, high-level discussions about how to fund and regulate and authorize them in the right way. It may be that a properly regulated charter market looks wildly different from what we have today. Maybe not. It’s not my job to know, it’s my job to report on the people figuring it out. 

A real tension exists between those who offer the choices–those high level players mentioned above–and those who make the choices–parents and families. Between the ideal of a perfectly equitable and excellent public school system and the practical needs of real families whose children get older every day. I also report on the ground-level reality that charters expand some of the privileges of choice for parents and families. 

You’ll never get wealthy parents to give up their options, outlaw private schools, or prohibit white flight. Sorry. Not happening. You can change some minds, but probably not enough to reshape a city. At least not today.

So from the perspective of the individual who has no control over the quality of their neighborhood school, to give lower-income parents more viable choices (in some sustainable form) may be morally necessary. Let me put it this way: if you wouldn’t put your kid in a particular neighborhood school, who are you to tell the people in that neighborhood that they have to go there? Or, if your amazing, great, perfect neighborhood school isn’t doing a good job serving a kid with learning differences, who are you to tell that kid’s parent that they are obligated to stay and devote the rest of their life to fighting for services while the years tick by?

I share the high level commitment to public schools…I just don’t know what to tell those families who are getting screwed over. Obviously we need to fix the system, but obviously that’s not happening in time for Christmas break. And we keep telling parents that every single DAY of their child’s education matters. So how do we justify the weeks, months, and years in this war of attrition?

All that being said…having all of those other options (a private school we love and district schools we believe in), I feel comfortable sticking with SAISD. Charter school wait lists are already long, and I have not yet seen a model that would pull us off of our current trajectory. So, that’s the imperfect and privileged place we’re coming from. Stay tuned for more episodes along our journey.

Up next: The McNeels attend Experience SAISD

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2 Replies to “The McNeels Choose a School – Part One”

  1. Can’t wait to see what you choose. And thank you for being committed to SAISD. We’ve got to change the thought process that identifies the current SAISD with the SAISD of the past. It’s not perfect but which choice or ISD is? And there are so many good and innovative things happening in SAISD that more people (parents or not) should take the time to learn about.

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