Friday, June 20, 2008

School Daze

See what i did there? With the title?

So we're still looking at schools*. We have three main contenders:

The local
Feral. 65 kids. This year, 4 preps, 1 of whom is a girl. After the tour I came out trying to be cheerful about it, because I really want her to be able to walk to school, and I did feel a bit cheerful, it seemed very Fred, like a fun school to go to. I have a vision of me and Una wandering down in the afternoon sunshine, or sloshing about through puddles, under the gum trees to pick her up. But after going to a 'prepare for prep' session, I'm less cheerful. Martin is definitely not keen, the computers are old and the teachers seem suspicious of them. The numbers are dwindling. Like I said, there's only 4 prep kids this year, though there will be a few more next year (interestingly they are all younger siblings of kids already going there, there was no one new at all in the class. Few of them, if any, are walking distance from our house (except the boy across the road). Martin really doesn't like this school and I don't love it enough to fight for it, in fact I'm not sure I like it either. It's hard to say why, except that it feels all a bit tired and lacklustre - even the buildings themselves feel dusty and a bit gloomy inside. It seems like there's a quite tight community of parents, but fairly intense. Intense scares me. We'll probably upset some locals we've become friendly with if we do opt for a different school. My gut feeling is that Fred would probably be fine there (though I think she would also find it socially very intense) but Una not so much. Una likes things to be tidy and structured. Una has come out of the other school tours keen and excited about the idea of being a schoolgirl. She came out of the local saying she did NOT want to go there (it surprises me because she talks about the three schools quite a lot and with no nudging from us she's remained very firm on her three preferences). Fred wants to go to the local because it has two monkeybars. It may also be because she's got a little girl crush on the big brother and the big sister of two of the kids from kinder. They do a lot of art, especially clay, but no language. Fred thinks clay looks a bit wet and dirty and no thanks. There's a library and a librarian, and the catalogue is not computerised. The parents and teachers Martin and I have talked to find the idea of computers in primary schools fairly suspect at best (yep, we live in a big hippie area), so even if we decided to send her there, pull up our sleeves and try and change it from the insid, there would probably be some resistance to the things we think are pretty important. Yes, yes, she'll have plenty of access to computers at home, but that's not really the same as having them integrated into the curriculum (to me it's a bit like thinking you can put your kid in Steiner and sneakily teach them to read at home, or an atheist sending their kids to the local Catholic school planning to deprogram them at home). A few years ago there was a bullying problem at the school and quite a few families pulled their kids out and sent them to the big school in the next suburb. We've never been able to get the full story on this. On the afternoon I took Fred in for the pre-prep activity I was early. I wandered in and hung around for a while inside the school. I was ignored by the school secretary, even though both Fred and I stood looking into the office and called out to get her attention a few times. So we wandered outside and went and watched the netball match. I was ignored there too. Eventually we went back in. The school secretary looked past me to another woman and led the other woman down to the prep room. She came back and glanced at me and went to go back into her office.
'Ah, excuse me,' I said.
'Oh, are you here for the "steps to (local school name) programme" too?'
'Ah, yes.' This is why I am wandering around your school with a couple of preschoolers.
What did she think I was there for? And why was she happy to let me randomly wander around the halls? For a little school it seemed fairly oblivious to someone unknown wandering about. Not that I'm that concerned that Fred is going to get abducted from her classroom. It's more just about the fact that they're not switched on, they're not very welcoming - for a school that's basically in danger or dwindling to nothing, they are pretty complacent - especially compared to the two other schools who don't HAVE to market themselves but do a bloody brilliant job anyway.

