In a surprising turn of events, we’re applying to send Wombat to a private kindergarten, the full tuition of which is in excess of TWENTY-THREE THOUUUUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR. My four-year college education cost about half that, so yeah, I don’t know what’s going on anymore.
It’s a poorly kept secret that we think Wombat is a pretty bright kid (it’s not just what he knows but how he learns, yadda yadda), but in an effort to not be Those Parents, we’ve been vigilantly reminding ourselves that we’re biased, not only because he’s our son but because as individuals who value academic achievement the way some families value sports achievement or status achievement, it’s understandably comforting to identify all the ways in which Wombat fulfills that ideal. Daycare Lady has been telling us for years that she would be “devastated” if we sent him to a mediocre public school (no pressure!), but it wasn’t until his preschool’s kindergarten-prep teacher called us out in a meeting last week that we decided, okay, it’s time to get real about who this kid is and what he needs. And he needs more. (One thing she said that stood out was that Wombat has been reluctant to do certain “advanced” things because he doesn’t want to be seen as different from his peers. This was a major kick in the pants that he needs more than the luck of getting a good teacher who can differentiate a standard curriculum for him–he also needs a peer group that will support the way he learns.)
I grew up in Salt Lake in a time when there were, I think, two private elementary schools for the entire valley. The way I always thought about it was that private schools cost a lot of money, ergo they must be places where rich people send their rich kids primarily to prevent them from comingling with not-rich kids (and in Utah, to prevent the Catholics from comingling with the Mormons). Private schools were a way of confirming one’s position in a certain class or cultural group, end of story. Your kids went to private school because you could pay for them to go there. Simon and I both went to public schools, and we both have several public school teachers in our family. We have never worn uniforms. We have never been on a winter break ski trip to the Swiss Alps. We are public school people through and through.
But then we started hearing things about the Oakland public schools and realized our experiences in suburban Southern California and Utah in the 1980s don’t really compare with the situation here and now. There are some good public schools here–and we may very well end up in one, and we may very well end up being extremely happy about that–but now that we’ve been forced to put our egos aside, we know have to at least explore what an outside-the-norm education might mean for our outside-the-norm child.
If I sound like I’m trying to justify the decision, I am. I feel like one of those moms who won’t say the word “nanny” for fear of coming off like an insufferable fancypants, and that’s why there’s so much verbal arm-waving along the lines of “It’s not about finding a ‘better’ school or a more-prestigious school, it’s about finding a good fit for this particular kid,” and here in Oakland, you simply don’t get the level of academic rigor Wombat seems to need (yes, I realize we’re still talking about a five-year-old) anywhere but at certain private schools. If the Oakland school system were in better shape, it would be a different issue. If Wombat weren’t Wombat, it would be a different issue. The way some people think they’re too good for public school, we almost had the attitude of being too practical and down-to-earth for private school. Obviously the money factor made it extremely easy to write of a private education without a second thought, but then we started hearing about the amazing financial aid packages people were getting, and that changed everything. If we don’t get financial aid, there’s no way we could pay full tuition at a private school–especially year after year after year–but now we know we have to at least give this whole thing a shot, and it’s kind of crazy how reluctant we’ve been to accept that. Our focus hasn’t shifted completely, just broadened such that our criteria is no longer just “find a non-crappy school at which he will be safe” to “find a place that will allow him to reach his full potential.”
(Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that we heard some things about nearby public schools that manifested in the form of big red flags. Whereas some parents may be excited about the prospect of dedicating their time and resources to help shape and improve a struggling school that, among other challenges, hosts “regular and robust discussions” springing from cultural differences (i.e., parents fighting in meetings), that is not who we are. We need a turn-key school. I mean, I’m happy to put in my volunteer hours or whatever, but we need a school that runs itself. Does that make me sounds like an insufferable fancypants or like someone who’s realistic about the levels of chaos she can handle without having a nervous breakdown?)
Here’s where I need your help. Those of you who have been there, done that: What should I know about private schools? We know practically nothing. (This reminds me of my college application process. My parents didn’t really know what they were doing, so I only applied to one college and didn’t even take the SAT. On registration day, a student guide asked if I was going to rush, and my response was, “Rush where?” I’d like to be a little more prepared to look a little less stupid this time around.) (And hello, I realize how nutso it is that I’m comparing kindergarten admissions to college admissions, but here we are. Wombat has to have an IQ test, for crying out loud. For kindergarten! Is this real life?)
(I should also mention we’re doing this for kindergarten because for this level there are forty open spots and every year after that, there are zero to four open spot. So.)
We’re filling out the application this week, and it’s weird because of course I want to answer honestly and be genuine, but I also want to give him the best chance of getting in, you know? If there are only forty openings, what are his chances of getting in if other families aren’t being genuine and honest? There’s a space where we’re supposed to talk about our community service, for instance. Does that mean we mention how Simon gave that homeless guy some of our groceries when we were driving home from the store on Thanksgiving? Or should we be, like, founding our own nonprofit or something? Just this morning I was talking to some parents about the family photo we’re required to submit with our application, and when I said I was just going to send our holiday card and then described what it looked like, they warned me about using a picture in which Wombat showed too much personality, just in case the admissions committee interpreted it as him having a high-maintenance demeanor. Eek. (Although if that’s true, maybe it’s not such a good fit after all.) “They want to see a photo of you on a trip,” they told me. “Doing family bonding.” And I’m all, “Uh…we spend every second together when we’re not at work or school. Do they really need to see us in front of Cinderella’s castle in matching Mickey ears? Is there a good place to stage us digging a well in Africa?” This shit is bananas.
So, yes, advice. I hesitate to even ask because I worry it will just give me more to worry about (not that I ever need help with that), but I figure it will probably do more good than harm, so please share what you know. And if you have advice to give but you’re wary of coming off like an insufferable smartypants in the comments, you can also email me at leah [at] agirlandaboy [dot] com.
Aaaaaaahhhhh! What are we doing?!