Tuesday, March 13, 2007

From: Fertile Ground

Lamplighter Column--Getting Schooled

For those of you who haven't picked up a copy of this month's Lamplighter...

Education choices in Memphis lacking

I was a proponent of the Memphis Public School system before I had kids. “I went to public schools and I turned out fine,” I would say (loudly in bars while having hypothetical holier-than-thou arguments). When I actually got pregnant and started thinking about reality versus winning an argument, I realized that “fine” wasn’t what I wanted for my future offspring.

For the first year of Satchel’s life I plotted ways for Warren or I to stay home full-time, but (ironically, due to needing two salaries to cover our student loans) nothing panned out. Our precious baby went to a home-based daycare and we went to work. When Satchel was eighteen-months-old and showing signs of sponge-like learning abilities, I started looking for a school to enroll him in. I called around and didn’t find too many options for his age group. At the time, the best choice was Threshold Montessori. Not only did they take the kids young, they were open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — a working parent’s dream. At the school, children did art twice a day, played outside a lot, and had freedom to choose what “work” they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Best of all, I liked the diversity. Threshold had a pretty even mix of white kids and black kids in addition to a smattering of kids with other ethnicities.

Satchel thrived at Threshold. He was well-liked by the teachers and students and quickly adapted to the Montessori style of learning. He paved the way for Jiro to be accepted at fifteen months of age, and soon he was thriving too. By the time Jiro enrolled, I no longer got upset by the amount of television they watched or the junk food they witnessed their friends eating. In fact, I looked forward to the third Thursday of each month when they had fast food or pizza because that was one less day that I had to make lunches. I was secure in the knowledge that they were both well cared for and intellectually stimulated. I gave glowing accounts of the school to my friends and never spent a moment worrying about either of my boys once I dropped them off in the morning.

Despite this, I did have a small inferiority complex in conversations with friends who sent their kids to the “fancy” Maria Montessori downtown. With its gardening program, high parent involvement, and no TV and no plastic toys, it seemed to me like it belonged more in California than in Memphis. I had called Maria Montessori when I was initially looking for a place to send Satchel, but upon discovering that they were only open until 2:30 p.m., closed in the summer, and that Satchel would have to be “invited” to attend a full day session after proving himself part-time, I couldn’t quite figure out how a family with two working parents could logistically send their child to Maria Montessori (even if they could afford it).

As much as I liked Threshold, I had to think ahead. Threshold only goes through kindergarten and Satchel is almost five. Warren and I had a come-to-Jesus talk where we discussed sending Satchel to Idlewild Elementary, the public school in our zone at the time. Idlewild was close by, it’s an optional school, and it has a pretty decent reputation.

We decided to do an Idlewild drive-by in August. I immediately noticed the “Open House Next Thursday Night” sign out front and the boys immediately noticed the cool playground behind the teachers’ parking lot. That Saturday we went to the playground and started talking about the time when Satchel would go to his “big school.” He was very excited and immediately started talking about his “big school” on a regular basis.

At the Open House, Satchel was amazed by the sheer number of people in attendance and was very interested to see the inside of the school. We walked by a few classrooms and ventured into the library, and of course, the restrooms. He seemed smitten, but inexplicably, by the time we got home, Satchel said he no longer wanted to go to the “big school.”

“Why?” I asked, perplexed.

“There’s too many people. Too many brown people,” he said.

“Whaaa, huh?” I was totally taken off guard.

But truthfully, I noticed too. According to the school’s racial breakdown, in a class of twenty-four, there might be three or four non-African American students. Satchel had plenty of black friends at Threshold, but I didn’t know how he’d feel being in the minority at Idlewild. When I went to Newberry Elementary, the racial breakdown of the classrooms was pretty much the same and I don’t remember feeling out of place. However, I would really like to have Satchel in a classroom that more accurately reflects the diversity of Midtown.

Recently, a crunchy friend of mine enrolled her daughter at Evergreen Montessori. “You should see it,” she said. “They have all of the traditional Montessori materials, they make lunch there, there’s a huge backyard with no sand and lots of animals, and there are all kinds of extras like yoga, soccer, and Tae Kwan Do.”

“Really?” I said trying to figure out why I hadn’t sent Satchel there in the first place. “What time do they close?”

“Six-thirty,” she said.

“Isn’t it expensive?”

“A little bit, but you would save some money not making lunches.”

“Don’t they close when the City Schools close?

“Yes, but they do stay open extra days for working parents.”

Warren and I set up an appointment to take Satchel and Jiro on a tour of Evergreen. We were greeted at the door by one of Satchel’s old Threshold classmates who immediately took him by the hand and ran off to show him everything. There were lots of other familiar faces too — from the playground, from Mothersville, from the grocery store, etc. The director told us that there were three other students with a Japanese parent and/or grandparent, which we thought was pretty cool. Once we saw all of the amenities at Evergreen, we were very impressed. It had all that Threshold had and more — all the way to the eighth grade. We were sold.

Looking over the enrollment packet, I was worried if we’d be able to afford Evergreen. It wasn’t as much as Maria Montessori, but it was definitely more than Threshold — especially if we needed before and after care, which we did. However, Warren and I were committed to making it work. And thanks to the understanding of Evergreen’s director, we did.

The boys have been at Evergreen for two months now and are fitting right in. They love yoga and Tae Kwan Do and can’t wait for soccer. Warren and I like seeing our friends at drop offs, pick ups, and parent meetings. I don’t miss making lunches one bit. The school definitely reflects Midtown and has a very neighborly feel.

It is easy for me to imagine the boys staying at Evergreen indefinitely, but not without feeling a little guilty about it. It was a no-brainer for us to buy a house (twice now) in a transitional neighborhood — the realtor actually said something along the lines of, “This neighborhood needs people like you” — but taking the leap into the public school system is much scarier.

I saw a high-school friend last fall at a Rock-n-Romp. As we sat and talked for over an hour, he told me how much he wanted to move back to Memphis.

“What’s stopping you?” I asked.

“The schools,” he said. In North Carolina, he told me, they have great schools. All kinds of schools. Even public Montessori schools.

I want to live in Memphis. In Midtown. I want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. But, I also want my kids to get a great (and not necessarily traditional) education. I don’t want a third of my income to go to private school, especially when a third of it already goes toward student loans.

I want better choices.

There's already been a record breaking THREE letters to the editor...one of which clears up a few facts about Maria Montessori that I got wrong, one basically says I am a racist, and one that simply says I am a whiner/poor journalist.

What do you think?

posted by Stacey Greenberg

1 comment:

jason said...

i would like to comment on your blog. as a midtowner who not only attended the Threshold Montessori, but also attended Memphis Public school (with the author of this blog), and id like to mention that I have a sister who moved to NC to teach school, whew, and one last thing, I have a son currently at Idlewild Elementary. so I feel qualified to say I think your way off target in your assessment of Idlewild, and listening to your son's reason for not attending may have cut short your search in that direction. well you should come to the Idlewild Neighborhood party this saturday May 27 and see for yourself. if more midtowners would take that "leap" they would see that in a school like Idlewild, NOBODY feels like a minority.