In the next couple of months, I have to decide where Jarrah will be going to kindergarten next fall. This isn't an easy decision, because while our neighborhood public school is across the street, it's the only one in our local cluster of five that doesn't report high test scores. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not really clear on what the test scores mean, and that I'm not a big believer in tests as a major indicator of learning. But still. The fact that the other four schools have very high scores is enough to make me want to check them out. And the fact that San Diego has the "choice" program, where I can enter Jarrah in a lottery for any school I want, is both encouraging and overwhelming.
Recently, I called all five schools to ask about tours. I had a wide range of responses. One of them has tours every Monday, at 7:30 a.m. (heaven help us.) One of them has a special touring day once a month. Two of them said yeah, sure, they'd have tours but they didn't know when yet. And our neighborhood school chortled and said "Tours? Just come in and we'll give you a tour. Anytime."
Today I went on my first tour. I did the monthly one, because it is only monthly, and because 8:30 sounded at least a smidge better than 7:30. The school is Benchley-Weinberger, and it's one of two magnet schools on my schedule. (The other one is Green, which is an Athletics magnet. That sounded idiotic to me until they explained that the kids get P.E. five days a week instead of one (!) like the other schools. What the @#$%&*? Kindergarten with only one day of P.E.?)
Benchley-Weinberger's magnet is Communication. I am all for Communication, and starting it young. They are also something called a "California Distinguished School," which they apparently had to apply for, an arduous process arduous enough that they may let the honor expire. We were invited to meet in the auditorium for a short presentation and video, followed by a tour of the classrooms, library and computer lab. And I was practically on time.
I know I must have a few local readers who are going to be familiar with the schools I mention, and who will be far more knowledgeable about public elementary schools in general if they have older children than I do. I encourage you to share your impressions with me (privately if you wish) because I am trying to learn here. I don't have a lot to go on--just what I'm told. I plan to tell you about my tours as I take them (the deadline for enrollment is February 15) and I'd like all the advice I can get.
I didn't catch the name or position of the gal who gave the tour, though she was friendly and enthusiastic. We briefly met the principal, who described herself as as grandmother, one who would be "proud" to see any of her grandchildren at B-W. We also met two little girls who welcomed us in sign language. One of the Communications features of the school is that the kids learn sign language starting in kindergarten. They also have Panda Pals, which is why one of the girls was more like a third grader, escorting her kindergarten pal.
This little display brought tears to my eyes, a sudden and embarrassing development that continued throughout the hour. Certain things about the place (or the idea of the place?) stirred up some kind of inexplicable emotion for me. I also got choked up seeing the kids in the library, watching them work at little round tables in the kindergarten classrooms, and hearing one of the kindergarten teachers tell me that they spend a lot of time working on what it means to focus on a task, in case the child did not pick up this skill in preschool.
I wondered about my tears. I have heard many people say they cried when their child started kindergarten because it seemed like they were growing up, but my child has already been attending school full-time for two years. It's not like her schedule (or mine) will change. Something else was afoot. Maybe it's the knowledge (displayed prominently) that she will be reading and writing, two pleasures so dear to my heart. She'll have access to a world that has been my constant support for longer than I can remember, and this feels significant. Maybe it's the idea that she will be making friends that she may know for years, or forever. Maybe I'm freaked out by having to make such a big decision for her, choosing her daily environment until she's 11 years old--what if I make a terrible mistake? Maybe it's just the abstract wondering about how she will be: happy, busy, motivated? sullen, lonely, struggling? I almost can't bear considering the latter.
In any case, I enjoyed the tour. Despite the grim state of the buildings (why do all California schools look like bunkers from WWII?) the classrooms were decorated with student art and the teachers seemed cheerful. The kids were busy reading and writing and drawing at different "stations." I liked the idea of the campus "news station" (which even kindergarteners can anchor) and newspaper, and the fact that they take field trips to the theater. It frightened me to hear that the school could lose its magnet at any moment due to budget cuts, or that the size of the kindergarten classroom could go to 29 for the same reason. But I won't avoid those problems on my other tours unless I start thinking about private school, and I can't see that happening.
After the official tour, we were encouraged to wander around, poking our heads into older classes, or anywhere we wanted to go. I liked that, and found that I was feeling peaceful now. Not so much because at least one school seems like a warm and inviting place, or even because I get a bit high researching things (though I do.) I think I was feeling peaceful because I remembered that I believe in Jarrah, and know she is up to the challenge of a new place, new friends, new tasks, new information. I might wring my hands about where to send her, and wring my hands frequently (even after the decision is made) but she is the constant.
She welcomes what is new, and that's always been true. Wherever she ends up, she'll be happy. And having this kind of trust and certainty in her makes me so very lucky.