Seriously? Anxiety over elementary school choices?

August 1, 2009    By: Geoff J @ 10:52 pm   Category: Life

I frankly don’t get it.

We live in a fairly new neighborhood with a K-8 public elementary/middle school in it. My kids walk the half a mile to and from school every day. Starting this year all four of them will go to and fro together. I think it is great. The kids are flourishing socially and academically (as they have in every school they’ve attended.)

But we know lots of people in the neighborhood (and ward) who choose to send their children to other elementary schools. Sometimes it is a school in a neighboring district, sometimes it is a charter school in town. In each of these cases it means driving the children to and from school every day.

What is the point? Our local public school is plenty safe. It is not like the choice of elementary school is going to get a kid into Harvard (or whatever college these parents are angling for). Smart kids with attentive parents will do well academically and socially at the local elementary or at the less-local school. Academically struggling kids will struggle at both. Kids who get picked on or are socially ungraceful here will get picked on and be socially ungraceful there.

I am baffled by this anxiety over elementary schools. A big part of me thinks it is caused by a little bit of a Chicken Little mentality meeting a Lemming mentality. It seems to me that it comes down like this: A rumor starts circulating that the local public school is “bad” and the Chicken Little virus spreads. Then some parent decides that since the sky is falling at the local school and all they had better withdraw their children and put them in school X. A whole bunch of lemming parents decide they better do that too. Next thing you know, the mom taxi service is in overdrive driving children to and from schools X, Y, or Z.

Yes, yes; I know that is an uncharitable analysis of the situation. There may be very good reasons to spurn the public school in the neighborhood and drive children to and from distant schools every day. I just don’t know what those reasons would be. Maybe all y’all can enlighten me.


  1. Academically struggling kids will struggle at both. Kids who get picked on or are socially ungraceful here will get picked on and be socially ungraceful there.

    You can be certain of this based on what? I have known kids who have benefited from just a change of scenery. Of course, I don’t know any of these kids or these schools. It sounds like your kids are doing great –– fantastic! Comments like “spurn the public school” come across as almost, well, bitter. Why begrudge other parents an option? They’re choosing another school, not “spurn[ing]” your school (or your kids). I am glad that as a very, very unhappy sixth-grader I had another option. It allowed me to stay positive about education and to be academically successful over the long term. Without that opportunity, I would have continued to dread the thought of returning every day, and would have continued to feign illnesses; my parents knew I was lying, but didn’t have the heart to force me back. Bless them.

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — August 2, 2009 @ 2:52 am

  2. Parents are probably a little like hobbyists who simply aren’t satisfied until they have taken a stock road bike, paintball gun, camera, yacht or whatever and tinkered with it to make it lighter, faster, stronger, etc. Even if it was perfectly serviceable to begin with.

    Comment by Peter LLC — August 2, 2009 @ 6:02 am

  3. I used to think just like you for my first four children, too, and we had chosen our home to be near an elementary school that was solid, not swanky. The older kids flourished there.

    The fifth child was miserable. The school used her for their ends. When she was in kindergarten, and had the best fit of a teacher for her ever, they pulled her out of that class and put her in a different class where there weren’t as many “smart” kids, to balance things out. In third grade, they stuck her at a science table with a bunch of rowdy boys, to try to have her “good influence” settle them down.

    So I pulled her out and sent her to a “highly gifted” program on the other side of town. A bus was provided. It turned out to be a great fit, as it was challenging, and yet she could not get a big head about being so bright, when everyone else was, too. A nice side effect was that she also learned Spanish there, since it was also the ESL magnet.

    The “point” is that education is not one-size-fits-all. It is NOT true that kids will do the same wherever they are, not in our experience.

    I agree that the decision should be made on the children’s needs, and not a keeping-up-with-the Christensen’s mentality.

    Also, I think you haven’t dealt with a really horrible public school if you think they are all alike. Every place we have lived (and Elder and Sister Holland have written about their experience as well), the university family housing gets sent to the worst schools in town, in order to help provide balance.

    And yes, I do believe that early education can affect where one goes to college. Which should also be a fit according to the child. Harvard is not best for everyone.

    Comment by Naismith — August 2, 2009 @ 7:06 am

  4. Latter-day Guy: I have known kids who have benefited from just a change of scenery.

    Are you certain that changing schools was the only kind of “change of scenery” that would have benefited them? When I say spurn the public school I simply mean the parents proactively choose against the default and most convenient solution. I would hope there is a rational reason behind that kind of decision (though that is probably not a rational hope of mine).