The big school
The big school is big. 530 students. I can hear most of you recoiling right now. But it's actually a great school. It's beautiful and right on and brand new (the original school burned down around 2000). The prep section is separate and they have their own very darling courtyard that is for preps only, though they are allowed to branch out into the big playground when they're ready. The preps also have a mess area so that they can do art or cooking (as well as using the special Art room once a week). The woman who took us around was lovely and very positive about the kid's experience. There's also a passive play courtyard for the whole school where kids can play a game of chess at lunchtime, which apparently has great accoustics and some lunchtimes they have music concerts in there. There are no fences, which I actually love - I know Fred, along with most kids are very good at understanding boundaries. There's a bus (I love the bus) Fred can catch from down the road and apparently there's a few prep kids that do (they have bus buddies and a teacher meets them at the other end), plus our next door neighbours go there so we'd be able to rideshare, or Fred and next door girl (who will be in grade 3) can catch the bus together. There's high school kids on the bus too, and we actually know one of them, so she can look out for Fred. There's all the facilities you could ever hope for, heaps of opportunities for extra learnin', like extra sessions for bright kids in maths, english etc, and a range of musical instruments taught (including clarinet, flute, guitar...not sure about violin, which is what Fred wants to learn). It's definitely more institutional than the other schools, but all the classrooms are nice and even the portables are brand new and integrated really well into the school. And I'm not sure institutional is a bad thing to be honest, if it's done the right way. The grounds are massive. Fred seemed a little overwhelmed by the size, but Una loved it, this is her first pick. Light and bright with lots of pretty corners and quiet places as well as four big play structures (and I'm sure they have at least two monkey bars, Fred says not) and a creek running down the end of the school (actually, 'running' is probably to grand a word considering the years of drought). A big range of staff, a good solid senior staff with longevity, a lot of graduate teachers too, which appeals to me. Students travel to get there, and there's quite a few from Fred's kinder going including 2 of her favourites and they endeavour to put kinder kids together in a class (there were 4 prep classes this year). But she might make besties with one of the kids who travels up from Greensborough and that would be most inconvenient.
When we started our tour we saw a group of kids lining up to have a lice check. When we got to the office at the end of our tour there were three kids, two boys and a miserable looking girl waiting at the seats in the foyer - they were being sent home. 'We got eggs!' one boy cried with delight. Woohoo.

The little school with big ideas
Equidistant from home as the big school (dammit, or that would be our determining factor) though a slightly nicer drive. Bus also goes there (I think it's the same bus), but no prep kids from Panton Hill catch this bus (I think some older ones do) and it's less convenient timing (and the principal was slightly horrified at the idea of Fred catching the bus - we are bad neglectful parents who want to send their children out into the big wide world unsupervised - so sue me, I want Fred to navigate the world on her own and I happen to think the world is generally safer and nicer than we're led to believe. Plus to me the bus equals independence for both of us, and for Una too when she goes.) The little school is less little than the local school, about 130 students this year and a full class worth for every grade. The preps and ones are in a unit with a removable wall. In the morning they're separate, in the afternoon prep, one and two combine down there. I don't know that this is ideal, but in some ways I think the double unit principle can work quite well. The principal is an action man extraordinaire - he came five years ago with a list and I suspect he has made the school the place it is today. There's an electronic whiteboard (like a big computer screen, but touch sensitive so kids can shift stuff around) in every classroom. Big whoop you might say (I did) but Martin has convinced me that studies have shown that kids are more engaged in a classroom with the electronic whiteboards, which means things like the naughty kids are less naughty. I'm for that. Fred was very resistant about this school until she did a tour, but by the end she really liked the school. Una likes it too. I am super impressed by the principal but I'm scared if he leaves the school might crumble into chaos and despair (okay, not likely, but valid to worry that the principal seems to be the lynchpin of the school, not necessarily so at the big school which has a larger group of senior staff). Panton Hill is familiar ground - the school is adjacent to Fred's kinder. Lots of kinder kids are going there, including one who Fred plays with quite a lot. We know and like some of the parents. It would be a closer knit school community. It's a really pretty school, with a gorgeous old bit, and quite well designed new bits and only one portable classroom which is the music/PE room. The grade 2s are in the library in the mornings and though the library gets a fair bit of parent support I'm disappointed that there's no librarian. The principal argues (justifiably) that the council's mobile library parks once a week across the road and all the kids go there, which has a wealth of books, much more than they could afford to buy. Fair enough, but it still means the kids don't get to have the same intimate relationship with a library space. I guess that reflects the digital information age where library's roles are changing (I did my whole Masters without ever speaking to a librarian), but I'd like to think there's always space in the world for a cosy school librarian. Perhaps I'm just having longings for Mrs Jessup, my most amazing and gorgeous primary school librarian. The 'extras' aren't as extensive as at the big school, but they do a bang up job with what they've got.

Basically the decision seems to boil down to convenient big school or less convenient little school, city-ish school or country-ish school, drive her every day, or let her catch the bus. Or do we do what seems like the 'right' thing, the socially responsible thing, and send her to the local, despite its shortcomings.

