Pitching a Tent for Magnet Schools

In Cincinnati, parents have the choice about where their children attend school. In the public school system, children can default to attending their neighborhood schools, or apply for enrollment in one of the magnet schools. Many of these magnet schools are designed around a specific educational pedagogy–Montessori or Paideia, for example–or a certain focus of education–foreign language or fine arts, for example.

The competitive nature of enrollment in these magnet schools is understandable. First of all, Cincinnati magnet schools are free for city residents. And because they are sometimes much higher ranked in academics and a bit more culturally refined than neighborhood schools, these schools are a great option for parents who would consider private or parochial schools if it were not for the price.

There is a catch.
Some of these schools are so desirable that they attract too many families. To keep enrollment manageable, CPS has developed a system that requires some pretty serious dedication from the family.

A recent story in the Cincinnati Enquirer covers the phenomenon of the CPS magnet school enrollment process:

“The magnet schools, which generally have high academic ratings and focus on specialties like foreign language or the arts, accept students on a first-come first-served basis. At most schools there is no problem getting in. But at Fairview and a handful of others, lines form days in advance.”

I have mixed feelings about this “first-come first-served” policy.

On the positive side, CPS can rest assured that only the most committed families will enroll their children in these highly competitive schools. This obviously contributes to the high academic achievement of such schools, as well as the shared commitment to success. This policy also gives parents the opportunity to provide the best education possible for their children, regardless of financial restraints.

On the negative side, it’s not an equitable policy. “First-come first-served” policies like this take a lot for granted. First, that all parents have the possibility of taking 3-5 days out of their lives to camp out on the school’s front yard. Second, it presupposes that a child’s worthiness in not inherent, but is dependent upon their parents’ willingness to go to such lengths.

Another major inequality built into the policy is the way it effects the neighborhood schools. In this system, the children privileged enough to have parents willing to sacrifice for their children are the only ones offered an option outside of their own neighborhoods. Where does that leave the rest?

So, if this system is not an equitable system, what other option do we have?

I do believe that committed parents should be rewarded for their commitment. And I also understand that any parent who wants the best for their child would (hopefully) do whatever necessary to make it happen–i.e. make certain they can be in line when they need to be to secure that spot in their desired school. So, completely tossing out the policy doesn’t make sense.

I guess one simple question is this: Why doesn’t CPS reserve a certain percentage of the open spots for those who are not able to make it to the front of the line? It seems like this would make everyone happy. The parents at the front of the line would get theirs spots. And the folks at the back of the line would be entered into a lottery for the remaining slots.

Is this already happening?
Am I missing something?

And maybe there is another question to ask:
What is the point of magnet schools?

According to Wikipedia’s article on Magnet Schools:

“Districts started embracing the magnet school models in the hope that their geographically open admissions would end racial segregation in “good” schools, and decrease de facto segregation of schools in poorer areas. To encourage the voluntary desegregation, districts started developing magnet schools to draw students to specialized schools all across their districts. Each magnet school would have a specialized curriculum that would draw students based on their interests. One of the goals of magnet schools is to eliminate, reduce, and prevent minority group isolation while providing the students with a stronger knowledge of academic subjects and vocational skills. Magnet schools still continue to be models for school improvement plans and provide students with opportunities to succeed in a diverse learning environment.”

Can someone with more personal experience in the Cincinnati magnet schools tell me if this is working? My fear is that instead of desegregating the more under-served and impoverished neighborhood schools, magnet schools actually pull the most opportunistic families out of all of the neighborhood schools and leave even mid-income neighborhood schools culturally impoverished. The children who end up in the magnet schools benefit; everyone else suffers.

I don’t know that I can offer any better solution to the problems in our public schools. I can understand a parent’s desire to provide the best opportunity for their children, so I’m not willing to fault those who stand line for days to secure those coveted kindergarten seats.

My last question:
What would happen if, instead of hand-picking the best regional opportunities for our children, we invested our time and energy in our own neighborhood and community institutions, whether they be educational, cultural, or religious? How would the most disadvantaged children in our city benefit from this local investment by the parents of the most privileged ?

