Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Changing Places

Our oldest daughter started school at The Local three years ago. It was a small school when we chose it. We shopped around because that’s what parents seem to these days, looking at three schools in the area. We were impressed by the big school 10 minutes drive away, charmed by the little (but not as little as The Local) school adjacent to Fred's kinder about 8 minutes drive away with its mix of new and old buildings. Both these schools are serviced by a bus that passes on the main road, five minutes walk from our house. But Fred loved The Local the best, and I favoured the idea of a local school, one we could walk to. When we chose it we thought there were about 85 kids, by the time Fred started there were 65.

Her class size, a combined prep/1/2, was fairly normal, about 25 kids total, with two teachers in the expansive double unit. It seemed in many ways an ideal set up. The extremely experienced prep teacher was kind and gentle. I have never in three years heard her raise her voice. The other teacher in the room was also experienced, but with a different style. They seemed to complement each other.

By the time Fred was in grade two, the numbers of the whole school had dropped dramatically to 37. Her grade of ten was down to eight. My other daughter, Una, started the school as one of only two preps, for the second year in a row. The art teacher had left, as had several other staff members. The school was down to three permanent teachers (all very senior), and there was no longer two teachers in Fred's classroom - it was her third year in a row with the same teacher.

The Local School offers many opportunities to students, inter-school sport where everyone gets a turn from grade 3 to 6 (sometimes combining with other smaller schools to make a team), a lovely music program, PE, and a larger than usual number of whole school excursions and incursions. There are discos and bush dances and this year the parents participated in a progressive dinner party. The whole school is performing The Wizard of Oz tomorrow night. The kids care for a small but productive vegetable garden. The students host assembly each week. The OSHC program is staffed by a dynamic and creative young woman.

In the winter terms the kids have Cubbyland: using found objects they make little houses in a gully of trees. They form tribes and beg, borrow and steal supplies (one year a talented boy sang for sticks). The cubbies are dismantled every Friday, new tribes form on Monday. The politics of Cubbyland are intricate and impossible for an outsider to really fathom, especially a grown up. The self governing works pretty well. It's kind of like Lord of the Flies, but, as the Principal once said to me, 'without the Piggy killing.'

We’ve had problems at the school, some of them resolved easily, even elegantly, and some not to our satisfaction. I am sure this is true of every parent at every school, but it can be hard not to take it personally in a school of 37 kids. Still, mostly our kids' experiences at The Local have been great. Fred particularly is devoted to the school.

I have to admit, it’s been a little demoralising to be part of a school that feels like it’s dying, that doesn’t have the support of the local community – so many parents travel out of the area for school. It’s a vicious cycle. The smaller the school gets, the less people are inclined to choose it for their own children. 'Our school is not very popular,' Una said to me out of the blue in the car a few weeks ago as we drove up the hill out of Warrandyte where - a long time ago, a whole year - she'd gone to creche. 'No,' I admitted. 'It's not very popular.' She sighed. 'I'd like to go to a popular school.' Una and I have had a conversation along these lines every few weeks since before she even started at The Local. In fact over three years ago, when I was looking at schools for Fred Una came with me. She walked out of the Big School and said, 'This is my school.'

When Avery was born last year a friend commented (on this blog I think) 'You’ll populate that tiny school yet.' Unfortunately she was wrong. In the last two weeks we have made the decision to move our children to the Big School ten minutes away.

So we are saying goodbye to our tiny school and it's a sad goodbye. I love the school. I love the staff: I respect them as educators; I like them as people. I feel invested in the other children and the idea that I won’t be there in 2015 to see Fred’s class graduate is a sad thought. Although I know my children are ready for the challenges of the big school, for a busy and vibrant program, and for a larger circle of friends, I do feel that I am taking something precious away from them as well.

Mostly though I am mourning for myself. I love the walk to school in the mornings. I like feeling a part of the place, the relationship I have with the teachers, the easy, casual vibe with the other parents. I’ll miss arriving early to pick up the kids and wandering the corridor with Avery. I’ll miss the relaxed school uniform, that I can send them in streetwear if we're behind in our laundry. I'll miss the way I can hold the whole school in my head, I'll miss knowing who they play with. I'll miss miniature army, and the way all the older kids are ascribed family titles "mother", "uncle", "aunt".

