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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why We Bailed on Public High School: The "Good" Eugene Public School System is More Broken Than You Think

(Continued from previous post, "Relentlessly Positive")  
     My daughter was, eventually, after several emails, put into a Geometry class.  But doing so required that she give up her two electives and be given "soccer" as an elective, even though *she played for the high school soccer team itself*.    What an inane option.
     She was told the only other option was "free period" (83 minutes of free time), and that she'd already have to have a free first period all second term because there were *no* electives available that term at all.
     She reminded them that she already had a free fourth period every other day -- a result of the school district quietly changing the International High School system over the summer, when none of us parents were paying attention.  (The IHS program described to us last year in orientation was a four-credits-a-year program in addition to their core courses (math, language, science); now IHS only gives students three credits per year and, due to doing away with the "Projects" component for freshman and sophomores, every other day both first and second year IHS students have "free time".)  
     When she came home and told me how her schedule was "fixed," I went ballistic.  Not only had she lost electives she was excited about, but now her *only* elective was doing 83 additional minutes of soccer when she'd already be practicing 120 minutes each day after school.  And these free periods are not, IMHO, good for young high school students.
     I'm sorry, but only the most unusually mature and self-controlled and self-motivated fourteen-year-olds could possibly manage that much free time effectively.  Most, on an open campus, will be at Safeway or Market of Choice or McDonald's or Subway or Dairy Queen or Ron's Hawaiian Grill or Taco Bell or the coffee shop.  Loitering.  Or eating junk food.  
     Which, if you go shopping during the day in the little mall across from the high school, you will find to be true.  Every establishment is positively crawling with high school students with far too much free time.   Not that they all could fit in the library at once, either; I'm not blaming *them* --  only the system that ruins them.
    I was prepared to have my daughter have some free time either junior or senior year, for I already knew that the high school had some scheduling difficulties.  I was told by other parents of older high school kids that "if you go in there and fight each term you can get what your student needs".  So, I was prepared to "fight".  But not for "free time" or extra soccer as the only "options" for an ambitious college-bound first-year high school kid.
     The next day, I went to see the guidance counselor again, rather effectively (to my perception at least) suppressing my rage.  He tried to find some electives for her, calling the scheduler in front of me and asking "Please tell me what free classes there are first period -- ANY free classes."
     He was told "Soccer" and "Conditioning" or "free period".

     How, I asked, does the high school intend to prepare kids for college with this kind of schedule -- blocks of free time, often more than one a day, every week?  And with only three courses per term, how do the kids get enough credits for college?  How do they get the courses they need?

     "Ah!  I understand your frustration with the system.  But see, the aim of public high     school is not to prepare kids for college.  It's to get them an Oregon high school diploma, which is 24 credits.  If we give them three courses a term, four terms a year, after four years they will graduate.  Many of our best students have to take courses at X Community College or X University during their junior and senior year in order to get credits needed in order to apply for college."  

     To a certain extent, what the guidance counselor told me is true.  I also think he is in an impossible position and should not be in "trouble" for telling it like it is.  Public high schools don't have to promise to prepare your kid for college, they have to promise to give your kid a high school diploma recognized by your state.
     But, GOOD high schools have always had clear *and available* college prep programs for students interested in them.  To be perfectly honest, I went to a pretty darn average high school (at least according to rankings of Portland area high schools in the 1980s), but there was a clear way for any student who wanted to be prepared for college to do so.  In contrast, the high school my daughter was going to attend was rated by Newsweek last year as the second best public high school in Oregon.   

     On paper, this public high school looks good -- very good, in fact.  But when a guidance counselor has to tell a rightfully concerned parent that if he or she wishes his or her child to be able to apply to "good" colleges that that child is going to have to take classes outside of the high school itself, the guidance counselor is admitting that the system of "excellent public education" is broken.  Completely.
     I came home and thought about options for all of five minutes.  I called the local private Catholic college prep school.  I toured it that day (Friday) and set up an opportunity for my daughter to shadow another student on Monday.  We made the decision Monday afternoon and  Tuesday (yesterday) she began classes.