Which brings me to this aside: When I last posted about this, a sensible commentor called John made the point that we make a lot of parenting decisions based on nostalgia, and I surprised myself with how defensive this comment made me. Because he was right. Every decision I make taps into my own nostalgia. I have this tendency to look at schools in terms of what my kids will remember and treasure, rather than in terms of their actual lived experience. And it's funny because along with the warm nostalgic feelings i have about my small primary school, I also remember this vague sense of anxiety, there were so many forms, and rules, and the scary girl, and mean boys, and grouchy teachers, and being put in a different class from my friends (it was all composite classes and for some reason for a year or two I was shifted from being in the lower year to being in the upper year, which felt like a downgrade and probably wasn't). And I have to add, as a latchkey kid from a fairly young age, I am finding the idea of committing myself to picks ups and drop offs and being home for the kids for the next several years a bit overwhelming wherever they go. But I don't love the before and after school care option either. Why can't they come home, conduct delicious experiments with milk, milo and sultanas in the microwave, make prank calls and watch tv after school like the good old days? Okay. Don't answer that. I won't even mention my very distinct memory of my sister threatening me with a knife - I mean she didn't actually stab me or anything.

Anyway, just sharing my dilemmas, and I realise I probably sound barmy (do we send her to this good school or that good school?). Feel free to weigh in with suggest, comments, advice, or your own experiences. I'm always curious about the decisions other people make and why they made them.

*I always thought I'd be really relaxed and cool about schools, fling her in the local and be done with it. But actually, surprise surprise, I'm not cool at all. But I don't have a clipboard. And unlike Catherine D's assumptions, I'm not looking for the school that will turn my kids into geniuses. I just want them to have more good days than bad, to have a mix of kids to pick from in terms of friendship (including alternatives if a friendship goes sour), a quiet place to go on the days the world disappoints them, teachers who quite like kids and like learning themselves, some interesting breaks from routine, and a reasonable foundation so they don't get to high school and freak out.


  1. Clearly the choice is between big school and big ideas school.
    How about eeny meeny?
    Coin toss?
    Pin the tail?
    Pick one, sit with it for a few days, and see how your gut reacts. Or let Fred pick one of the two top contenders.
    Sounds like neither will be a bad decision.

  2. So can you pick and choose? You don't need to ballot or be zoned? At least those things would have forced your hand a little.
    As the highly experienced school parent of almost three terms (ahem!) I'd say go Big School only because it sounds so much like Asha's! That isn't HUGE to be honest, some schools even primary are up to the 1000. Our school is about high 400s and is considered 'small' for our area, hence why we balloted and got in. It's closer than the school we are zoned for but we're lucky all the local schools are similar so not such a big decision.
    Ah I could blather on for ages. Think about perhaps also where she will be heading to high school and which schools filter from there. Remember I went to H High School (but not the primary). HHS doesn't exist any more (Not my fault I assure you).
    Umm. Was going to say something worthwhile.
    I really like the sounds of the Big School. XX
    It only sounds so 'big' because the others are so small.
    I think having more than one class at each year level leaves you with options also in case there are issues where you think she may thrive under another teacher etc.

  3. Actually I think over 500 kids IS a huge school for a primary school, not just because you're comparing it to two little ones.

    Does Fred have a preference between the big and big ideas schools?

    Also don't forget, you're not stuck with your choice if after a term or two, or even a year or two, you feel you've made an error. It's easy to move schools and far less traumatic than you'd expect.

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  5. Anonymous9:30 PM

    stuff idealism, let's get practical. i chose a smaller school for my kids when they were young because i thought it would be more community-ish and cosy. But in reality, the school was run by the PTA clique - women who sew (ewww) and have no life - and they and their kids were it and a bit. Small community = potentially limiting.

    The friend option comment you made was spot on - i hadn't antcipated how important it would be for the kids to be able to mingle beyond a small group. My son in particular, who played with the girls until the end of grade one, was suddenly stuck when the girls discovered that boys had germs and would no longer play with him. Suddenly he had to be interested in footbal and couldn't for the life of him manage it. We changed to a bigger school with a bigger community (plenty of non-football-playing boys to choose from) and a kickarse music program.

    Big isn't bad - big is resources. sounds well organised. funny how suspicious we are of anything that seems too good. big is also good preparation for the real world.


