Photo by dosbears
"She actually made the Mr. Yuk face!" Cameron* said. "I can't believe she made the Mr. Yuk face! And she gave it two thumbs down!" Last night at a party, while standing in the kitchen with two other public school moms of school-aged children and talking about what San Francisco public school moms of school-aged children talk about 86.5 percent of the time, aka schools, my friend was telling us about how she'd overhead two other moms gossiping at a playground – about her school.
A "terrible" charter school my friend loves
One mom had recently toured the elementary school Cameron's son attends – a charter in our neighborhood (GreatSchools rating 5) – and was regaling her friend with tales about how terrible it was, how strict they are with discipline, and how the parent leading the school gave conflicting information from the principal about its full-time arts and Spanish-immersion program - something Cameron adores.
It was a case of "I can talk bad about my baby, but don't YOU talk bad about my baby," said Cameron - especially since Cameron was the parent giving the tour. It's worth mentioning here that Cameron is one of those power moms (like this one), who is gutsy and smart and went ahead and enrolled her son in this supposedly mediocre school - and has become one of its most visible champions.
Admirably, Cameron didn't throw sand in the other mom's face, but took a breath and introduced herself as the very woman who led the tour of the school the other mom was disparaging. "Oh," said the Mr. Yuk-faced mom, backpedaling just a little. "I'm sure it's a fine school. I just didn't think the school was right for us. We are part of a co-op preschool and don't believe in such strong discipline."
Knowing what kind of school her child, and family, needs
And here, Cameron attained an almost Zen-like calm about the experience. Sure, that mom may have spoken ill about a school she's fallen in love with, so much so she's championing it to other parents who never would have heard of it, let alone considered applying.
Another mom's opinion, mediocre ratings, and even a look-the-other-way attitude among most of the parents she knows doesn't make her doubt the school she knows is terrific for her son and family. "My son needs strong boundaries, so a clear discipline policy with rewards and consequences is right for him." Plus, along with the arts program and dual-language immersion, it boasts a team of committed teachers, a newly renovated building, a growing band of other committed parents - and it's a close walk, which is important to Cameron because she wanted a school that's in her community (she's taking tips from the PREFund founders, and other successful public and private school parents and administrators about how to increase fundraising, which is her next goal).
I admire Cameron's resolve to stand by a school that isn’t the "It" school (it still remains off the radar of many parents, and she gets funny looks from acquaintances when she tells them what school her son attends, despite her insistence that her son is thriving). Similarly, I commend writer Marjorie Ingall, who is a fierce defender of her daughter's New York City school that "got a D" from the Department of Education, which punish small schools where "tiny statistical changes have huge impacts." The Department of Education might be talkin' smack about her school, but Ingall (and her daughter) adore it.
Look at the scores, talk to parents, then follow your gut
As an editor at GreatSchools, this is a somewhat contradictory position to take about how to choose a school for your child. We want parents to compare schools' test scores and ratings. We also encourage parents to visit the school and get the inside scoop on a school from other parents.
But ultimately, after educating yourself and collecting as much information as you possibly can, you need to turn off the white noise, shut off the chatter about the top-rated schools, and realize that this – one of the most important decisions you'll make for your child - is also one of the most personal decisions you'll ever make for your child. Choosing a school is like choosing a husband. Your relatives may not be able to stand him. And he may not look so good on paper. But you're the one who has to live with him. If you know what you love, and you're willing to make it work, take a leap and choose the school that you know, in your heart, is great for your child.