You can pick your friends and your nose, but can you pick your school?

While we are waiting to find out what Emma’s school “choices” are, I’ve been reflecting on what a strange experience it’s been to research and apply to private schools.  We’ve finally completed all of the required tours, prospective student visits and parent interviews.  Well, except those for the Catholic school that I’m ironically praying that we won’t have to apply to.   I’ve been treating the whole thing like a job search/interview process.  Making sure I’m acting engaged during visits, asking thoughtful questions during the tours…and not giving what Patrick lovingly refers to as my “bitchy” face when I hear something I don’t like.

We’ve had an odd experience with one particular school.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a big fan of alternative education styles and think that Emma would do really well in that type of  environment.  The school itself is just beautiful.  And so clean that I wouldn’t have to spend nights and weekends there with my Clorox wipes and steam mop.  But there’s an odd undercurrent/vibe that I’ve been feeling there.  And it’s not just because I found out that the fourth graders watch and analyze Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”  First, there was the prospective student visit day.  They whisked Emma off to a classroom to let her experience the teachers and materials while I sat with 15 other parents in the library.  Really, the 16 of us were sizing each other up.  I counted about 4 or 5 Louis Vuittons (I’m more of a Marc by Marc Jacobs on Clearance at Nordstrom kinda gal), and one woman’s nametag read “Chessy.”  Seriously.  I don’t mean to offend any ancient prepster families, but that alone made it clear that I was out of my league.   The Assistant Director kept stressing to us that this “was not an interview” and that our children “were not being interviewed” but also seemed a little put off by the fact that we weren’t asking enough questions.  One parent leaned forward and asked, “so what is your acceptance rate into Harvard?”  We all laughed nervously.  “No, seriously,” he continued “what is your acceptance rate into the exam schools?”  Of course he was referring to Boston Latin.  Somehow over the past few months I’ve gleaned that the “other” exam school, Latin Academy, doesn’t have the same level of perceived prestige as Boston Latin.  Please note that I have no data to back that up…and also?  Am I supposed to be thinking about junior high already?  I just want to find a good, safe Kindergarten for my child.  During our discussion, the head of admissions came in, asking for Jose’s “grandmother.”  Apparently, Jose was struggling with his visit.  Jose’s mother stood up in a grumpy manner, saying, “I didn’t realize I looked like a grandmother!”  The rest of us felt awkward for her, but secretly  happy that our own children were faring better.

I recently attended a parent visit there, during which I got to observe the Kindergarten class in action.  My first observation was that the class was stunningly, and almost eerily, quiet.  The children were sitting cross-legged on a circle mat, quietly eating homemade, all-natural, milk and nut free cookies, listening to the teacher read from a chapter book.  During pauses in the reading, one little boy made comments about the story.  At one point, the teacher said to him, “Joe, I will ask you to keep all your comments to the end.”  It felt a little firmer than I would expect of the situation, but I didn’t think about it too much of it at the time.  Later, the teacher was explaining a game the class would play and asked if anyone had any questions.  Joe said, “so, if you get all the spaces marked off and say Bingo, it means that you win.”  To which the teacher replied, rather curtly, “That’s not a question, Joe.”  My very first thought was:  there is no joy here.  Worse, it was a situation I could see Emma getting into.  While Emma could use a bit of self-regulation, given all of her recent antics at school, I don’t want her to become a Stepford Child!

Later, the Director met with the parents for a short interview. I was expecting this to be a private experience, but we were joined by another mother…funnily enough, it was Jose’s (grand)mother, who seemed completely disengaged and annoyed throughout the visit.  The Director asked us both to tell our family’s “story.”  I made the mistake of letting the other mom go first…it turns out that she had a complicated and very sad tale about her struggle through childhood (including immigrating to the US, growing up as a non-English speaking illegal immigrant who was forced to work in a factory from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day in order to pay for her mother’s medical bills, and being responsible for bringing each of her 8 siblings over to the US).  Then it was my turn – what could I possibly say after that?  Ummmm…..my husband and I grew up in comfortable, middle-class surburbia and went to good schools?  I did take a minute to talk about how I feel that Allston is at a disadvantage as most of our neighborhood schools are considered to be poorly performing, and that I feel it’s overlooked because people forget that it’s not just BU students who live there…to which Jose’s mother replied, “Oh yes, the schools in your neighborhood are bad.  And I know because I work for the school system.”  Now if that woman with everything she had to deal with growing up thinks our schools are bad , they must be really bad!  Not to mention the small detail that all families are expected to contribute to the school’s annual fund and other fundraising efforts.  I was so grateful that Patrick refrained from asking out loud, “do you mean ON TOP OF the $30k tuition????”

Contrast this with our another private school we applied to – there is so much life and energy and light at the other school.  The academics are stellar, they have very small class sizes, and a low teacher turnover rate.  They offer reasonable tuition rates  good school hours.  The school is housed in a cute brownstone in Back Bay.  Even Patrick liked it.  It is quirky, of course, but quirky in a very charming way.  The environment is so impressive that families have actually taken their kids out of Boston’s most coveted public schools when they got into this school.  Unfortunately,  the unusual admissions process and waitlist procedures are keeping this school out of our reach.  They fill their Kindergarten class 18 months in advance, so I needed to apply this time last year.  The director of admissions confirmed at the end of our parent interview/tour that there are no spots for Emma and that we will get a letter saying we are on the waitlist.  And to make matters worse, even my Holy Cross alumni connection with him wouldn’t help us get off the waitlist –  they select families off the waitlist not by number, but by how a certain child would “fit” into the current class.  So, if another caucasian girl from Allston happens to drop out WE ARE IN!!!

So we will wait, checking our mailbox every day, to see what our “choices” will ultimately be.

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