Perhaps what I’m suggesting is not the economic concept of the “redistribution of wealth” but, rather, the redistribution of educational opportunity.

As for our family, my husband and I have some crazy schemes for the education of our children. And I’m not ready to discuss them here. For now, I’m simply going to hope for good weather for those camped out on Clifton Ave, and pray for the welfare of the children whose parents won’t show up, but who deserve something better than their neighborhoods can provide.

Go Play Outside: Alone?

My son is not yet two years old, but I can already see that 1. he is a severe extrovert and 2. he loves being out of the house. So, what does this mean for his adolescent years, when the most natural expenditure of his energy will be to go outside and play with his friends–without my supervision?

I mean, seriously.
Am I willing to let my 10 year old son out in Over-the-Rhine to play, or to walk alone to library for that matter?

The issue of unsupervised youth has come up recently in the news, among friends, and in the parenting class we’re involved with at our church. And now we’re asking ourselves these same questions again.

When our son is ten years old, who will he play with?
Where will they play?
Will I let them play alone?

There is a lot of talk in parenting circles about the dangers of the modern world. And it’s almost comical the steps some parents take to protect their children–everything from fairly benign re-designing of public playscapes to be “safer” for kids to the more ridiculous tracking their movements with GPS chips.

Thanks to some links from CityKin, I have been reading in on the conversations among radical parents across the nation who are defying the modern ideals of a “safe childhood” and are instead raising their children to be wise, independent, and self-reliant in the world. These particular folks call the movement “free-range kids,” and have some great things to say about how ridiculous we’ve become in our quest to protect our children from the “dangers” of the modern world.

I am quick to admit that my husband and I do often question the wisdom of raising children in the city, mostly because of two issues: this apparent need for more supervision in an urban environment and the lack of greenspace and natural areas. But, we decided that the benefits of an urban lifestyle were worth combating these problems rather than allowing them to send us to the suburbs (where we know parents deal with the very same issues, anyway).

For families like us who believe that urban living is inherently better than a sub-urban lifestyle (for multiple reasons which I am always willing to defend, but cannot go into here) and want to know how to keep your children safe without going bonkers about every possible danger, I have a few suggestions:

1. Be realistic about danger.

We all know that life is dangerous, and that there are people and ideas and places that can hurt us lurking around every corner. But, the only real way your children will learn to combat danger is to face it with wisdom and discernment. And if your children are never exposed to uncomfortable or seemingly dangerous situations when they are young and are never forced to navigate their world alone as they grow older, they will never gain the skills in problem-solving and adaptation that will make adult dangers much easier to navigate.

2. Let go. Slowly.

Children who are locked in child-proofed homes or fenced in manicured backyards are given no opportunities to practice the art of trial and error. It is normal and healthy for children–even very young children–to make mistakes. Without falls and bumps and bruises, children never learn to navigate dangers or to correct their mistakes.

Now, there are obvious limits to the dangers we should allow our children to confront at a young age. This is why I say, “Let go. Slowly.” But, let common sense be the guild as you allow your child’s environment to get a little more risky all the time. Watch them closely for their first few years and you’ll see how they naturally adapt to their surroundings and learn skills to confront new problems as they grow.

3. Let kids solve their own problems.

Some examples:
Once your child can climb up and down the stairs, let him. Even if it takes longer.
Once your child can open the door, ask him to open it for you.
Let your son get his own shoes. And put them on, if he can.
Let him figure out where he left his toy, instead of finding it for him.
Give directions and be patient as he tries to follow them. Don’t help if he doesn’t need help.
Let your child solve petty conflicts with friends on their own, without your mediation.

Allowing young children to clean up their own messes, entertain themselves, do their own work, and solve their own problems will pay off in dividends as they grow older. A child who is competent in his own little world will have an easier time navigating the world outside his front door. He will be more resourceful, more resilient, and more responsible. And since you have watched how competent he is at home, you will be more likely to trust this competence to help him outside of the home.

