Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why We Left Catholic School

The boys attended Catholic school for years -- four for Henry and two for Oliver. For the most part, we liked the school but mainly because it was in our community which is a wonderful one. The families at the school were local and diverse. It is old-fashioned but academically rigorous and relatively cheap. When I decided that it was the best place for Henry, we were going through some rough times with Sophie. Going to a private school in the neighborhood with a lot of my friends seemed like the right thing, the safe thing.

Time went on and years went by and I was never entirely happy with my kids being there. The size of the classes was too big and the academic pressures immense. There was a puny art program and the science was abysmal. The PE teacher was completely inappropriate, a throwback to another era best left behind. My older son often had more than two hours of homework a night and my little one was getting the idea that he was a "bad reader" when he couldn't keep up. He was in first grade! I felt as if the pressure to be on a certain path (through all the grades, onward to the Catholic high school, etc.) too emphasized and it bugged me that the boys already even knew what private high school they wanted. The grades and rankings came incessantly, and the discipline (it was Catholic school) and conformity was intense. There was much to love about the place, though, its sweetness and safety in the middle of Los Angeles. The community is a warm one and the families devoted to one another. That was good.

I never went to Catholic school so I didn't have the same fond feelings that most of my friends had. The stuff about conformity and discipline and a not uncertain disdain for those who are "politically correct." While I consider myself a woman of faith, I winced when I heard my son's third grade class reciting the Act of Contrition every afternoon before the bell rang. This is when you beg God's forgiveness for your sins, your impure words and thoughts, etc. Frankly, it made me sick. While I'm the first person to abhor politically correct bullshit, I knew I had to make a change for the boys when a good friend responded to my complaint about something or other: "Well, we all survived." And then a teacher, in a casual conversation told me that she thought some people didn't want to change the school; they wanted a different school.

Survive? I thought. We can certainly do better than survive. Survival was dealing with my daughter's special education needs for fourteen years. And sitting down with both boys night after night, plowing through pages and pages of worksheets...well, I felt like I was a homeschool mother. An angry, stressed out one who was handing off her boys to a teacher who had 35 other kids in the class and couldn't really tend to my boys like I wanted them tended to.

We live a stressful life, the Beglinger family. Unusually stressful. Life is stressful for everyone but particularly so for those living with someone who has uncontrolled seizures. And while Michael and I do our best to shield the boys from a lot of it, it is what is, and their lives have been both enriched and altered in harsh, harsh ways because of it.

The idea of change versus different was a real Eureka moment.

I wanted something different for my sons.

It was sad to leave my friends behind, and the boys were bewildered at first, but we made the change. And they're thriving. They got into -- by lottery -- a neighborhood charter school that is progressive and public. They have made new friends and love their teachers. There are only 20 children in each class and two full-time teachers. They have a fantastic art and music and physical education program. Most importantly, they are enjoying learning. They don't have much homework to speak of and Henry, my older son, has rediscovered the joys of reading. He has time to read now and devours books. Oliver, who had been struggling, comes home from school and tells me what he's learned. "I have fun, Mom," he says, when I ask him why he likes school. They like the school part of school, not just the extras. They go out to the garden when it's time for botany. They do science experiments and write up their observations. Henry's class had a debate during the election. He wore a suit to school and debated the role of taxation. I could go on and on.

And putting up with a bit of political correctness is a small price to pay for today's afterschool program of Circus Circus. Both boys had stayed after school for an enrichment class and today took their bows with their new skills. It was all a little ridiculous but incredibly entertaining.

Afterward we went to have some pizza because they didn't have any homework.
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  1. I'm glad you were able to get your kids into a magnet school. When we considered living in Chicago, one of the problems was that you often had to have clout to get your kids into a magnet school.

    There were some really prestigious Catholic schools in the Chicago area--probably a lot like the one your sons were in. But then I got the job in Elkhart, with its own school issues.

    My wife converted to Catholicism from the post-Reformation Protestant Disciples of Christ denomination she was raised in. I was raised agnostic, and could not make the leap to Roman Catholicism, so I became an Episcopalian, which some call "Catholic Lite--all the ritual with only half the guilt."

    So our kids went to public schools--some good, some not so, except for Sarah, who had so much trouble in high school that she persuaded us to send her to the Interlochen Arts Academy for her last two years. We couldn't afford it, but the school did help her tremendously.

  2. My only regret of leaving Ohio was that my son got into a very nice magnet elementary that doesn't come close to the school he is in now. He is thriving and that is all that matters. I am so happy you found such a great environment for your sons.

  3. One of my daughters had a rigorous teacher for 1st grade .... and I felt like I was watching the light go out in her. The next year was better though. I'm so glad for you and your boys. It's tough to see little spirits struggling under heavy loads. I think now they're growing wings to fly. Wonderful!

    p.s. the original meaning of the word kindergarten is "children's garden" - how cool is that?

  4. Elizabeth, this really hits home for me today. You are so right that we special needs parents & families deserve more than "survival."

    For the last week, I've been sorting through the dimensions of necessary and overdue change in terms of our childcare situation--a number of things have come to light and that combined with realizations we haven't wanted to face/deal with have led to a week-long period of intense reflection about how to effect positive change, rather than just adjustment/survival change--and how to get our family back to a place where we are functional and cohesive, not just hanging onto some worn-out situation out of habit and fear.

    Your story here gives me backbone and sustenance to make this change.

    And I thank you so, so much for the Uber-Blogger award!! I have been off-line much of this week, trying to get centered, think clearly, and so on. I didn't want to rush through my post thanking you or ID-ing blogs I also enjoy. I am just about back on my feet, just about.



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