That one year we tried a school

There is a certain kind of independence among homeschoolers, and I have found that to be so especially among homeschoolers in Southern California. Maybe it’s the Wild West mentality, maybe it’s the fact that if you move here from somewhere else you are looking for new and different, maybe it’s the salt air. If you’re from here and have stayed here, you generally possess a grit I’ve seen few other places. Because of this independent streak, forming homeschool co-ops in SoCal has been tricky. We have vast networks of friends and acquaintances, but no cohesive “co-op” like we had for a while in Ohio. The main issue with co-ops is that all participating families have to agree to a certain extent on methods/activity level in order to work together or in order for the work not to fall to one person or a handful of people.

In SoCal people tend to like being part of groups until they don’t. I feel as if this sounds like it’s the same way everywhere, but I’ve lived other places and have seen it more here than anywhere else. Between people moving in and moving out, personal circumstances changing, job changes, or moving a few miles across town, one’s circle of friends can change every couple of years, and this is seen as totally normal… because it is here. Friends hug you practically the first time they meet you, but you might never see them again after hanging together for an intensive couple of years for a variety of reasons.

Though I had not experienced any of this yet, I had heard about it already a few months after we moved to SoCal. I was somewhat surprised then when I learned that there was going to be a homeschool hybrid charter school opening up the following fall; to hear the homeschooling friends I had just met talk about it, this would be the school to end all schools. It would have everything: engaged (and state-certified) teachers, opportunities for time off for parents, activities, only two days on-campus, and extra socialization time in a “regular” school setting. How much more perfect could a school be?

We were too new to want to jump on the bandwagon right then, so I rode out that summer and the first few weeks of the school year watching some of our friends try out the school. There were many who were thrilled with the school and a couple who pulled their kids out within the first month for a couple good reasons: the school was small and thus wasn’t really equipped to handle kids who had major psycho/emotional needs related to trauma, and the school did not have a requirement to create IEPs since it was a charter (though it had to recognize existing IEPs if it admitted said students) and really did not know how to handle kids who had learning disabilities. Neither of these applied to our two older kids and I was still intrigued by the concept, so I attended an info night halfway through first semester.

Being in a school cafeteria again was surreal. Stranger still was the school’s building: industrial, mid-century, looking like a prison more than a school to my Midwestern brain. I attended an elementary school back east that was designed and built during the WPA; our water fountain had a tile mosaic in front of it, and I thought nothing of the beauty I had clearly taken for granted. We also had a nuclear fallout shelter and majorly bad asbestos that was dealt with while I was in school (and before we all found out that messing with the asbestos is worse than leaving it alone). Nevertheless, my school was warm. This place had a lot of bright colors but felt kind of cold to me.

The staff, however, impressed me. They had a great, convincing speech about what they could offer and how our family could benefit. I sat in a room with a ton of other parents. We would be signing up for a lottery for the following school year, but we had already been told that if spots opened up beforehand, we would be called. The school started first with siblings of current students, then students in the district, then students outside the district. Since we lived outside the school district and none of my kids attended the school, I assumed we would be waiting until the next fall.

We got a call a few days later, just before Thanksgiving break. There was a spot for our second daughter. I toured the school during a school day, met the woman who would be her teacher, and fell in love with the school. I felt like this could be a perfect situation for our family. We could be happy there, the kids could be successful, I would have found the balance for our life that I had wanted.

The next day we got another call. They had space for our oldest. Because we had a child in the school now technically, our other child got first dibs when a spot opened up. It was all very fast and very “meant to be” in my head. Our girls even already knew kids in their classes, so this would be great!

By the time they started going to the school the week after Thanksgiving, our girls were outfitted in the required polos and really excited. Our younger daughter was a little nervous but did fine. Both girls enjoyed their first day. Over time I started having some concerns about how our “balance” was working out, as we ended up having additional projects to work on for school that had nothing to do with the curriculum I had already planned for our family at home. I shoved these concerns aside, figuring it was all better for the family to have them in the school, and pushed forward.

