Public or private?

Finding the right school for your child

For some parents, choosing a school for their children is easy: they enroll the kids in their local or neighborhood school without much thought. Others research, visit, and agonize over choosing the "perfect" school for their children. They consider private schools, magnet schools, charter schools, as well as public schools inside and outside their district. And there's the conundrum: with so many choices available, how do you decide what school is right for your child?

The director of admissions at one of the state's top private schools says that no matter how good the school, it has to fit the child's needs. "There are lots of good school options," says Adeline Shinkle of the Blake School, which has campuses in Hopkins, Wayzata, and Minneapolis. "The best school isn't necessarily the one on somebody's 'Top Schools' list-it's the one that's best for your child; for how your child likes to learn."

That was a hard lesson for my friends Jane and Manuel to learn. They prized education and were proud that their children attended a pricey private school considered by many to be the best in their area. Although their daughter Elena excelled at academics and was thriving, their son Dominic was struggling in school, his mom confided. His grades were low, and even with help, Dom took much longer than classmates to complete his homework. He didn't have many friends at school, and he had even stopped playing soccer there, though he was good at it. And Jane didn't know what to say to the school officials who had started dropping hints that maybe her son would be happier elsewhere. This school was supposed to be the best, after all.

At the same time, Jane and Manuel were finding it increasingly hard to deny that Dominic was miserable. They were starting to think that the "perfect" school wasn't the right one for their son. When Dom told them he hated school, his parents knew that something needed to change. They started doing research and talking to parents whose children had had problems succeeding academically, going so far as to investigate schools that specialized in academic underachievers. In the end, though, they enrolled Dominic in a smaller school across town with a slower pace and more structured environment.

The parochial choice

Like Jane and Manuel, the Bill and Deb Kane family of West St. Paul selected different schools for different children. Sons Luke and Peter, now 18 and 20, attended neighborhood public schools. In fact, the Kanes liked the local schools so much that they built their home within walking distance. But by the time when their much-younger daughters were ready for school, Deb and Bill made a different choice. Though both of the Kanes were public school teachers, they chose the local parochial school for daughters Annie, Julia, and Nadia, all 8 years old. Deb explains that they chose St. Joseph's School for a number of reasons: location (within walking distance), what she sees as a faster-paced curriculum than the local public schools offer, the religious philosophy (they are members of the St. Joseph's parish) and, she says frankly, "the behavior of the kids in class." Deb says she's seen the behavior in local public school classes deteriorate in the years since her boys were in elementary school, and that concerns her.

Deb adds, "Kindergartens have to stop teaching a color a week. The kids are all watching Sesame Street, and many of them are in preschool or Head Start. At St. Joe's, the kids are reading in kindergarten-basic sight words. Annie didn't know her ABCs when she started kindergarten, and she was reading by the end of the year. It's a better, more accelerated curriculum." And finally, Deb likes the proximity of St. Joseph's and wouldn't consider sending the children to a private or parochial school across town: "I really believe kids should go to a school in their neighborhood."

If it ain't broke, don't fix it: loving the public schools

Desmond and Anne Whitney of Southwest Minneapolis are strong proponents of public school education, and they decided to send their children to their neighborhood school. "For us, it wasn't much of a process," says Desmond when asked how he and Anne decided to send their children to Kenwood Elementary. "I embrace the idea of public schools philosophically," says the stay-at-home dad whose children both attend local public schools. "I'm reflexively a knee-jerk public school person."

The Whitney's son Ben, a 7-year-old second grader, attends the Whitneys' neighborhood school, Kenwood Elementary. Daughter Kate, the 9-year-old fourth grader, attended Kenwood Elementary for four years. "A lot of people in our neighborhood perceive that Kenwood is not a good school," remarks Desmond, adding that he and Anne didn't buy into that. "I love the school," says Desmond, who suspects the perception is at least partially due to the high percentage of children of color who attend Kenwood. "There is good parent involvement, good diversity, some talented teachers, and the class sizes are reasonable. Kate was never in a class with more than 20 students, sometimes fewer."

Desmond says many of the children in the Kenwood Elementary attendance area go to private schools, and as a result, "So many of the kids are at Kenwood by [their parents'] choice [through open enrollment], not default-there are many parents I connect with." The diversity of children in attendance and the high number of involved parents are important to the Whitneys.