    I am glad that as a very, very unhappy sixth-grader I had another option.

    Interesting point. At times I was as miserable of a seventh and eighth grader as there ever was. If there was another option it didn’t cross my mind at the time. But that early social pain was the best schooling I ever had…

    I certainly am not against options. I just am confused by the logic/motivations of some of the school hopping parents.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  5. Peter — Sounds like a decent theory to me.

    Naismith — Tell me more about how you think the choice of elementary schools in themselves can affect where one goes to college. I am having a hard time believing that. (Also, you’ll note I said “Harvard or whatever college these parents are angling for” in the post)

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  6. If there was no logical/practical/reasonable purpose for selecting alternative elementary schools (as you propose), then there would be no one doing it.

    Personally, if I am not impressed about how local staff are handling my children’s education, then I will enroll them into a different school, or even a specialty/charter school tailored to their needs. I believe learning habits, patterns, and attitudes observed as a child in such a crucial time frame will positively effect the outcome of their future success. Therefore, different elementary education environments deserve more meaningful consideration than currently afforded by this post.

    As a young child, once I learned the value of education and universal learning by being placed in a different learning environment during Elementary school, that is when I truly fostered a desire to “aim high” with my education, and to appreciate it for what it really is.

    Thanks, Have a good Sunday,
    “The Glory of God is Intelligence”

    Comment by "The Glory of God is Intelligence" — August 2, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

  7. Geoff, It’s fantastic your kids are doing well. I don’t send my kids to the local elementary. One of my sons is autistic, and needs a special program- and thus all of my children will go to that charter school. I have to drive the two typical kids, the autistic kid gets to ride the short bus. Make of that what you will.

    My neighborhood school is great- and no doubt sending plenty of kid on prepared for what lies ahead. For our family, we made different choices. No biggie. Not for you, not for me.

    I do have to say, as someone who was bullied in elementary school, as someone who was not “Blossoming socially” I would not hesitate, not for one second, to yank my kids and place them elsewhere if a kid/group of kids torture them like I was. Period. My life was hell because of a group of girls, and I still am sorting out emotional fallout because of them and the fact that no one stepped in to help me.

    Comment by Tracy M — August 2, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

  8. #6 — If there was no logical/practical/reasonable purpose for selecting alternative elementary schools (as you propose)

    Please read again. I am not proposing there is no logical purpose for the choice. Rather I am saying I don’t understand it and wish for some help with my lack of understanding.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  9. Tracy M: One of my sons is autistic, and needs a special program- and thus all of my children will go to that charter school.

    That sound like a very reasonable reason to choose the alternate school Tracy. Situations like yours are why I am glad there are choices.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  10. Are you certain that changing schools was the only kind of “change of scenery” that would have benefited them?

    No. I am just certain that it worked. Just like strep throat might be cured by amoxicillin in pill form –– that doesn’t mean an injection of penicillin wouldn’t have also worked.

    It just might be that the inconvenience of driving your child to another school is less than the inconvenience of having a miserable child. Of course, without talking to an individual family about their reasoning for choosing an alternative school, it is impossible to know their reasoning for certain. There have been a few reasons suggested in this thread that (to me, at least) make sense. There are probably lots of others. But it goes without saying that the applicability of these possibilities to the school in your community is impossible to know unless your ask the parents in your community. Do any of them attend your ward? I would be interested in their responses.

    But that early social pain was the best schooling I ever had…

    I am glad that you were able to glean something positive out of that experience. In my case, I really didn’t. There were no lessons to learn but that some kids are just real bastards, and it’s too bad you can’t tell while they’re fetuses so you can nip it in the bud. (They may have grown into productive human beings. I just doubt it.)

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — August 2, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  11. I think education is between the kids, their parents, and God, and nobody else’s business. Meridian had some good articles about the complicated issue a few years back.

    Comment by cadams — August 2, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

  12. some kids are just real bastards, and it’s too bad you can’t tell while they’re fetuses so you can nip it in the bud. (They may have grown into productive human beings. I just doubt it.)

    It sounds like an unhappy 6th grader grew up into an unhappy adult. Are you sure elementary school is the problem?

    Comment by Peter LLC — August 2, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

  13. I understand this post, as I used to feel the same way.

    Then an accelerated program was introduced in our area, and my kids tested in. Now we drive them to school where we used to walk a half block.

    The difference in their experience has been amazing. Exceeded expectations kind of amazing. I do believe that a good foundation of loving learning and not seeing school as the enemy in some way (which can happen for those who struggle socially, academically (either because it’s too hard or too easy), etc. can possibly make a difference. Learning and study habits can also be built at these young ages. I’m thrilled to have them in a program and a school culture that recognizes that not all kids learn the same way, and seeks to challenge each child at his/her level as much as possible.

