Edited 2 April 2008
My wife and I have been confronted with a choice — one that is available mostly to those in our privileged social condition, but a difficult one: where should we send our children to school?
Just a few years ago, we wouldn’t have had this difficulty. We’d have sent the kids to whatever the local school was. The alternative would have been (and still is) to homeschool them and cobble together an education by ourselves. This option has a lot going for it that I won’t get into here, and we used to feel sure that homeschooling would be the option for us.
But our older daughter, now approaching the age when children start kindergarten, is a tremendously social person. She loves to spend time with other kids, and I think she thrives more when she has frequent contact with lots of them. So we’re trying to find the right course to take for her: something that does not lock her into a world of standardized tests and a passive-learner mentality, yet does allow her regular social contact.
We see three options:
- Send her to Denali Elementary School, which is our local school, about ten minutes’ walk away.
- Send her to Barnette Magnet School, about fifteen minutes’ walk away, in the afternoon for elective, multi-age “exploration” classes in science, art, social studies, languages, mathematics, and technology. In the mornings and evenings, we would work on the core skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic — plus whatever else we felt like. Alternately, we could send her in the morning for the core subjects and have the afternoons free.
- Send her to Chinook Charter School, about five minutes’ drive away, where they run a Montessori-style program for K-8 kids.
Until recently, I felt sure we would never send our kids to Denali. It has to do with my distaste for compulsory schooling; Denali would undoubtedly be as bad as any other elementary school about squashing my children’s interest in learning. (I’m saying this not to invite debate over the merits of the school system, but to give you an idea why I am in a dilemma.)
My wife, our older daughter, and I went to tour Chinook in the past week. Classes were opened up for visiting families to see what kind of education went on: we could walk from room to room, watch the class activities, and look at the educational materials (books and “toys”). My complete appraisal isn’t germane here, but I’ll say: there were things I liked and things I disliked, though it’s hard to put my finger on anything bad.
With one exception: the location. Chinook Charter School is in the middle of nowhere — an industrial area of Fairbanks that not only is outside my neighborhood, but is outside any neighborhood. If you’d been given directions there and were walking, you’d turn around before you saw it, sure that only warehouses and prisons awaited you. The nearest bus line passes two-thirds of a mile to the northeast and would require the rider to walk across an expressway to get to school. There is nothing for any pedestrian out here; the school is an island in a sea of roads, cars, and heavy industry.
This bothers me for a few reasons. (They are intertwined, and others might parse them differently.) The first is that our daughters would be entirely dependent on us for their transportation to and from school, five days a week, nine months of the year. While the parent volunteer who showed us around said that some of the kids ride their bikes to school, I’m sure that they don’t do it year-round, not with our climate. Let my girls walk ten minutes to school at forty below? Sure. Let them bike over two miles on icy streets, with no bike trails, and crossing the Mitchell Expressway? Nuh-unh, no way.
Where could they go after school, other than where we took them? I remember biking to and from school in the fifth grade. Often I’d stop at a convenience store to buy Mad magazine or play video games, or I’d pop into the video store for a movie, or occasionally I’d see a friend whose house was on my way home. None of that could have happened if my parents had been driving me to and from school each day. Such a distant location stunts children’s independence.
The second reason is that it normalizes environmental ugliness. While the inside of the school is attractive (and eerily tidy), the property’s surroundings teach children that it is only the building in isolation that matters, while surroundings are just obstacles on the path — disregarded at best, resented at worst, but never experienced and enjoyed.
Third, it reinforces the lesson — already taught by our inadequate city planning — that it’s normal for the most worthwhile destinations to be far away from anything else. This discourages children from making do with neighborhood resources, or even possibly creating neighborhood resources. It normalizes distance and disconnection.
Fourth, it gives children the chance — the inevitability, actually — of making friends from all over the Borough, at the expense of time to make friends who live nearby. Of course, the more gregarious children may seek out nearby peers in their non-school hours. But, by and large, they won’t, not in the same number as if they had gone to their local school and rubbed elbows with their neighbors. This impoverishes their social lives, condemns their parents to a life of chauffeuring to events with friends, and hampers their social independence.
Last, the student population is selected by the difficulty of access: only those children can attend whose parents (1) can afford to buy and maintain a car, and (2) have the leisure to drive the little ones to and from school every day. The location selects against poor and working-class families with neither the money nor the free time to ferry their kids around, and for middle- and upper-class families. The result of this is a socio-economic
heterogeneity homogeneity that delays children’s learning how to deal with — even be friends with — people different from themselves. It makes school not a social leveler, but a stratifier.
I have to grant that Barnette, while downtown, has some of these faults. A magnet school by definition attracts children from all over town — and the more time my daughters spend making friends with kids in Spinach Creek or Goldstream, the less time they’ll have to make friends with those only a few minutes’ walk from our house. And those kids will very likely be from privileged families with the money and free time to make schooling outside their neighborhood possible.
Yet I suspect that homeschooling, with some accommodation for my girls’ need for regular society, will offer them the best education. It’s even possible that the Montessori-style program offered at Chinook — which has a lot to recommend it — would be best. But if you believe in the importance of locality, of neighborhoods, of school as a social leveler, and of children’s independence, what can you do?