When I realized my daughter was struggling at our neighborhood school, I had to confront my fears and concerns about charter schools. Three things helped me navigate the variables and get plugged into an amazing charter community where my daughter is now completely thriving.
Giggles filled the backyard as a tiny, fierce first grader stepped up to swing at a hapless unicorn piñata. With a successful whack, the piñata split open. Toys and candy poured out, and happy chaos erupted. The surrounding tribe of parents laughed and cheered as we watched the kids gleefully dive for the scattered treasure.
The children at my daughter’s birthday party weren’t the only ones buzzing with excitement. The parents at the party were also aglow as we got to know each other, and met the classmates we’d heard so much about.
No other family in the yard was quite like mine, and I liked that. The little schoolmates represented a variety of races, economic backgrounds, and neighborhoods from around Los Angeles. As we talked, we discovered our shared delight at how our kids were connecting and growing at the wonderful charter school that brought us together.
However, it wasn’t exactly the smoothest process to get there.
Where to begin?
When I started the school search, it felt like a complex algorithm of maps, spreadsheets, budgets, and vague rumors overheard at playgrounds. How could I figure out which schools fit our family? How hard were school lotteries to win? Where would our absent-minded artsy little daughter be inspired to learn? It was daunting.
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My husband and I settled on the highly-rated and academically-impressive neighborhood public school, but it didn’t work out the way we hoped. It wasn’t economically diverse. It was very focused on traditional homework and methods. Many kids were thriving, but our daughter struggled to be motivated or engaged. After discussions with other parents and teachers there, we realized we needed to explore other options and see if there was a charter school that would better suit our family.
Not so fast…
We didn’t take that decision lightly, however. We actually had some serious reservations about charter schools.
First, charter schools have a lot of autonomy. That means they can offer creative solutions and structures, but it also means their standards vary greatly. I watched John Oliver’s segment on charter schools, and it wasn’t pretty. Some charter schools have been woefully irresponsible, underreporting chronic absenteeism and mishandling finances.
I was also concerned about moving tax money out of the public school system into privately-run organizations where friends of friends are sometimes favored for admission over families whose kids were in truly struggling schools.
Ultimately, my husband and I wanted a school that was as passionate about creating equal access across race, socioeconomic status, language, and ability as it was passionate about excellent education. So we started the search. Here’s what I discovered was important for us to look for:
A Strong Reputation
If a school has great leadership and teachers, word will spread. I talked to local parents and read ratings and reviews. I looked up city and state standards as well to get a sense of how well charter schools are held accountable in my area. One school kept popping up in conversations at playgrounds and libraries, and it had a strong rating online. I added it to my spreadsheet.
I focused on our family’s priorities: We wanted less of a focus on homework and more attention paid to emotional and social development. It was also vital that the school have a commitment to integrating diverse backgrounds and learning styles. Other families have a totally different list, but I learned to trust that we knew what our daughter needed.
I read schools’ philosophy statements and compared them with reviews. I really loved the particular values on the website of the school I kept hearing about: They listed their three hallmark values as emotional-social learning, diversity, and attention to various learning styles. That certainly isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, but it was exactly what we were looking for.
A Positive Vibe
You can’t exactly put “vibes” into a spreadsheet, but after gathering the important data, I ultimately had to tour the school and trust my instincts. I noticed it was truly multicultural, and that the students seemed actively engaged with teachers and each other in classrooms that felt calm and inviting. I could imagine my kids thriving there, and myself being an active part of the parent volunteer community.
We decided to apply, and were thrilled when there was space available. We felt incredibly lucky, which clued me into one final lesson: Finding a great charter school is one thing, but getting in can be hard. If the lottery doesn’t go in your favor, all is not lost as long as you’ve researched comparable schools. Sometimes there are similar ones that are less well-known. It’s helpful to be open to schools that are growing, or don’t have their own campus. Good teachers and strong leadership will ultimately help kids far more than the perfect facility. No matter what, there is no perfect school, but I’m confident it is possible to find the right school.
When we said goodbye to the last guest at my daughter’s party, we shut the door and breathed a sigh of relief. After a whole lot of chaos, not only was the house quiet at last, but my husband and I felt more certain than ever that we’d found the right place for our child, and for our family as a whole. It was worth the search, and worth the amount of rainbow glitter I had to clean up after the party.
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