4. Have a lot of kids.

Now, I understand that most people don’t want a dozen children, but hear me out on this. Having multiple children–i.e. built-in playmates–is great for urban living because if your 7 year-old daughter has two older brothers to take her to the park, she doesn’t need you to do it.

And if having multiple children is not your cup of tea, you could simply make an effort to get to know other families in the immediate, walkable area. And if there are no other children nearby, or if you don’t trust the other families nearby to be with your kids, then you could always start an intentional community. (I’m totally, 100%, serious about this, by the way. No creepy cult-talk intended.)

Basically, the “safety in numbers” scenario is a great way to calm a parent’s worry and keep children safe.

5. Get outside.

By “get outside” I mean you should physically leave the house and get outside with your young children to explore your neighborhood. This is helpful for two reasons. First, the best way to decrease “stranger danger” is to have fewer strangers. If your child knows and is known by the local grocer, the woman at the bank, the postal worker, the librarian, and the guy who is always begging for change outside the library, then there will be five more sets of eyes watching him venture out into the neighborhood by himself some day. Stop worrying that everyone in your neighborhood might secretly be a pedophile and get to know them. Learn their names. Introduce your children. And learn what it means to actually be a community.

Secondly, this principle remains true for strange places, not just strange people. If you know your neighborhood, and spend time in and around your neighborhood with your children when they are young, they will know their way around as well as you do. They will know which intersections are busiest, which streets to avoid, which coffeeshops serve the best hot chocolate, and where to buy tissues when they get a bloody nose playing in the park. Teach them how to get to the police or fire station, the library, and the grocery store. Make your environment familiar to your children and they will be a million times more secure and discerning when on their own.

At our home, we are lucky to have a small backyard which will provide at least some opportunity for our young children to play alone outside in a confined environment. But, our small backyard will not be enough for a young boy who wants to ride his bike or organize an ad-hoc baseball game. So, I hope that by the time our son is old enough to venture out of the house by himself, we are ready to let him. And, even if I’m not ready, I want to make sure that he is.

What about you?
Where do you live?
Do you feel safe letting your children out alone to play?
Why or why not?

Food for thought:
Read this
story about a radical “holiday” for kids.
Could you do it?

And check this out. Adventure Playgrounds.
Wow. I plan to write more about this, eventually.

Getting Around: Do I Really NEED a Stroller?

Before our son was born, my husband and I avoided much of the pre-baby purchasing craze. We purchased only a small percentage of those “must-have” toys, gadgets, and pieces of furniture and picked up the rest of what we actually needed when we discovered that we did, indeed, need it. Because we were prudent in our purchasing, we saved a lot of money and have less (comparatively) to store in the crawlspace until we decide it’s time for baby #2.

But, all prudence aside, there was one item that I obsessed about for months: a stroller.

Up until the point I actually purchased our stroller (a month or so after our son’s birth), I obsessed about which stroller to buy. I no longer noticed the cheery grins on the faces of babies in passing. Instead, I noticed only their stroller–the brand, the color, the style. And, I took mental notes of each stroller I’d actually seen in person, weighing the size and shape. And, of course, the price.

Some friends told me that a stroller was not a big deal: “Just get a cheap one; I barely use mine,” they said. For some, that might be true. If you only intend to use a stroller at the mall, or for the occasional walk to the park, it really doesn’t matter too much which stroller you get. But, for a parent who lives in a city and plans on walking a few miles a day, a stroller is a big deal. And because I didn’t have a thousand dollar stroller budget like some parents in Park Slope or LA, I couldn’t just order the latest hip-mamma stroller spotted in a magazine.

Like any niche market, the world of strollers is vast and becomes quickly overwhelming.

Things to consider:

Price– Is your budget $200 or $2000?

Age Range– Do you need a stroller that adapts to hold an infant carseat? Do you want a cot or full recline for a newborn? Do you want to be able to use it when your child is three years old? Do you need a stroller that can become a double stroller for the next child?

Size and Weight– Will it fit in your trunk? Can you lift it with your child in it if you need to navigate stairs? Can it maneuver on the sidewalk/between store aisles?