    I think, too, that schools are providing more specialized opportunities that parents like to take advantage of — say, language immersion, or a really great choir or band (friend did that), or a school like the one that we now attend that has various learning-style programs, where the culture is more geared to the individual learning style of the child.

    A lot depends on the area, though. If the schools really are not that different, then I’d wonder, too. But the social situations can be a whole ballgame that I would also not hesitate to consider making a change for if necessary. I can’t help but wonder if some parents might even do that for a teacher trade-off. A bad teacher can cause some havok, imo.

    Them’s some of my thoughts as to the ‘why’ that I have seen around here and now, experienced myself.

    That said, there may be some that is just a bit overcontrolling. But it’d be hard to know what’s what just on the outside. I sure appreciate better now that I have done some switching. It’s not as straightforward as it used to be in my mind. :)

    Comment by m&m — August 3, 2009 @ 2:03 am

  14. Our anxiety was based on fear of the unknown. Our local school is part of a super dysfunctional city school district and gets bad grades on those web sites that grade schools. We didn’t know what that would mean for our kids’ experience, but it didn’t sound good. Plus, even though we live in a pretty diverse neighborhood, our kids would be pretty much the only white kids in the public school. We didn’t know how that would play out but we feared that they wouldn’t fit in or would be easy targets.

    We considered homeschooling or moving to an area with more diverse, better performing schools but in the end we bit the bullet and sent our oldest to the local school. He just finished 1st grade and his brother just finished kindergarten. It turns out that our fears were largely unfounded. The dysfunction of the school system wasn’t apparent in the classroom as far as I could tell. I was amazed at how quickly our oldest learned to read and both kids liked school most of the time. The school provided speech therapy for the younger one. Our oldest was bullied and called “white boy” on the playground at least one time, but it didn’t become a major problem. I’m sure it could be better, but my kids would be fine in this school for the next few years.

    The funny thing is that even though we learned that our fears about this school were largely unfounded, I’m anxious at the prospect of my kids going to all black, poorly-performing middle school/high schools. It’s just more fear of the unknown. The way those kinds of schools are portrayed in the news and TV shows/movies doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. On the other hand, with the support of my wife and I and a healthy home life, I think my kids might be able to thrive no matter where they are. I figure I’ll play it by ear if the time comes that we have to make that kind of decision.

    Comment by Tom — August 3, 2009 @ 4:09 am

  15. Geoff, people have different learning styles. A “normal” school is not always the best fit for everyone. I attended an alternative elementary school and really thrived as a kid. Then I moved and was sooo bored in a more restrictive environment.

    When my daughter finished 1st grade, her teacher recommended holding her back a year. We moved that summer and I put her in an alternative school that had multi-graded classrooms (she was in a class with 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders). The school had started out as a home school resource center (a way for the district to gain back some funding it’d lost when people started homeschooling), and eventually became a full-fledged school. It required that parents volunteer a certain number of hours each month at the school. Anyway, a lot of the kids had originally been home schooled and were at different grade levels in different subjects, so it wasn’t a big deal for her if she was behind in any areas.

    My daughter really flourished there. Based on what her 1st grade teacher had told me, I expected her to always do poorly in school. But she’s turned out to be our best student. My oldest son went there too and he loved it. They had to ride a bus for an hour to get there.

    When my youngest was entering 1st grade, we tried putting him in the same school—he hated it. We moved him back to a “normal” neighborhood school.

    Later when we lived in an inner-city neighborhood, we sent our kids to a different alternative school. It was based more around performing arts. They all three loved it. My daughter especially gained academic skills that will benefit her for life.

    I’m sure it’s because I myself attended an alternative elementary school that I embraced them for my kids. I hate the idea of cookie cutter education. (It probably helps that my husband is a kinetic learner and did horrible in “normal” schools.) As a kid, I was able to take responsibility for my own learning, and able to work at my own speed—in 5th grade I was almost into 7th grade math. Then we moved to a different school and I had to do 6th grade math all over again.

    To be honest, I think the “normal” educational system sucks. Grades are not an accurate reflection of learning. They’re a reflection of whether or not your kid can work the system.