Desmond is no passive observer; he's very involved with Kenwood Elementary, including four years of service on the Site Council and a second year as chair of the group, which includes the principal, some staff, and some parents. The Site Council functions similarly to a board of directors, he says, though the principal has the final say.

Since the Whitneys are sold on Kenwood Elementary, why is daughter Kate now attending a middle school in Crystal? Desmond explains that a personal connection-a friend who teaches there-got the Whitneys interested in the school, Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School (FAIR School). "We got an inside look at how special the school is," he says. "Just from a point of view of learning how the arts can be a different way to get into the brain."

The arts-integrated public magnet school was established in 2000 by Minneapolis and 10 suburban school districts as part of a voluntary desegregation effort. Last year, FAIR was one of just five schools nationwide to be honored by the Kennedy Center as a National School of Distinction. Desmond's noticed a difference in the way Kate, whom he described as having an "average" interest in the arts, is learning. The Whitneys also plan to send Ben to the school, which runs from grades four through eight.

Public school teachers, private school kids

Linda Hoppe and Mark Youngdale, both public school teachers, live in Southeast Minneapolis with their three daughters, Maddi, an 8-year-old third grader at Breck School in Golden Valley; Elena, a 6-year-old first grader at St. Paul Academy; and 4-year-old Maggie, who attends a Mandarin immersion daycare in Roseville.

The year before Maddi started kindergarten, Linda and Mark considered four private schools, one Minneapolis public school, and one Hopkins public school for their oldest daughter.

Though Hopkins accepted Maddi through open enrollment, it wasn't the school her parents wanted her to attend. They finally chose Breck for academic and cultural reasons (they liked the school's policy of "mirroring" children so that their daughter would not be the only Asian child in her class, and were impressed with the Chinese teachers)."We felt that the public schools were spending more time managing behavior than teaching," Linda says. "On the other hand, there is much more diversity, and as a biracial family (her daughters were adopted from China), that is important to us. But at Breck, we see Maddi being intellectually challenged. We don't have to worry about the curriculum, we know she is being taught well. Breck is teaching to the whole child. It was a hard decision, though."

When it came time for Elena to attend kindergarten, Linda and Mark wanted to enroll her in Breck. They were in for a rude awakening when Breck didn't feel their middle daughter was socially ready. Linda and Mark did-and they had Elena (who turned 5 the spring before kindergarten) tested by a psychologist who agreed. When Breck stood by their decision, offering Elena a spot in preschool instead of kindergarten, Linda and Mark enrolled her in kindergarten at St. Paul Academy (SPA). Although this wasn't a decision they would have made, Linda says it's turned out well. "SPA's a great school, too," she says.

Because they are a middle-income family, Linda and Mark rely on financial aid to help with tuition costs. The family makes sacrifices to help pay for private-school tuition: there are no new cars, lake cabins, extravagant vacations. And the girls are learning that their family is in a different financial situation than most of their classmates.

In addition to giving up material things, Linda gives up time every day to ensure her daughters are getting the education she wants for them. While Maddi rides the school bus to Breck, Linda drives from their Southeast Minneapolis home to St. Paul to take Elena to SPA (which doesn't offer transportation). She then heads to Roseville to drop Maggie at her Mandarin immersion daycare before ending up at the North Minneapolis school where she teaches.

Linda says she, Mark, Maddi, and Elena are pleased with both Breck and SPA. "We're happy with the schools and what our girls are learning. They love to learn. They're safe."

When Maggie is ready for kindergarten, where will she go to school-Breck or SPA?

"I've heard there may be a new Mandarin immersion school starting," Linda says.

Here are some factors to consider:

Academics-Academics are the number one consideration of most parents when considering schools for their child. The average class size; student-to-teacher ratio; offerings in math, science, English, foreign language, and arts are all indicators of the academic environment. In the case of public schools, you'll likely want to look at how the state rates the school. However, look beyond the five-star scoring system to what the ratings really mean, and talk with teachers and administrators to get an idea of how they feel about how the school ranks.

Atmosphere-Does your child need lots of structure, or does she thrive in a looser environment wherein creativity is encouraged? Do students seem happy and energized? Is there a feeling of community? Does your child like the other children? Talk with teachers and students to get a feel for the place.

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