Other considerations– Is it practical for where you will use it? Where is it made? Are the tires better for flat surfaces or uneven surfaces? Does it fold up easily/quickly/with one hand? How well is it constructed? With what materials is it made? How large is the storage compartment? It the seat wide enough for your child? Does the seat seem comfortable for long walks? Does it have a warranty? Does it come with accessories or will you need to purchase other pieces separately? Can you use it with the infant carseat you’ve already purchased or registered for? Is the color scheme gender neutral to use with future children?

You may be thinking: Seriously? Does it really matter that much what stroller I purchase?

Take this into consideration: For the past 18 months, I’ve taken an average of 3 walks a week around downtown to run errands, grocery shop, visit the bank, etc. And if each of these walks averages about 3 miles, that’s roughly 700 miles I’ve logged on my stroller so far. And, I intend to use it up until we have another baby, which adds many more miles to its lifespan.

Basically, my stroller is a tool that I will have used almost every day for 2-3 years. So, I’m thankful that I took my time picking out a stroller that was exactly what I needed, for what I could afford to spend.

On a personal note:

I ended up purchasing the Baby Jogger City Mini stroller and the infant car seat adapter, which allows the stroller to hold many of the most popular infant car seats. (I found a Maxi Cosi car seat at a discounted price online because it was in a discontinued color!)

The stroller is everything I’d hoped for. It’s lightweight, sturdy, sleek, super easy to manuveur, and my whole “travel system” (stroller, adapter, car seat) only cost a total of $425. This might seem like a lot, but when you compare it to a moderately priced “travel system stroller” you can purchase at Babies R Us for $325, you’re only paying $100 more for something that is about a million pounds lighter and a million times easier to use and travel with. (And a lot more attractive, if you ask me.) I’d say I made a heck of a purchase, especially considering the stroller I was really lusting after would have set me back an easy $900 for the entire “travel system.”

For parents who don’t have $1000+ to spend on a fancy stroller, I highly recommend the Baby Jogger series. Baby Jogger makes everything from hip, urban fashion strollers like their City Select (starting at about $500), to bonafide jogging strollers like their Performance Jogger which runs about $450. Mine is their mid-priced urban-use stroller. They have recently released a Bassinet/Pram accessory and a Glider Board for an older sibling to ride along, giving their single strollers an extended life. Many of their strollers can be purchased as a double stroller, and their City Select is a multi-use stroller for infants or toddlers and can be adapted to be a double stroller.

One large caveat is that big-box baby stores like Babies R Us don’t sell many high-quality strollers, at least not in-store. So, in a Midwestern city like Cincinnati, it’s hard to find floor models to test drive. My advice: visit every high-end baby store you can find within a reasonable distance and look at everything. Seeing a $1200 stroller in-person will tell you whether or not it’s really worth your hard earned money. Likewise, test-driving a cheaper stroller that the manufacturer is trying to pass off as high-end may convince you that it’s worth paying the extra $100-200 for the better stroller. (Hint: 3-wheels does not equal high quality.)

When you can’t find floor models, you can make up the difference by doing a lot of online research. Read reviews. Read parenting blogs. And don’t be embarrassed to stop a parent on the street and ask about their stroller. Chances are, if you see a parent using a high-end stroller, they would be happy to tell you about it and give a quick review.

In short, if you are not going to use your stroller a lot, then maybe a $100 stroller is a good idea.

But, if you live in the city and would rather enjoy your walks downtown, maybe reconsidering your priorities is a good idea. For us, it was a choice between purchasing “baby furniture” or a nice, attractive, high-functioning stroller.

I am very glad I chose the stroller.

Things to Love: Bento for a Better Lunch!

I’ve always been a fan of eating smaller portions of many things as a single meal, rather than the one-burrito-to-hold-it-all meal philosophy. So, it’s only natural that I often prepare my son’s meals that way. A normal child’s lunch in the McEwan household: A teeny sandwich, a few small pieces of cheese, a handful of grapes, shredded carrots (because his teeth are not quite ready for chomping on full bites yet), a couple pretzel sticks, and sometimes a cookie (though my son, funny enough, usually skips on the sweets).

