Education Options: Part 1
When I was newly married and had no children, I felt strongly that I would homeschool my children in the future. My sister-in-law, who may have had one or two babies at the time, was adamant that children should attend public school because Christians cannot withdraw from the community, or we will lose the opportunity to witness and be a light to the masses. I’m not certain how it happened, but at some point, my sister-in-law learned more about the homeschool movement in Texas and became one of its most ardent supporters. Today, she homeschools five children, pretty much all on her own. If you don’t think that’s a lot of work, you’re delusional!
Me, well I became a public school teacher some years after that conversation. I became a staunch supporter of the public school system. Then my children started attending school in our local district, and with each passing year I became more and more disillusioned. To be honest, the first year of public school really was pretty great for the most part. I had a kindergartener, a first grader, and a fifth grader. My first and fifth grader had just moved in with us over the summer, so we didn’t know them well at all. They had been in foster care for several years, and we wanted to adopt them (which we did in November of that same year), so this was a pre-adoption trial period. We knew both had academic difficulties, and both had been held behind a year. My first grader was embarking on her victory tour of first grade, and my fifth grader was just coming off two consecutive years of fourth grade. It is extremely common – the norm – for children in foster care to be held back in school, so we were not alarmed at first.
The Beginning of Public School
My first grader, as it turns out, could not read at a beginning kindergarten level, despite having been in school for two years. On the second day of school, I made an appointment with her teacher, Mrs. Mac. When I described my daughter’s early childhood experiences, she nearly cried. I pointed out to her that while the child was the smallest (she weighed only 32 lbs. when she moved in with us) and cutest, she was also going to be the oldest, and definitely not a late bloomer. Too many of my friends, who noticed problems when their children first learned to read, had been told their children was “late bloomers” that didn’t warrant any concern, only to have those same children continue to struggle with reading for many years afterward in school. Those children have typically gone on to be diagnosed with cognitive processing issues, dyslexia, or other systemic problems that the school district was reluctant to diagnose (because then they’d have to provide an accommodation for it).
To my surprise, Mrs. Mac advised that because it was the first year our school was open, there was NO reading intervention program in place. But wait! She turned out to be a highly qualified reading improvement teacher with 40 years of experience, and she was making my daughter her pet project for the year! She felt like God had put her at this school specifically to help this child. All that was required of me was to have my dd (darling daughter) available for before and after school tutoring whenever the teacher was available. That was easy enough because my girls all attended on-site day care before and after school. I simply gave permission for Mrs. Mac to pull dd any time she liked. The outcome of that – by the end of first grade, dd was able to read at a level that was closer to the end of second grade. Mrs. Mac assured me that would enable my daughter to be successful for the rest of her school years, and that really was the truth.
My fifth grader was troubled in math. She knew 2+2=4, but she needed fingers to figure out that 2+3=5. As a late grammar school student, she did not know any of her math facts for addition, subtraction, multiplication, nor division. She had absolutely no number sense at all. When I met with her teacher and asked for help, I was told that “TAKS tutoring” (TAKS was the state standardized test at the time) would begin in January. I asked him to email me that, to which I responded that TAKS tutoring in the spring is for “bubble kids,” which are those who are just shy of being able to pass the state test. My child would likely not be included in this tutoring because she was below the bubble. She had NO CHANCE of passing without intensive remediation. See, most parents do not understand the difference between tutoring, which is brushing up on weak/rusty skills, and remediation, which is learning material that was previously unlearned for whatever reason. Being a school teacher, I know the lingo.
The fifth grade teacher promptly emailed me back that the school district doesn’t offer remediation in such cases. But we were living in the time of “NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND,” so I replied (and copied the principal) that if they were aware in September that my child had such giant learning deficits and refused to provide her with remediation, that was their choice, but that if she did not pass that state test at the end of the school year, I would sue the district for failing to educate her. Well, that must have been passed around the legal office before they got back to me. Next thing I knew, the school was providing before school remediation at least 2-3 days a week, plus they had a district math specialist pulling my child out of class during “non-essential” times of the day for additional math remediation periodically.
