Educating Your Children in the City

One of the first questions my peers ask, related to our life in the city, is usually about my children’s education.

“So, where will they go to school?”

My oldest is not yet five years old and, unlike most of his peers in the city, he has never been to daycare and is not enrolled in preschool. When strangers ask him if he is in preschool, he simply answers, “No, we do school at home.”

When my son was born, I went from full-time to part-time (~15hrs/week) employment and never looked back. When I’m not at work, on top of daily household tasks, I am ushering our children into the world of homsechooling. How do we make this work? Well, it’s definitely not easy. I’ve been able to keep my job because my boss is gracious and flexible and we have always been fortunate to find affordable childcare (no, it’s not a family member and, no, it’s not free). It works because my husband and I are willing to sacrifice my “earning potential,” along with the comforts that it would afford, for the sake of providing a home-centered family life for our children.

Educating my children at home was never my plan. But, as my husband and I began building a vision of our life together, it started to make sense to me. We have made this choice for a multitude of reasons, some of which I wrote about back in January, so I’m not going to get into that now. Suffice to say, I believe it is the best option for most children and preferable to modern standardized public schooling.

We have many friends who homeschool, and many friends who don’t, for all sorts of different reasons. So, I understand that it is neither practical, nor desirable, for many other families. Education, in general, is a very polarizing issue. (Isn’t everything about parenthood? Geez.) And, here in the city of Cincinnati, there are three viable options for parents: 1) public neighborhood schools; 2) private, charter, or magnet schools; 3) homeschooling or co-op schools.

I’m not interested in drawing out the three different options. but would like to share a few articles that I’ve come across lately that have helped me clarify my own opinions about the options. Maybe they will helpful to you, as well.

1) Public Neighborhood Schools.

In the City of Cincinnati, without parental intervention, children default to their neighborhood schools. The school they’re enrolled in is based solely on their home address. Some of these schools are fantastic; some are not. They are always at the mercy of the demographic of their area and, therefore, are the most successful in higher-income areas and tend to struggle in lower-income areas. For parents who don’t want to fuss with private or magnet enrollment, neighborhood schools are one of the top few reasons they re-locate when getting ready to “start a family.”

A few months ago, I read an article published by Christianity Today, written by a woman who sent her children to a struggling neighborhood school–the worst one in her city. Before I got married, I always saw myself as a future public school mom. After reading this article, I felt like my former self might be telling my current self that I’m taking the easy road by keeping my kids at home. The sentiment of the article is gripping. And I will question myself again and aging during our tenure here in the city about the balance between caring for our children vs seeking the welfare of others’.

Our neighborhood school here in OTR is struggling. There are talks, among some like-minded neighbors, of pushing for an overhaul at the school. This is, after all, one of intended benefits of gentrification, right? Committed parents move into a neighborhood and, by sheer numbers, change the culture of the neighborhood schools. But, as it is, no drastic change is in sight for our neighborhood.

For families in other parts of the city, the neighborhood schools might be a good option, one that allows them to engage locally with their neighbors without sacrificing a sound education for their children. We know that the largest contributing factor to students success is parental involvement, anyway, so maybe it’s possible for our children to succeed academically no matter where we land. If that’s true, maybe there’s no reason to avoid public neighborhood schools.

2) Private, Charter, or Magnet Schools.

As a  “public school kid” myself, with good memories of my schooling experience, it never really crossed my mind that I would enroll my own children in private schools. Since I’ve married and started having children, I have considered it at times. After all, having our children enrolled at a school that prescribes to our own educational philosophy would take away the stress of doing it ourselves. And it would connect us to a support system of families who prescribe to the same philosophy. But, economics aside (because I’d have to work full-time to pay for it, which I don’t want to do), I’m simply not sold on the idea.

I have one main argument against enrolling children in alternative schools and it’s captured here, in this article:

…the (magnet) system as it is stratifies communities. By the time they graduate high school, many of the brightest kids already feel alienated from their neighborhoods; after all, they spend the majority of their day somewhere else.

(“Magnet Schools: More Harm Than Good?” Victor Harbison, NY Times)

What alternative schools do is pull families out of their immediate neighborhoods and plant them, for the duration of their educational career, in a “community” with their educational peers. Rather than engaging with their neighbors and early childhood friends, they now spend all of their time in another part of town with people their own age who are much more like them. It’s a comforting scenario and, to be fair, creates many strong and lasting relationships with both children and their parents. But it’s a shallow sense of community in that it is, by design, more controlled, homogeneous, and could easily end the moment enrollment ends.

The great thing about alternative schools is that parents can live anywhere it’s affordable or convenient, while still getting the education they desire for their kids. Heck, they can have three kids in three different schools if they want! But, from my perspective, this decision is counterproductive to engaging with the community where they live, inhabiting that space, and truly investing in their neighbors. They are, as the article above states, spending the majority of their day somewhere else. This is not to say that families always disengage from their resident community, only that their time will always be divided. So, though not rendering engagement impossible, it is at least now more difficult.

One obvious exception to this rule is the parish model of schooling that the Catholic Church has followed for years. I think it’s a good lead for us to follow. Another exception is when families relocate to be in closer proximity to their chosen alternative school, thereby creating more of an intentional “neighborhood” model. This second option, though, does not guarantee that any of the other students in the school live nearby, as the nature of alternative schools is that they are open to those both near and far. So, you may not need to drive your kids 20 minutes to get to their school, but you will now have to drive them 20 minutes to visit any of their friends.

(As a sidenote: These are the very same issues I have with those who join churches far from their homes. I’m sure I’ll write about the issue someday, but today is not that day.)

3) Homeschool or Co-op Education.

When I was young, I knew a handful of homeschooling families. Then, in the 80’s, homeschoolers were on the fringe of even religious circles and were often isolated in their decision for home-based education. Now, thirty years later, the world of homeschooling is as diverse as our education system itself.

A few weeks ago, I saw a link to this article posted on my Twitter feed and it absolutely made my day. The source of the article is Next City, a nonprofit online news source and blog written from an urbanist perspective. The article tells the stories of a few urban homeschooling families and articulates, much better than I can, the rich lifestyle education afforded to families who homeschool in urban areas. It also helps illustrate the level of community engagement that’s possible for families who may feel committed to the place they live, but cannot sign-on to the available schools for whatever reason.

Far from disconnected protestors against the mainstream, urban homeschoolers use the city as a resource — and in turn, can become deeply embedded in the city’s wider life.

(“Charter for One: A New Breed of City Parents Embraces Homeschooling,” Carly Berwick, Next City.*)

*The article itself is viewable, in its entirety, by subscription only or for $1.99, but it’s worth the cost.

I know that homeschooling is not always a better alternative to other available options, especially in smaller communities with more parental control and involvement. But, the potential for homeschooling in an urban environment really excites me, especially when so many of my peers can’t imagine living in the city because of the schools.

The article above does not address homeschool co-ops, but you can find a quick run-down here on About.com if you’re unfamiliar with the idea of co-oped education. In my mind, some type of co-op is absolutely necessary for homsechooling families and provides just enough of the “alternative school” benefits, without a full-time commitment.

But, what about you?
Do you live in a city?
Where do/will your kids attend school?

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