     The one bummer is that she can only practice this year with the team, not play.  OSAA regulations prevent a student from moving from one school to another (even for academic reasons) and playing for the second school if said student has already played for the first one.  We're seeing if an exception could be made, but we're not counting on it.  Of course, even if we had known about all this when the key deadline passed (August 22), we wouldn't have, at the time, thought the deadline had anything to do with us.

    We were about to send our kid to the second best public high school in Oregon.  Why would we worry about possibly screwing up her soccer playing chances at another high school in the same city?

    Still, the kids on the team welcomed her to their practice yesterday.  All the teachers, the students and the administrators have been warm and welcoming.  Classes are small.  There's no open campus.  Rules are relatively strict (but fair).  
    She's safe, busy and supervised.  She's going to get a good -- no, EXCELLENT -- high school education.
    Never thought I would say that I left public schools.  My other two are still in them (one in first grade; one in sixth).  
    But we truly feel we had no choice.  We hope the economy recovers, that the district can rehire teachers and make class sizes manageable again and be able to offer enough courses for all students.  Perhaps one day there will be enough money to build an additional high school to accommodate kids more easily -- you know, keep them ALL in classes in the high school itself, appropriate to their ability and to their aspirations, ALL day long.

     What a concept.

     But until that happens, private high school it is.


  1. Private schools answer to parents. Public schools answer to a bureaucracy that answers to a politician that answers to special interests all of whom share a common mission: self preservation. Not education. You made the right choice Elaine!

  2. Anon 1:07. That is a sweeping, untrue generalization. I am a public high school teacher and my boys attend public school. They went to private school for five years when the public school was unable to meet our older son's needs. Private schools are not perfect. Yes, they answer to parents, but they also can cater to wealthier donor parents and disregard scholarship students. They can have kooky teachers, unqualified, poorly paid teachers, especially in sciences and math. Even "the best" private schools have these issues, as well as the relentless fundraisers.

    Public schools are struggling with increasingly limited revenues, as Elaine's experience shows. In my opinion, (not that she needs my approval) she and her hubbie made the right decision under the circumstances. But to say all public school teachers are only interested in answering to bureaucracies is not only unfair, it is untrue.

    The mission of public schools is to educate every single child in a zip code, regardless of income, disablity etc. It is a tall task, performed with wildly varying rates of success. But public schools are also one of the key foundations of democracy.

    Off my soapbox.

    Best wishes to your daughter!

  3. Allison -- I totally agree. I've seen public schools work fabulously and I'm philosophically committed to educating ALL children together. I'm uncomfortable with how this isolates my child by class (there is precious little economic diversity at her private school). That said, given the difficulties the public high schools are facing right now, it was the only logical choice to make (and one that we, very fortunately, are able to make). We realize how fortunate we are. One thing we very much like about the private school is that they make an impressive effort to make the kids realize how fortunate they are and the emphasis on true service -- to the neediest of communities, not just, for instance, to a neighbor's yard -- gives the kids an opportunity to see up close what injustice and inequality look like. I'm sure we'll encounter some things we don't like about this school, too. That said, we have faith she'll be prepared for college and well cared for while in school. When a public school can no longer promise those two most basic things, parents with any means have to make a different choice. I will continue, however, to occasionally attend school board meetings and to campaign for funding reform in Oregon (hard to do until the national economy changes in a major way). :) Elaine

  4. Actually I agree, public school teachers are victims of the public school system along with parents. But bureaucracies only get more complex and inefficient over time. New rules, new regulations, new inefficiencies every year, regardless of revenues. As far as I can tell, Elaine's daughter's Geometry problem was not one of revenues but of school districts answering to politicians first. As more parents go through these frustrations, some decide that at any cost, public schools are broken and though they would never admit it at dinner parties, vote against new taxes at the polls because it's money not being spent well enough. Now, accountability is fouled up as well as revenues and THAT is a real problem. Do you think the politician responds by lowering costs in the bureaucracy or by cutting buses and band? Self preservation.

  5. Chris: As a public school teacher, I do not feel I am a "victim" of anything, including my employer.

    On the contrary. I feel privileged to be earning money by having dozens of teens in front of me every day and the opportunity to share my enthusiasm with them for reading and writing.

    Many of my students - and I teach in the suburbs - struggle against serious personal obstacles. I truly believe that to help spark a love of learning and wonder in them is a lasting gift.


Politeness is always appreciated.