8.31.2009

Taking the Plunge: Public School in Philadelphia

September 8 is the first day of school for public schools in Philadelphia. It feels incredibly late for school to just be starting but nonetheless, I feel remarkably unprepared.

This is Year 2 of the great public schools experiment. After the first year - which seemed to fly by - I was inundated by questions from my friends. Suddenly, in my circle, I became the mom who knew things. Only here's my little secret: I still feel completely clueless.

I am not your typical Philadelphia public school mom. And I know, ahead of time, how all of this is going to sound. And I've decided that I'm okay with it. I'm okay with it because I understand that we are willing to believe that Philadelphia schools are okay, that they are all about diversity and that they respect their cultures of their respective neighborhoods. Only that's a lie.

Here's what's true: many Philadelphia schools are struggling. The system, as a whole, needs help. And because of that, the schools don't reflect the cultures of their respective neighborhoods. Instead, they look like what happens when you rely on bussing kids into a "neighborhood" school while many, many parents choose to send their kids to other schools. For a mixed bag of reasons, many parents in Philadelphia opt to send their children to private or parochial schools. I should know: I was one of those parents.

I am a professional married to a professional. My family lives in a nice house in a nice neighborhood in the City. It's all so very... nice. Except for the school situation.

For two years, we drove our daughter outside of our nice neighborhood to a private school in another neighborhood. Every morning, it was the same routine: rush, rush, rush. Get in the car. Drive by our local public school to the private school our daughter attended. The expensive private school.

And we were happy. Sort of.

We were happy with the education that she received. The private school was a Friends School. We liked the climate and curriculum. But we weren't happy with the commute or our schedule. And we definitely weren't happy writing a big fat check every semester. It was already like paying for college - and we had two more children to go.

So we did what every other set of parents in the same situation in Philadelphia would do: we put our house on the market. We found a house in the suburbs and we planned to move.

We were willing to make this sacrifice, to leave our friends and the life that we had grown accustomed to for the sake of our children.

And it really, really sucked.

At some point, we realized that we couldn't do it. We pulled the house off of the market and sent our daughter back to private school. Reluctantly.

In the meantime, we enrolled our second daughter in a more local preschool. Within weeks, she had been asked to a number of play dates, all of which were a few minutes' walk or drive away. Our oldest daughter could rarely make parties or play dates: her private school chums were spread far, from Gladwynne to Chestnut Hill to Upper Darby. And so we thought about our choices again. We had decided that staying in the City was the right thing to do - but perhaps staying at private school was not.

Three tours of our local public school later, we made one of the most important decisions we could make as parents: we would enroll our daughter in public school.

I know what you're thinking: big deal.

Only it was a big deal. We knew of only one family in our circle of friends that had made a similar decision. One.

Many of our friends were shocked. Others were concerned. Public school in Philadelphia wasn't an option, they thought. What were we thinking? We were about to find out. This is our story.

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