Homeschool vs. Public School: Is There a One Size Fits All Education Model?
One of the following stories is true. Can you tell which one it is? (No skipping ahead!)
Story 1: I believe in public education. I am a product of public school. I think the education I received up until my high school graduation was an excellent one; I was usually sufficiently challenged, I was given lots of opportunities for both academic enrichment and involvement in other activities, and I headed off to college well-prepared for the rigors that lay ahead. After completing college, I worked for a year, then headed to grad school. I consider myself smart, capable, well-educated, and a perfect example of how public school can work better than many are willing to admit.
It never occurred to me to do anything other than send my child to public school. It wasn't just the "it worked for me, it works for everyone" kind of mentality, but more a belief that we're all capable of getting a good education wherever we land, given the right mix of an inherent desire to learn, a structured school environment, and parental support at home. And so my child started public school back in kindergarten and is still there, just a year shy of high school. The kid loves it, and stays busy, happy, and challenged. For my part, I remain involved while trying very hard not to hover: I check homework (if asked), but I'm not going to do the work; I donate classroom supplies twice a year; I belong to the PTA and sometimes even serve as an officer; I volunteer when asked to do so; I furnish rides, encouragement, signatures on paperwork, and show up whenever appropriate to cheer my child on.
When we moved to Georgia four years ago, we consciously chose to move to an oft-proclaimed "failing" school district for a number of reasons, chief amongst them that my husband works here and we want to be a part of the solution in this community. Our experience with this "terrible" district is that despite the high rate of poverty and challenges inherent in a school system short on money and long on students who may not get what they need at home, the educational experience here -- particularly for gifted students -- is rigorous and impressive. I believe beyond any shadow of a doubt that my child is learning more and working harder here than in our old, fairly privileged, district (where, as in Lake Wobegon, all of the students were "above average"). When it's time for college, my child will be ready.
Public school absolutely works for us, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Story 2: Public education failed us. I am a product of public school. I think the education I received up until my high school graduation was an excellent one; I was usually sufficiently challenged, I was given lots of opportunities for both academic enrichment and involvement in other activities, and I headed off to college well-prepared for the rigors that lay ahead. After completing college, I worked for a year, then headed to grad school. I consider myself smart, capable, well-educated, and a perfect example of how public school can work better than many are willing to admit.
It never occurred to me to do anything other than send my child to public school. It wasn't just the "it worked for me, it works for everyone" kind of mentality, but more a belief that we're all capable of getting a good education wherever we land, given the right mix of an inherent desire to learn, a structured school environment, and parental support at home. And so my child started public school back in kindergarten, and the problems began soon thereafter. By first grade the kid was on a 504 Plan for sensory integration dysfunction support, and by fourth grade my child started talking about committing suicide on a regular basis. The other kids were mean; the work was boring; what had been quirky-cute personality when younger was now deemed downright weird by classmates and even some teachers. My child was finally diagnosed with autism and moved to an IEP, but despite numerous meetings, strategy planning sessions, social skills support groups, and what felt like constant phone calls with the school administration, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was spending a lot of time trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
When we moved to Georgia four years ago, we were told this oft-proclaimed "failing" school district was really good at serving children with special needs. While my hat is always off to the dedicated men and women who went above and beyond to make my child's school experience a better one, the bottom line was that ultimately these many needs were possibly too numerous for an already overworked administration. My "profoundly gifted" child's grades dipped downward to mediocre in 5th grade, and when we went to 6th grade orientation and my kid ended up hiding under a desk, we had to face facts: public school was no longer an option.
So we chucked all of our assumptions and expectations, and stopped. We decided to homeschool. We found an alternative "unschooling" program, and despite years of experts insisting that structure is the name of the game with autism, signed up for days filled with random explorations, shifting schedules, and other kids who are maybe dealing with their own challenges. We braced for disaster. And it never came, because I have never seen my child so happy, so engaged with learning, and so flexible. When it's time for college, I wouldn't be surprised if my child is ready, but I also wouldn't be surprised if there's a different path entirely that makes more sense.
Public school absolutely didn't work for us, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
So where's the truth? Most of you have probably guessed by now that both stories are true. And while it's not unusual for a story like the first one to turn into one like the second one, I think that more and more often, families are living both stories at once, the way we are. My daughter -- story 1 -- is the stuff dreams are made of when public schools seek to demonstrate that they can produce outstanding students; she excels academically, her teachers adore her, she's involved in a wide variety of extracurriculars, and she enjoys a circle of really nice kids as her friends.
My son, on the other hand, is story 2's square peg -- bright, capable, and awesome in his own right, to be sure, but never really able to fit into public school in a way that worked. It's tempting to say that public school failed him, but that's not the whole story. Some changes might've made the experience more bearable for him and for us, but it still wouldn't have been an environment where he could've thrived, because it just wasn't what he needs.
I've noticed that a lot of kids at our unschool have a sibling (or two) who's still in public school. It seems like, more and more, the old model of "This is the kind of education we believe in" just isn't enough for families with more than one child. I believe in the kind of education that makes a child happy and educated; I don't know why it took me so many years to figure out that the "correct" variable in that formula might not be the same for both of my kids. (What can I say; I'm a slow learner! Darn public school education....) But I can tell you this: Despite the added hassle of having two kids doing vastly different sorts of school and the extra driving and difference in academic calendars and such, so far this has been the calmest and most enjoyable school year I think we've ever had.
Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; I asked my kids about it.
"Would you like to do unschool, like your brother?" I asked my daughter.
"Kind of," she admitted. "I mean, I think it's cool that he gets to spend so much time doing whatever interests him, and they get lots of time to eat lunch and there's no homework... and it's kind of cool that it's a smaller group and you never have to worry about some bad kid ruining class for everyone else." She thought about it for a bit. "But I would miss my friends. And not just my friends, but all of the extra stuff I do. The clubs. Band. Competitions and stuff. I mean, I really do kind of like school most of the time."
Later, I asked my son, "Would you like to be at the middle school, with your sister?"
"No way!" he answered, immediately. "Unschool is awesome. I don't have to spend all that time at a desk doing stuff I hate. And there are fewer kids and no one picks on me. Plus we study way cooler stuff and get to build things. I can move around all the time if I want. We call our teachers by their first names! It's way better." He thought about it for a bit. "I am kind of jealous that [my sister] gets to do band and stuff, and I don't. I think that might be fun. But I also think we have a lot more fun than she does most days."
Moral of the story? One size doesn't always fit all, even in the same family. I'm sorry it took us so long to figure that out, but thank goodness we finally did.
BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir Kamin believes in whatever kind of education works. She blogs near-daily about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and all day long about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.