    Comment by Susan M — August 3, 2009 @ 8:27 am

  16. I raised my oldest kids in Montgomery, AL. There, the grade schools suffered from a very major problem. Half the teachers graduated from a local paper mill university, often having taken the teacher’s exam more than 3 times with assistance. They had to lower the standards, in order to have many of these teachers pass.
    They then placed two teachers with each grade, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. One of these teachers would be from the paper mill college. The hope was the kids might still get a decent education.
    Those who could, sent their kids to private schools. Homeschooling was still in its infancy in Alabama, and so was not available to us. We ended up spending hours after school teaching our children what they should have learned during school. I could give you countless stories of nightmares with uneducated teachers….
    Now, they do have a few charter schools, which are a vast improvement over the regular grade schools. Sadly, not all kids get that option, but still have to deal with 1/2 of their school day with teachers that are often illiterate and/or useless.

    Having options is a wonderful thing for parents. If the local school works for you and your kids, great. But not all round kids fit in the same square school hole.

    Comment by rameumptom — August 3, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  17. I say this as a former public and private elementary school teacher; I think all public schools should be open choice. Children have different learning styles. If there was more choice, the quality of education would improve.

    Comment by JA Benson — August 3, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

  18. JA Benson,

    I am actually all for choices of schools. This post is more about the motivations for making certain choices.

    The thing that has me thinking about it is that there seems to be a mass movement away from our local public school and I am doubting the rationality and wisdom of that mass movement locally. It looks suspiciously like groupthink in many cases to me. I further suspect that it won’t be too many months of the Mom Taxi Service morning and afternoon before some families reconsider — especially the ones who don’t have a really good reason for it to begin with.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 3, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

  19. Often some kids have learning disabilities and parents seek a school where the principle and teachers are more oriented towards their special needs.

    Comment by Clark — August 3, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  20. Re: 12, Oh no, not particularly. :) I suppose I don’t really mean “some kids” but “some people”. Have you really never met somebody who was just plain mean? (I am not, of course, serious about the “nip it in the bud” comment. It was an attempt at irony, given the foregoing.) I am, however, quite sincere when I say there really wasn’t any lesson in it for me. No deeper insight into the needs or motivations of my young tormentors; just a general, “get outta Dodge” situation.

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — August 4, 2009 @ 5:10 am

  21. Geoff, a decade ago, I could have written this post. And then I met my first child, who is perfectly bright, and was (at least at age 5)as socially capable as most kids, but who would have HATED school in our (very good)local elementary school. The first time anyone handed him a phonics worksheet would have been the end of any enjoyment of reading for him–he is just that stubborn and that independent. We ended up sending him to a private school where he learned to knit in first grade (great preparation for math and reading) and reading wasn’t formally taught until much later. Theoretically, I hate private schools and helicopter parenting, but I knew my child and knew he needed both, even though he didn’t have anything the school district would have called “special needs.”

    If all of your kids are easygoing enough that you can still be confident that “smart kids with attentive parents will do well academically and socially at the local elementary or at the less-local school,” just count your blessings. Quietly.

    Comment by Kristine — August 4, 2009 @ 7:51 am

  22. Yeah Kristine,

    See my comment #18. It gets to the heart of my thoughts behind writing this post. In other words, I am not claiming one size should fit all even if the post ended up giving people that impression.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 4, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  23. Well, yeah, groupthink and fads are a different thing altogether from making careful choices and feeling anxious about it. It’s probably your title that is throwing people off a bit–for our family, I think there really were (are) legitimate grounds for anxiety, none of which have to do with peer pressure or getting into Harvard (as you might suspect from our choice of knitting and learning about gnomes instead of doing phonics and math worksheets :))

    Not that there’s anything wrong with going to Harvard… ;)

    Comment by Kristine — August 4, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  24. I am not that smart compared to many around here, but I was smart enough to enter college at age 15. And today, I have serious second thoughts about doing so. Pursuing academic advancement at all costs can have significant downsides…

    Comment by Mark D. — August 4, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  25. I tend to agree Mark. Even if my kids could go to college at 15 or even 17 I think I’d strongly encourage them not to.

    Kristine, I can sympathize. Our 4 year old has sensory integration disorder and dealing with just pre-school has been amazingly frustrating. I’m terrified of what to do about kindergarden. Unfortunately as I’m still in the early period of starting a new business I don’t have the money to be able to have the options of a private school, even though I think that is what would be best for him. Fortunately we found a public school about 15 – 20 minutes away where the principle really focuses in on kids with those sorts of special needs.

    If your kid is outside of the mainstream then “mainstreaming” them is simply scary and I’m convinced counterproductive.

    None of this is to say much about parents with kids well within the mainstream range of behaviors who just are acting neurotic.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2009 @ 6:42 pm