Motherhood comes with a host of choices to make about what is best for you, your family, and your child. We at Alamo City Moms Blog have a variety of moms who want to embrace these choices instead of feeling guilty or judged for them! We are continuing our series, Perspectives in Parenting, with a look at education. Five of our contributors will share their experiences of choosing schools for their children.Don’t miss our other perspectives on public school, private school, home school, and special education.
At this time of year, many families are thinking about choosing a school for the 2015–16 school year. Perhaps you’ve looked at Alamo City Moms Blog’s Guide to Childcare, Preschools, and Schools in San Antonio. Today, ACMB contributors are sharing our perspectives about different types of schools. My son, F.T., attends a charter school. I want to tell you about our wonderful experience, and hopefully you will include high-performing charter schools in your school search.
A charter school is a public school, but it’s different from a typical neighborhood public school. Charter schools have open enrollment: they take students from a wide geographic area, not just one neighborhood. Also, they have flexibility to use different types of curriculum, as long as they meet state standards (TEKS).
Charter schools share some characteristics with traditional public schools. They are tuition-free and supported by public funds. (Traditional school districts collect local property taxes, whereas charter schools get money directly from the state.) Charter schools, like all public schools, have to administer standardized tests, as I mentioned in this post about STAAR testing. Also, like all public schools, charter schools must serve special education students and English-language learners. Read more about charter schools at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Texas Charter Schools Association, and the Texas Education Agency. Compare different types of schools using this guide from Families Empowered. It can get tricky: for example, San Antonio ISD has some wonderful in-district charters and magnet schools, but those are not the same as the open-enrollment public charter schools that I am talking about here.
We have tried just about everything for F.T. He is seven years old and on the autism spectrum. He attended private preschool for a couple of years and then switched to our neighborhood public school starting in PreK-4. Partway through his Kindergarten year, it became clear that our neighborhood public school was not a good fit for F.T. He was begging me not to make him go to school. We made the switch to homeschooling for a year while applying to Great Hearts Monte Vista, a new charter school.
I first heard about Great Hearts from a friend in late 2011. (Yes, it took almost three years to bring the school into existence.) When she told me that they offer a classical, great books education, I was sold immediately. I love the classic books they read, the documents they study (e.g., the U.S. Constitution), and even the traditional songs they sing at choir concerts.
Getting F.T. into Great Hearts was hard. Not because of the application—it’s one page, just basic information, no entrance exams—but because they had too many applicants for too few seats, and they had to hold a lottery. On lottery night, January 21, 2014, F.T. drew a number that was somewhere in the middle of all the second-grade applications, and so he was assigned a number on the waiting list. I logged in almost every day to check his position on the waiting list. Finally, in June, sitting in my parked car, checking email on my phone, F.T. got an offer. I tried to keep it together, but I cried tears of joy. I’m not the only parent who cries when their kids get into a charter school: just watch the documentary Waiting for “Superman”.
F.T. started at Great Hearts Monte Vista in August 2014. It was an adjustment for him to be at school instead of homeschooling. Also, Great Hearts has high expectations for students’ behavior, and F.T. got into trouble a few times during the first month. The strict behavior code has paid off, though, because the quiet, orderly classroom makes it much easier for him to learn in class. His teachers have worked with us through the special education process to help F.T. stay happy and keep learning. He gets all the benefits of the curriculum, but with a little flexibility or extra help when he needs it. The school culture of kindness and love means that he gets included in everything, despite the fact that he acts differently sometimes. For the first time, F.T. gets to participate in extracurricular activities: this afternoon, he’ll be at Run Club with his friends and the cross-country coaches. Great Hearts is a school that expects every student to graduate ready for college, so there is more homework than what you might expect from a typical public school, but we have found a balance between homework and family time. F.T. loves his teachers and his school friends, and he’s happy to go to school in the morning.
It’s amazing how quickly the school has formed a community. All the students wear uniforms. The school uses rented space (at Temple Beth-El and Trinity Baptist Church) but the walls are decorated with reproductions of great works of art. The students take music class and sing together. Families get together to cheer for the football, volleyball, and basketball teams. The teachers are leaders and role models in how they treat each other and the students.
Great Hearts families share my passion for arts and culture. Parents have organized class trips to the San Antonio Museum of Art, the McNay Art Museum, ArtPace, and the Scobee Education Center. We meet up at Landa Library and at family concerts with the San Antonio Symphony. We watch classmates perform at YOSA concerts and Woodlawn Theatre musicals. We will represent for our school at a rally in Austin for National School Choice Week. We also give back to our community: over the holidays, families collected coats and bedding for Respite Care of San Antonio.
Now that you know more about our experience at Great Hearts Monte Vista, I hope you will include high-performing charter schools in your school search. About a year ago, I offered eight tips for choosing a school. I still recommend that you talk to your friends, especially friends who share your interests and values, and families whose kids have similar strengths and challenges. Ask yourself which features are most important to you: arts, STEM, athletics, etc. Think about location and transportation: because students are not confined to a certain geographic area, many charter schools can’t afford to offer bus service.
Keep in mind that there are good charter schools and struggling charter schools. The Choose to Succeed partner schools have a track record of success. Texas Charter Schools Association has a search tool. Greatschools.org has ratings, but may not tell you what you really want to know, which is what the school culture is like. (Most parents don’t choose schools based on standardized test scores.) The charter school community in San Antonio is growing rapidly, and some newer schools are missing from the ratings.
I work with kids from all kinds of schools—public, private, charter, and homeschool—and I watch kids both struggle and thrive in each of these environments. There are lots of choices in schools these days, and finding the one that works for your child can be hard, but the payoff in finding the right fit is totally worth the struggle.
Whatever type of school you choose, if your children are happy and learning, then you are on the right track to help them succeed and lead joyful lives. I hope that you and your kids find schools that you love.