In addition to this, we hired a private math tutor that specialized in helping students with learning disabilities (which our child had none we knew of – her problem seemed to stem largely from the fact that she missed a LOT of school in her younger years, plus ours was the 8th elementary school she had attended, but we figured a specialized tutor couldn’t hurt). The result was once again very positive. My oldest did indeed pass her fifth grade math TAKS test. The teacher, the principal, and the math specialist were all in awe at how far she’d come in one school year, and they started thinking that perhaps such interventions might work for other students who were severely behind (Yes! It will! That’s exactly what struggling students need, and it is a mystery how professional educators do not recognize it).
The End of Public School
Fast forward three years. The state of Texas had transitioned to a more rigorous state exam, the STAAR test. The elementary school was freaking out because so many of their students could not pass the benchmark exams that year. My youngest and middle daughters were both doing really well in school. They were getting nearly straight A’s all year long. Every single Monday in the spring started with a benchmark test in math and reading. Students who earned a grade of 80 or higher would get to have “free time” (they could watch movies, play on their devices, etc.) while those who scored below, the majority, tried to catch up. The first week or two, my girls thought that was the best school policy in the world. By week three, they were bored out of their gourds! There are only so many times you can watch Ice Age or Night At the Museum without wanting to pull your own hair out. My children would beg me to let them stay home every Monday so they could miss the test and have to do the school work. How sad is that?
My oldest had moved on to middle school. Her grades were not bad, so on paper she looked like she was doing well. Prior to sixth grade, I sent her to a six-week middle school math prep run by a friend of mine. The course basically pre-taught math from the first half of sixth grade. Oldest daughter (od) got nearly straight A’s in math that year, and we were very proud of her success. Yet, if I asked her anything about what she was learning in school outside of math, she couldn’t explain it, didn’t know it, and had the retention of a macaroni strainer. How could that be? I was not able to determine a satisfactory answer. My daughter was making a lot of excuses about teachers giving them busy work, too many group projects where the rest of the group (never her) wouldn’t do their part, teachers on their phones texting during class. I didn’t know what to think. My own experience working in a middle school was a far cry from that! The teachers I worked with put in a herculean effort to help educate their students.
Come seventh grade, I realized my od was cutting classes, stealing from other students (as well as from me and my other two children at home), cheating on in-class and homework assignments. Mind you – the school caught NONE of this. They kept their eyes wide shut about these problems the whole year long. I was the one who noticed that she was marked absent in a class or two each day. When I inquired about it to my od, I was told silly things like she sat in the wrong seat when they had a sub and was counted absent; she had gone to the bathroom without permission, and the teacher marked her absent by mistake; she needed to go finish a reading test during some other class, but she forgot to tell the teacher. Again, I worked in a school as a full-time middle school teacher. I know those types of incidents do not happen on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, despite several meetings with the principal, the school was prepared to do nothing. They felt the stealing was minor, instances of cheating were isolated incidents, and class cutting was nothing more than simple avoidance. They told me there were a lot of “bad” kids at the school, but my daughter was simply not one of them. I couldn’t believe that the school would not take her behaviors seriously. Does one need to actually harm another student to be considered “bad” these days? My od’s seventh grade year was such a turmoil for my husband and me, is it any wonder we pulled her out of public school to homeschool instead? I insisted that the school put my daughter in ISS for the remaining weeks of that school year, or I’d just withdraw her that day, because they were not keeping track of her whereabouts when she was skipping classes. They agreed, and that’s basically how our time in public school ended.
Within two days of that last meeting with the principal of the middle school, I had quit my job and given up about 40% of my family’s income so that I could stay at home and educate my oldest daughter. The younger two remained in public school one additional year, and then they also wanted to be homeschooled so they would no longer have to take the state tests. And by the way – those two did very well on their state tests, so it’s not that they were worried about failing and all. They simply hated the atmosphere where passing the state test was the be all, end all of school. My little girls had loved school in the beginning, but the over-emphasis on state mandated testing had sucked all of the joy and love out of the learning experience. That’s how we ended up deciding to make the full transition to homeschool, which I will detail in Education Options: Part 2, coming soon.