Back to High School

If you’re new to my blog, you might not know that since 2007, we’ve been a homeschooling family. Prior to that, our older boys were in private school. For reasons long enough make up another blog post, we decided to enroll our eldest son into public high school this year. It was not a decision we made lightly — it came only after much thought and prayer.

That said, delving for the first time into public education as a parent has been an eye-opening experience. After attending curriculum night last week, I posted on Facebook that I was “simultaneously impressed and totally underwhelmed” by what I experienced. I promised a blog post explaining what I meant, and this is it. I apologize for its length.

Let’s start with the good.

  • The school was immaculately clean, which was impressive considering that around 1700 teenagers trample its halls daily.
  • Everything felt well-organized.
  • The principal was chatty and welcoming.
  • They made it easy for us to navigate between classrooms, with helpful maps and polite ROTC students posted to guide us along the way.
  • The classrooms were bright and decorated with interesting posters and other features.
  • The teachers seemed like really awesome individuals. (I will talk more about the teachers in a minute.)

All that said, I was really underwhelmed by what I heard and saw, curriculum-wise. And just shocked, really, over how much things have changed since 1986, when I graduated from high school (my last exposure to the public school system).

I should probably mention first that my son is taking regular classes — no AP courses, nothing remedial. This is the standard high school carte du jour. Also, they are on a block schedule, which means that each 7-hour day consists of four, 1.5-hour long classes. There are “A” days and “B” days, with different classes taken on each day. The only class that’s taught daily is math, and that is because our school failed to meet the math standards last year.

  • First, homework is virtually non-existent. Even assigned literature is read during class time instead of in the comfort of home. I don’t know about you, but I remember having homework in multiple subjects, every night, and sometimes even on weekends. I remember having to study at home, a lot. I took some AP classes, but even the non-advanced subjects gave homework. I think homework is good for schooled kids. (Maybe not for their parents, however!) I asked each of Zach’s teachers about this, curious to hear their thoughts. They all said that they don’t give homework anymore because they do everything in class — and they found that most kids won’t do it anyway. As one instructor put it, the ones who do the homework aren’t the ones who need it — and the ones who need it won’t do it even if the assignment is just to turn in a piece of paper with their name on it. That is sad to me on so many levels: perpetuating the idea that learning is something that only happens at school (which is the exact opposite of the college experience), the kid missing out on the discipline learned by doing extra work at home, the school reducing the expectations of its students to meet the behavior of the lowest performers, how never bringing work home fuels a lack of parental involvement because it leaves us not knowing what the heck they’re doing in class.
  • Along the “lack of parental involvement” train of thought, I found it incredibly sad that about 10% of the schools’ parents showed up for curriculum night — if that. I’m sure a few had legitimate reasons for not being there, but the thought of 90% of the school’s parents not caring enough to come find out what their kids are learning both angered and saddened me. These are your children, people! You don’t get a do-over in parenting! Show up — be there — be involved, for Pete’s sake!
  • The school is at full capacity. One of his teachers commented that she loved this particular class because it was SO small — only 22 students. I couldn’t help myself…I said, “That’s small??” She said, “Oh yes…most classes, we’re having to bring in extra chairs to fit everyone in the room!” Just…wow.
  • Taking notes is nearly non-existent. Reasons given for this: it’s not really necessary until college (which might partly explain why this school ranks just under 22% on an index of 100 with regard to the college readiness of its students) and kids are taught note-taking in 8th grade public schools. Teachers can’t waste time repeating what’s already been taught. I guess I’m old-fashioned, but it seems to me that effective note-taking would be an important skill to reinforce throughout the high school grades.
  • Some of the upcoming assignments I was told about were projects we did in our homeschool back in 4th or 5th grade. I wish I was kidding about that.
  • If I had a dollar for every time I heard the word “standards,” I could buy us both a nice steak dinner. I understand that in an institutional setting, you have to have certain benchmarks, along with a certain degree of inflexibility in meeting them. I think that bothers me more in a homeschooling-mama kind of way, because we so totally embrace freedom and flexibility in learning. By design, there can’t be a lot of that in public school. It makes me more than a little sad for my son, that he is missing out on that at a time of life when learning can be so rich and fulfilling.
  • Back to overcrowding — there are 85 kids and 2 coaches in his PE — wait, Personal Fitness — class. Eighty-five hormonal teenagers and two instructors in a gym. No, that’s not a recipe for potential disaster…

There’s more, but I really need to start wrapping this up.

I liked all his teachers. A few, I wish I could call up and invite out for coffee. They were that cool. A couple welcomed me to become more involved, and much to my son’s chagrin, I will take them up on that invitation. I can’t even tell you how much I admire their dedication to these kids, how they were there that night even though they must’ve known few parents would come. I love that five of his teachers are men — I think men are sorely underrepresented in public schools, and boys need those kind of mentors in their life. I witnessed lots of good rapport between the teachers and that was also nice to see. The one teacher Zach told me was his most-strict was the one I liked the most. Go figure, huh? (Remember, I’m a meeeeeeeeeeeean mama!)

I’ve had teacher friends say that if you aren’t a professional in the field, you don’t have a right to comment about their work, because you don’t know what you’re talking about. Fair enough. I’m not exactly going to go tell my doctor how to do HIS job. Or my septic tank repairman. Or even begin to understand the mountains of bureaucracy any of them have to climb to do their jobs. (I do understand more than some in that regard, as a former military wife, spouse of a government employee and someone who worked in military family support for several years. Red tape sucks.)

However, whether most classroom teachers want to acknowledge it or not, homeschooling (and the co-op classroom teaching opportunities it provides us from time to time) DOES provide us at-home teachers with a closer insight into what kids are learning (and when), how kids learn, and a strong discernment over curricula quality. I wish I felt better about what I saw and heard last week, viewing it all through homeschooling eyes. Maybe over time, I will.

Zach is happy there, thus far. He likes the structure of his days, the overall environment, making new friends. Several of his teachers told me that he is respectful, polite, and a good worker. One said that she loves the way he participates in discussions, that he’s not afraid to express his opinions like most kids are (high-five to his previous homeschooling!) and another teacher said he wants to recruit Zach and a couple other of his top-performing kids to serve as mentors to the ones who are struggling. All that is very cool, as is the vocational film production program that was one of the big decision-makers in sending Zach there to begin with.

So it all still comes down to what I originally said on Facebook — I’m simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. Won’t you join me in praying for our public schools, for the students, for the teachers who so selflessly serve every day, and the administrators who make the decisions that impact us all? Because for the majority of our nation’s children, there isn’t really another educational choice. I’m still homeschooling my other kids and will continue to as long as it’s good for all of us. But if I didn’t know that was an option for us — and still an option for Zach — I think I’d have a much harder time accepting some of the negative things I’ve learned these first few weeks back-to-school.

One reply on “Back to High School”

  1. As a former teacher, I must say that your impressions are very telling. I saw much of what you are talking about in Arkansas while I was still teaching. It is very hard to teach a group of students who are apathetic about their education and even harder when there is no family support. From what you have written, I would say that Zach’s school has wonderful, dedicated teachers who have had their hands tied by the state/federal standards required for funding purposes. Sad, I know. Luckily, he has had a firm foundation established by your homeschooling methods and he still has parental support and encouragement, which I think is one of the most important parts of educating children. Good luck to both Zach and you as the school year continues.

    Robin Baxter

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