Fall came again, and we planned for our son to start school. He was a young kindergartner, just barely making the cut-off (and in fact would not have made it the following year because the school districts around here moved it up another month, where it remains to this day). I was thrilled for him. He was clearly the kind of kid who needed to be challenged, and I thought school would be great.

I found out relatively quickly that the school did not really want out-of-the-box thinkers in a classroom setting, just like any other brick-and-mortar school. Without giving a ton of personal details, a teacher who worked in preschool settings before seemed unable to wrap her head around a little boy who acted, quite frankly, like a little boy. Instead of contacting me, I found out only after we told the school we would be pulling our kids out of the school, they had had him sit for extended periods of time in the principal’s office and at a computer in the classroom. He was barely 5 and was only in school two days a week, yet basically they were baby-sitting him at that point and not engaging him or challenging him at all. This was exactly counter to the positive discipline/non-violent communication emphasis they said they had (and which personally I had seen unequally applied already). Punishment comes in many forms, and not engaging or challenging a child who clearly needs it because he is not fitting into the teacher’s box is still punishment.

I was sad and frustrated, but since we had already decided to pull all of the kids I had little recourse. I pointed out the error they were making in not serving kids who were clearly bright but did not fit the school model. Many (most?) homeschooled kids are like this, whether because they have been homeschooled and have had freedom from an early age, or because their parents saw in them from an early age that they would not fit in a regular classroom. It’s somewhat of a chicken or egg thing for many children.

Nearly five years have passed, and I remain puzzled by how different the administrators’ and teachers’ perception of the school was from reality. It is not a service to the world for a school to be yet another place for good little girls who sit at desks. We have plenty of those, and by all indications early education needs to be play-based and creative, and boys especially need not be “left behind” as we are all stumbling over ourselves on the way to greatness at testing. I am still not sure what they wanted from him, but I am thankful we moved along when we did.

As the process of leaving the school moved along, I found out that other weird things had happened. In what felt like an incredibly unprofessional and cultic move, our oldest daughter (who was 9 at the time) had been cornered by the vice-principal the day we removed them from the school and asked point-blank if we were leaving the school. I don’t even think I had told her yet, but clearly telling another parent had somehow gotten to the administration. I addressed this with the principal after the fact and did not receive an apology. Further, I found out that my daughter’s teacher had, in front of the class, told my daughter she had to help too much at home with chores around the house. While I realize that not everyone in SoCal still has their kids contribute around the house, most homeschoolers I know do to some extent, and I found this also to be incredibly unprofessional.

Beyond that, the many projects on top of what I had already planned for our schoolwork at home, the expectations by the school that the fun time would be at school and the work time would be at home, and honestly the very pernicious belief that what we were preparing our kids for were corporate jobs in suits and ties bothered me greatly. I really do not plan on ever preparing my children for the rat race. It comes soon enough for those who seek it out, and no one needs preparation for it. Play, live, and laugh while you are young and unemployed. Think outside the box. Listen to music. Read, read, and read some more. Be with your family and friends. Learn as much as you can. None of these must happen in the four walls of a schoolhouse, and all of them can happen on your family’s terms.

I count myself as much less of a joiner now than when I moved here craving that for our homeschooling journey. Thanks, SoCal. It must be that salt air.

2 thoughts on “That one year we tried a school

  1. Oh, what awful moves on the part of the school!!! The more I live life with my little boy, the more convinced I become that the public school system does a HUGE disservice to little boys. I can’t imagine the change that would be required to get him to sit still and be quiet for several hours a day! I love the maverickness of homeschooling, though – I’m more maverick than a lot out here, and I don’t feel like I’m *that* maverick! 😉

    1. Back when I taught middle and high school in a “real” school, I remember seeing boys especially who looked like they felt imprisoned. Now I understand.

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