When my son was in his final year of preschool, a few of my friends began asking me what I was going to do about elementary school. “Are you going to send your son to OUR TOWN schools? I hear the schools are terrible!”

Nothing pushes a parent’s panic button faster than hearing the words “BAD SCHOOLS” and I’m no different.  We looked at several homes in neighboring school districts with better reputations, high test scores, and top rankings in “Best Schools” surveys, but with prices starting at $700,000 (!!!), we were simply priced out of the market in many of these communities.  Moving farther up the I-95 corridor or further west wasn’t an option as it would push my husband’s already intolerable hour and a half commute to New York City to a completely unacceptable two hour trip each way.  Plus, we loved our neighborhood and our house and really didn’t want to move.  But what about the schools?

Several of our neighbors had children in the district’s schools, so I thought I’d start there.  Were they happy with the schools? Did they feel their children were getting a good education? Did the teachers and principals seem dedicated and knowledgeable about the latest teaching techniques? Were the parents involved in the school? Did they provide a complete education – with classes in the arts? How about science and technology…did they have the latest tools?  Were the classes overcrowded? All assured me that I would be happy at our elementary school, one of nine in OUR TOWN’s large district, and suggested that I contact the Principal and have a chat with him.

So that’s what I did.  I phoned the Principal’s office expecting to leave a message and get a call from a secretary to schedule a date in a few weeks.  I was stunned when I was immediately put through to the Principal – who invited me to come in the next day.  At our meeting, he spoke to me about my concerns and walked me down to the kindergarten and first grade wing and introduced me to the three kindergarten teachers.  I loved what I saw – children moving around the classroom and working in small groups with an aide and teacher.  Classical music was playing while children wrote and drew pictures illustrating a particular idea in a story they just read. There was a SmartBoard in the classroom and baby chicks in the incubator that had just hatched. I loved that there was an air of calm in the classrooms and the (approximately 20) children all appeared to be happy and engaged. I was sold.  Anyway, we just have one child, I told myself, if worse came to worse, we would swallow the cost and send him to private school.

Six years later, my son is still there and getting ready to move up to the public middle school.  Needless to say, we’ve been more than happy with the education he has received in OUR TOWN.  The outstanding leadership from our Principal, the absolutely amazing and dedicated teaching staff, and the specialists (gym, art, music, psychologist, family resource staff, etc…) who work tirelessly for our kids are the backbone of the school.

I’m not going to sugar coat it and say that everything in the district is perfect – we’ve been through a number of budget cuts that have stung, our librarian was reduced to part time for one year, and we’ve had a number of changes in administration at the district level – but I’m pleased to see that with a new, highly regarded Superintendent who has a true vision and the skills to implement it, I’m seeing many positive changes on the horizon.

But the real benefit of a “bad school” has been this – I’ve learned not to follow the hype. I’ve learned that in education, it’s not about having the highest CMT test score ranking or perceived stellar reputation (because those districts have issues as well, they’re just better at keeping them out of the media) – it’s about the teachers and the administration. It’s about the parents working in accordance with the teachers to advocate for their kids. It’s about creating an academically enriching curriculum that embraces the whole child – providing arts, language, science, and community service. It’s about customizing learning for kids on all ends of the educational spectrum and providing accommodation for their individualized needs – from special education to academically talented – and not forgetting those who fall squarely in the middle. I’m proud to say that our elementary school did all that and more.

Plus there are benefits that I never considered, but have significantly contributed to my son’s experience; he’s experienced a wide range diversity in his school – there are kids from every socio-economic level, ethnic and religious diversity, and family living situation. He knows that not every kid lives the same way that he does or has the same material items.  Through the parent and student run food pantry, he knows that not every child has a kitchen full of food. He respects other kid’s religions and finds that learning about other kid’s cultures and traditions is really interesting, and he sees that family comes in many forms.  In my opinion, this opens a child mind to many different lifestyles and provides a more macro perspective of life and the limitless ways to live – there’s not just one way to do things.

All this from a bad school?  Sign him up for another few years.

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