School Stories: Going with my Gut: From Neighborhood School to K-8 Charter School

Gretchen is a mom of 8 who writes about the large life at Lifenut. She has a photo blog called snap cake. She is also a featured blogger at The Denver Post’s Mile High Mamas.

How old are your children and do they require special accommodations in school?

We have 8 children. 5 are in school all day. This year’s line-up includes 8th, 6th, 5th, 3rd, and 1st grades. Two of our children have Advanced Learning Plans, which are administered by their teachers in their home classrooms.

Which school did you ultimately choose?

When our eldest was on the brink of kindergarten, I visited a well-known JeffCo charter school on an information night. I gathered paperwork and signed up all our kids on the spot—including our 6-week-old son. It left a negative impression on me. I felt like one of those parents you read about. I like when learning evolves organically, at home, especially during the first 5 years of childhood. Knowing I had just written my newborn’s name on a kindergarten class list made me feel nauseated.

I assumed all charter schools were the same, so I abandoned the idea for several years.

A teacher friend constantly sang the praises of neighborhood public schools. I began to relax, believing the school down the street and around the corner was a perfectly fine choice. Really, how many ways are there to teach US Geography and spelling? The proximity and familiarity made it the optimal choice for our family, especially because we are larger-than-average. I strive to simplify. I never felt spurred to research the school. It was a nice, clean place with art on the walls and well within walking distance. We spent 3 years at that school.

When we moved to our current home, it was a given our children would attend the neighborhood school in our new subdivision. I enrolled them without a pang of doubt.

Our discontent with their school grew slowly. I began to question the quality of the curriculum, especially math. The school used a curriculum called Investigations. There was something about it that bothered me deeply. It seemed to focus on how students felt about math rather than learning hard math facts. I wasn’t seeing my kids challenged in any of their subjects. It was a nice school, but it seemed to play it safe.

Another thing that annoyed me was the school practiced for CSAPs. A lot. My kids reported taking practice tests several times. They were also instructed to write using a formula that would make CSAP scorers happy but sucked personality, tone, and creativity out of the process completely.

I pined for a richer, deeper, more challenging educational experience for them.

One morning, a few days deep into the 2007-2008 school year, I had coffee with some friends. We talked about the new school year. I wasn’t wild about it and expressed my concerns about the school. One of my friends had children at a JeffCo charter school. She shared how the curriculum differed from JeffCo’s standard, telling me the types of things her kids were learning, how they were challenged, the philosophy of the school. It sounded exactly like what I craved for my kids.

She casually mentioned there was an opening in 5th-grade. Our eldest was in 5th grade.

I felt electrified. I knew, in my core, she would thrive in that environment. I also loved the idea she wouldn’t have to attend a traditional middle school.

I left the coffee shop and drove to the school. I requested a tour. They obliged on the spot. I asked questions, saw classrooms, heard about the registration process, and went home. After talking it over with my husband and our daughter, we made the decision to enroll her the next day.

The next day.

Unfortunately, they did not have spots for our other school-aged children that year. It was a difficult year, logistically. The kids were on different calendars. When choice enrollment time arrived in January, I completed the paperwork for the rest of the kids to move over to the charter school. They were on wait lists. Eventually, thanks to sibling preference, our kids were back together for the 2008-2009 school year.

Did you, or would you consider relocating or driving a long way for a school and why?

One of the drawbacks of charter schools is they don’t often provide transportation. I drive our kids to and from school every day. I’d love to carpool, but most fellow parents don’t have room for 5 extra kids in their vehicles. Also, parents are relied upon to drive for field studies.

The upside of attending a charter school is that kids from all over the district attend. There is more diversity than at our neighborhood school.

JeffCo recently announced that every child utilizing school buses next year would have to pay a $150 fee. Next year, we’ll have 6 kids in school. I’d rather drive them daily than pay $900 in fees just for the bus.

What are the signs your children are thriving, engaged, challenged in their school?

They are eager to talk about what they learn each day. At their old school, they would often say, “I forget” when asked what they learned that day at school. They hadn’t forgotten. They simply didn’t find the material worth repeating most of the time.

We can engage in interesting conversations about history, great books, music, art.

Throughout the year, they must complete many in-depth projects which involve writing, art, research, observation, speech, and time-management. Even kindergartners are expected to research information and share with their classmates and families.

Teaching methods are enormously creative. At the same time, fact, truth, and precision are expected.

Kids are assessed at the beginning and end of each school year. Just because a child is in 4th grade, it doesn’t mean he or she must be in 4th grade math. This leads to happier children, too.

Do you recommend every parent go with their gut when it comes to school choice?

Absolutely. If you don’t exercise your right to research, choose, and change if necessary, we could lose those rights. Parents should never be complacent or happy with the status quo if the status quo isn’t optimal.

Our firstborn will be in high school next fall. We’ve felt a bit like first-time kindergarten parents. It’s not a nice feeling, actually, to be confused and apprehensive about major changes in a child’s education.

It doesn’t matter if the kid is 4 or 14—that’s been our latest lesson. Change is difficult. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds, what high school is like, and then begin to plan for college.

For info on how to have your own “School Story” posted, here, visit this post. I’m looking forward to hearing more “School Stories”.