We told them on Saturday, after their Friday night school disco. We decided to tell them separately, so we took them out "Christmas shopping". I took Una. I pulled over by the side of the road, opposite the Big School. I told her to climb over into the front seat, I had something to tell her. She looked at me very seriously. I explained she was going to change schools, that she was going to go to a more popular school. Her face lit up, her eyes shone. Everything pleased her - the Italian and violin lessons

Martin told Fred. I couldn't, I was worried that if she cried I would cry, and it would send the wrong message. I've been crying a lot about it. For the week after we signed the forms and before we told them I'd been sick with anxiety over it. Every time Fred hugged me or just simply looked happy and at peace I felt like a traitor. And as I thought would happen Fred burst into tears. But almost immediately she was okay. She knew she would miss her school and her friends. Yet the idea of a big bustling population of kids was undeniably exciting, and her outlook now is positive.

The teachers who haven't taught Fred yet are sad to see her go, they've both been looking forward to having her in their classes. 'I just hope,' says the 5/6 teacher, 'that conventional school doesn't take away her spark.' What I don't say, but have discovered, is that there is more pressure to conform at a small school, perhaps not from the institution but certainly from the other kids. I think socially at least Fred will be able to be more herself. To some extent she'll be able to create the community she wants to be a part of, instead of being forced to fit in with the 5 other girls in her class, or risk being an outsider.

So far the other parents have been disappointed but understanding. The sick feeling is slowly subsiding. As my friend Jelly said, coming and going is part of school life, even (perhaps especially) at our small school.

Yesterday the girls did a practice at the Big School. We got there during the lunch hour and the girls went off to explore the playground. I tried to keep both of them in my sights, worried that they wouldn’t know what to do when the bell rang, and got a little panicked as Una chased a boy she knew from Kinder in one direction and Fred wandered off with two preps interrogating her in another direction.

Instead of a bell they played music to signal the return to classes. I found Una staring at three rubbish bins, oblivious to the sudden tide of kids heading back to the school buildings.

'There’s music coming out of that bin,' she told me.

I delivered Una to her teacher, a warm woman who lives out our way and used to be the library teacher – so I think we will like each other. She was expecting Una and greeted her by name. One of Fred’s prep groupies from the playground was in Una’s class and volunteered to take care of her.

I took Fred round to her room a small, slightly pokey portable - so different from the expanse of space at the Local. The kids were lined up outside and Fred recognised a girl from kinder who lives near us, who we see regularly at the library bus. Her new teacher is tall and smily and used to captain the Australian volleyball team. Apparently he asked the class if anyone knew what an acrostic is and Fred-the-poet stuck up her hand and explained it to the class. Her acrostic was:




Doesn’t like eggs.

I love that she chose Funny and Reading to describe herself.

As I write this I hear the Local School bell, signalling recess. I love that sound, it makes me think of my children, I can picture them dropping their pencils, running outside to play.

I know they’re going to be fine. I just hope I can say the same about me.


  1. Sounds like a really good decision, Penni, especially if Fred took to it so well. Sad, but good.

    I had a simiilar thing yesterday - visiting a school that will be great for Felix but is no longer near my house (his new high school) and I felt a bit sick, a bit sad and also hopeful & as if I'd done the right thing. Parenting: so complicated.

    Best of luck for the girls, and you.

  2. I completely agree that the girls will be MORE likely to find friends who get them, and therefore will not need to conform. Sounds like a great start. Kick the guilt Penni. I understand it, but it will go. Change is good.

  3. I've taught at small schools and very big ones. I've come to the conclusion that big schools are better in one major way: kids can reinvent themselves and aren't captive to one set of children or teachers.

    As usual, I am touched by your gorgeous blog.

  4. Yes, it's me who lies awake over those decisions too Penn; I think out every scenario and talk and talk inside my head until there's nothing more to say. Usually the kids just pick up and run with what comes their way and all my anxiousness was mine alone.

    Next year we are grade-skipping Thomas up to Yr6 and I've been a little terrified, but he seems happy about the prospect, so it will probably be ok. More kids to swim with can be better for those quirky little souls, and he'll have double the number of kids in that year level.