  6. words from local principals
    "sometimes the best school is the closest school"

    "everyone has a horror story about a school. if you think you have found the school for you..don't let one disgruntled parent put you off"

    We went with the choice that felt right - and so far have been happy. No regrets. A bit like choosing a house, a suburb, or an employer really! Have fun choosing!

  7. It's a hard one. Just having read what you've written I'd say go the big school but I'm an education snob and I think you should go for new, shiny, well-resourced, and all that malarkey.

  8. Oh, you sound very sensible indeed. I love Catherine D, but I bet she has a great local school. Yous sounds decidedly dodgy, and you're quite right to stay away from it. You seem to have thought this through thoroughly and have a good idea about what you do and don't want, so I reckon you'll be fine.

    We chose the closest school, and I think nostalgia was a definite factor. It had a similar feel and size to my old school and 'I turned out fine, didn't I?' (But yes, if I think about it, there was plenty to dislike about that school.) I now have cause to think I may have made a bad decision, given some of my experiences. But they're things I couldn't have known.

    Both big and small schools sound good to me.

    Ok, some things I'd look out for if I was looking again:

    Do you have any input at all into selecting teachers or putting the kybosh on bad teacher allocations? If yes, a good sign.

    Note how they talk about the kids in terms of accepting difference and encouraging individuality, or if they talk about everything working for everyone. The latter I should have seen as a warning sign that F's school is pretty inflexible about adapting to his needs.

    Is there a school where the parents seem more or less like you? That makes a difference in getting through all the social occasions - and can be reflected in how the kids get along.

  9. Anonymous7:36 AM

    Just wondering... are these schools public schools (like in US)? Or do you pay tuition to attend?
    It sounds a little confusing to me -- where I live, people move here for the schools and you choose where to live based on the schools -- basically the best neighborhood you can afford. Only if you feel very strongly about educating your child in a Catholic or Jewish school would you not go to your neighborhood school.

  10. Oh yeah, the other thing I was going to say was that Fred will be almost 6 by the time she starts, and won't be bussing it first term I assume, even 3 terms in A wants me to walk her in and out (though I don't everyday) but she won't be catching the bus immediately.
    Which way does Martin travel to uni? Via PH or H? Are you more likely to go to H - oh and car pooling is bg, I have 3 mums helping me get Asha to school each week .. but having someone who lives near you driving in that direction anyway and back each day, well, I can't tell you how much of a help that has been to me.
    When I was looking at schools on the sunshine coast when it looked like we were moving there last year, the numbers at those schools were 1200+. Asha's school is 491 (i checked) and it in no way feels too big. Having a dedicated Junior playground helps keep the little ones together to begin with before they get the confidence to explore further. There are programmes in place to allow the children to meet kids from other levels (Rainy Day Monitors etc.). I love that my daughter has options as per Chris's post. She loves meeting new kids in the playground and finding out about them. One taught her to weave flax a few weeks ago, last week she met the new Thai girl who taught her to speak a few words of Thai. I agree, big is not bad, and big can be more resources, diversity.

  11. I'd say go with convenience, because you are committing to what? 7, 8 years of this place potentially. If getting there and back is a pain in the proverbial, it'll probably take the lustre off it. Of course, if your reaction to that comment is "that's just stupid, other things are much more important!" your decision may also be made. :)

    We went the small infants school (K-2) with 64 kids because I thought my eldest could use the extra support from the teachers (and it looks like it was a good decision). After year 2, they move on to a bigger school, which a lot of parents complain about - they complain about lack of involvement and communication. I suspect by year 3, I'll be glad of the distance!

    I completely agree with you on the independence thing. One down side of the infants school is that kids must be picked up by an authorised person - a la day care. It gets right up my nose that my kid can't walk home from school on his own as a matter of policy. The route he takes actually precludes him from walking on his own anyway, but I object to it being policy.

  12. Wow thanks everyone.

    Zoe - you're right, we can't go wrong really. I think it's the fact that they are both good that makes the decision so hard. I realise how lucky we were to find each other, I think it made us actually very socially resilient (despite Mrs Street's fears that we would become strange and insular....and we're so not. Look how many facebook friends we have. Ha ha ha.)