Enter: Bento. (or Obento–choose your poison)

photo courtesy My Life as a Gaijin blog

In short, Bento is the artful presentation of a meal, but if you’re familiar with the concept you know that it isn’t quite that simple. I have been familiar with Bento since the summer I spent in Guam a million years back and saw the Japanese culinary phenomenon firsthand. I didn’t really understand the breadth of the phenomenon until much later, when I discovered the obsessive side of Bento. (And, man, people take their Bento very seriously, collecting oodles and globs of Bento supplies, entering contests for the best Bento, and I can only imagine having serious anxiety over your average “sack lunch” meals.)

All obsessions aside, Bento is awesome for many reasons:

1. It is potentially waste-free. Not only will parents save on plastic baggies and paper lunch bags by purchasing reusable bento boxes, but the meal itself is free of wrapping and often made from scratch. (i.e. serious Bento parents don’t toss a single-serving twix bar in the lunch for good measure)

2. It is a clever way to encourage hearty and healthy meals. So the philosophy goes: when food looks fun, kids are more likely to eat it. Even if a parent doesn’t go all-out Bento crazy and make a freaking aquarium for their child’s school lunch, some simple Bento tricks can turn a healthy meal into something colorful and inviting. (“Eat me,” basically.)

3. It takes less time to eat. Rather than navigating a half dozen ziploc bags during their 15 minutes of lunch, your children can open their box, survey the food in one take, and eat it all up. As our local paper recently pointed out, kids are being given less and less time to eat their meals at school, which leads to lots of waste and (I would assume) a lot of kids skipping to dessert so they don’t have to mess with their 1/2lb peanut butter and jelly sandwich that’s been wrapped in a yard of tin foil.

4. It’s a way to expend some creative energy while loving your family. If you’re anything like me, you worry that parenthood has stripped you of your pazazz. I know, I know, a few attractive Bento lunches won’t jump start my music career, but they could remind me that I still have that creativity lurking inside me. And, they will remind my children that I love them at the same time. Seriously, who wouldn’t feel like a million bucks when they opened their lunch to find this:

photo courtesy O’Bento Lunch 4 Kidz blog

If you’re interested in adapting a little bit of the Bento philosophy into feeding your family, you can find some tips, tricks, and advice at the following links.

Another Lunch
Lunch in a Box
Just Bento

Locally, you can purchase some basic Bento boxes (like Laptop Lunches) at local favorite Park + Vine. On my next trip to the market, I’ll take a closer look at Saigon Market to see what they’ve got in stock, too. And I’d bet that Jungle Jim‘s has some interesting Bento supplies, though I haven’t been up there in ages…

Kids Not Welcome

Every time a new restaurant/diner opens downtown, and a friend tells me of their recent visit there, I ask a simple question: Did you see any kids or highchairs?

Most people, obviously, don’t look for a highchair when they walk into a new place. But, from a parent’s perspective, the absence of this simple object says one thing to me: Your kids are not welcome here.

I can understand a restaurant owner’s fear of becoming a *gasp* “Family Restaurant,” and I can understand that a toddler is not their primary clientele. But, I also know that there a very large number of young adults with young children who would love to be able to support these local businesses, but the businesses seem to not want their support.

Yes, I can still sneak in with my son and let him sit on my lap while we both try to eat. And, yes, a booster seat is a step in the right direction. But, a young toddler is much more likely to sit still if seated in a high chair. My son is very well behaved (and we know when our son is not behaving and it’s time to leave). Heck, these business owners might actually like having us around!


Dear Business Owners:

I support local business and I’d love to support yours. But, until you are willing to accommodate my small and well-behaved family, you’ll be relegated to my “date night” restaurant list. This list is large and not often consulted for dinner plans. Maybe we’ll see you (and you’ll see our money) in a few years?

Your neighbor.

(And don’t even get me started on coffee shops and gas station bathrooms without diaper changing stations… ugh!)