    Jo - As far as I can tell we can pick and choose. I think the zones must be fairly flexible out here. You're right about Fred being nearly 6, and she's very confident. But she likes everyone knowing who she is too (however I can imagine it wouldn't take long for her to make herself known even somewhere that big). And you're right. it's easy to think about being BIG but in terms of high school it's not. Her likely high school is about 1500.

    Suse - I do know we can swap, and Fred can be our experimental child - when Una starts Fred'll be in grade 2 which I think is a good grade to shift (later than that and you start getting into the awkward girl years). Having said that, of all the people I've talked to, the ones whose kids have struggled most are the ones who changed schools a couple of times. Fred's overwhelming preference is the local school, she's not very open to other possibilities, though I think she prefers the little school with big ideas. We're taking her preference into account, but balancing it up with Una's preferences and needs too. Phew. It's hard trying to anticipate both their needs. Part of me feels like the beauty of the big school is that their more likely to be able to shape it according to their needs. It also gives Una more chance to strike out on her own.

    Chris - thanks, your comments definitely help me with my ideas about the girls' social needs. That gender shift in grade twoish changes everything, and at the moment Fred does tend to play with a lot of boys. She struggles a bit with prescriptive femininity (and if I'm honest one of my issues with the Local is that the girls from Kinder who are going are the Hi-5 girls), so I could see her falling apart a bit when that divide kicks in.

    Wonderwebby - overwhelmingly I wanted the local to be the best school. But I really don't think, in our case, it is. I feel like I've made so many lifeshaping decisions - shifting out here into this house (and, um, all the other times we moved before then), Martin's career change - I wish I didn't have to make another one. I just wanted one to be obvious!!

    Maria - I am part education snob too, and that part thinks they're more likely to progress academically at the big school. But then there is the part of me that co-slept and let's the kids run wild that wants to offer them the small school, country experience. Music programme at big school is impressive - they even have a woodwind ensemble.

    Ariel - Thanks for the very practical tips from your experience. I imagine it's really hard to know until they're in there, and though you *can* always move them, that's another heartache in itself, and who knows that plunging them into a whole new social situation is going to make things any better. At least F has footy (even if it is a bit emotionally traumatic for you!) - I hope Fred finds a sport or music group or something at school that gives her another social framework.

    Laurie- I know, sorry, it is confusing! These are all public schools, though schools are becoming increasingly autonomous, so quality can vary greatly. I think funding might be per head, so they have to market themselves (unless they're like local school). When I was a kid nearly everyone went to the school they could walk or easily bus to, but I guess now so many parents are driving to work anyway, there's more opportunities to commute to a school. In city areas or affluent suburbs schools have stricter zoning, though there's usually some flexibility. Where we are it seems more relaxed. There's also Steiner, Montessori, Catholic and other denominational independent (private) schools around which are more expensive.

    Thanks so much everyone, it's great feeling like I can talk (write) all this out, and distill all those different thoughts flying around in my poor overcrowded noggin.

  13. Ariane, I would love that - if we had a little cosy infants school and then a shift to a bigger school for the later grades. Because I think say, the local would be fine for the first couple of years, but I doubt it would be that great for the later years, preparing for high school etc.

    Interesting what you say about not minding the lack of involvement later on - the big school said they definitely notice parents drop back from that kind of intense involvement as the kids hit grade 2 or 3. I'm not a PTA type myself (though I'm happy to go in and do some stuff with the kids), so I have to admit to being drawn to the big school where my non-participation will not be under scrutiny!

  14. Toss a coin and see which school you're secretly rooting for.
    Having said that, I would go with H. Yes it's big but it has the lowest risk factors IMO.

  15. Anonymous9:15 AM

    I've been thinking about how, as mums, we tend to bend over backwards so that our kids can have the very best. Sometimes it's a warranted bendiness. Other times it's plain back-breaking. Eg the decision to breast feed so that the second child can have what's first even tho you are in agony this time around...sometimes the outcome is worth it, sometimes you can go insane trying to make it work.
    After 6 months of "I'm gong to do what's best" back bending antics, I'm going make a phone call to change some pre-school plans. It's a moment when I have to say goodbye to a very special place but saying hello to a new adventure for T. It is going to be so much saner for all of us and although it wasn't my first choice, it's going to be the "sane, pretty good, he's going to be fine" choice. It's the best choice for us all right now. I feel relieved.

    Just thought I'd share.