Our five-year-old is going to school. In the fall, he will be a kindergartner. You wouldn’t think this would be a big fuss. After all, it’s just kindergarten, right? No one ever missed out on going to the best college because of a bad choice in kindergartens, right??? That’s certainly what I thought, until we started preparing to send our son to kindergarten!
Because, you see, colleges care about what high school you went to, and high schools (if they are charter or private) care about what elementary school you went to, and elementary schools (if they are charter or private) care about what kindergarten you went to. And there’s the problem. If you live somewhere that the public schools perform significantly below average, and you really don’t want to uproot your family to get better public schools, your only choice is the private/charter schools who perform better, and they have opinions about your child’s previous schools.
So we started shopping. Our finalists were a charter school that performs very well and is “free” (i.e. covered by our taxes), and a private school that does even better and sounds more interesting, but costs $13,000 a year on top of our taxes. Suddenly, “next best” started to sound more attractive than “best”, so we asked around. We heard nothing but glowing reviews. Everyone we talked to loved what the charter school was doing. It seemed like we’d be fools not so send our son.
The next challenge was the waiting list. It’s a lottery to get in, and the only special consideration is given to siblings of those already attending and the children of employees. We resigned ourselves to fate, with public school as our backup plan. But then, an opportunity presented itself. The school was hiring, and my wife was looking for a job, and we had a friend who had a friend who might be able to ensure an interview was given…
This was actually a golden opportunity. All my wife had to do was ace an interview or two, and all our problems were solved in one fell swoop. She would finally have a real teaching gig with a 90% decrease in commute time, the boy would get moved to the head of the line for acceptance, and they could even commute together. Needless to say, she got the job, as discussed at length in my previous article, so we were in.
After our son was accepted to the charter school, we started getting mail and emails from them. To be honest, the tone of these communications was a bit peremptory, full of “parents will”s and “students must”s. At first we assumed that given the high opinion others has expressed of them, they had developed their own high opinion of themselves, but after my wife had been working for the school for a couple of weeks, she had begun to observe a certain martinet-like prickliness in the school’s culture. This was my first concern about the school, but it seemed pretty minor in the grand scheme, given their stats.
Then the time came for our son’s kindergarten orientation. This turned out to be a completely surreal, almost cult-like experience. First, we received a reminder email about a week before the event. It gave us the “requirements” for attendance. We needed to bring the expected stack of documents to satisfy residency, medical, and general government nosiness requirements. It ended with a bizarre diatribe about how the school’s philosophy was that if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late, and that anyone not in the correct room and signed in on time would be ejected and expected to reschedule with the school immediately or face de-registration!
Once we signed in, our son was separated from us by one of the teachers for “evaluation”. This made me vaguely uneasy, but seemed reasonable. Then we were told that parents needed to go to a meeting in another room. We were almost immediately intercepted by another teacher who “offered” to take our two-year-old daughter off our hands for the duration, since we “really needed to pay attention”. Alarm bells were beginning to ring for me, but my wife calmed we down, and we proceeded as asked.
In the meeting room, we were given “classwork” to complete before the meeting started. Afterward, we were shown a powerpoint presentation about the school’s performance, philosophy, and regulations. This included a lengthy speech about what kind of parents “aren’t a good fit” for the school (spoiler: If you have an opinion about how your child should be taught, you aren’t a good fit!). My unease with the situation had begun to grow…
We were told that our kindergartner would be assigned 45 minutes of parent-assisted homework a night, in addition to a required 20 minute reading assignment. They also informed us that the school year was going to start on August 15th instead of the 26th, run later than the regular school district, and that the school day was going to start a half-hour earlier and end 45 minutes to an hour later. This was problematic, as we had finally found a really great summer camp program for our son and this start date was going to cut off the last two weeks of a seven week program. I also expressed concern to the principal over how a child was to find any family time when the school started so early that children needed a 7PM bedtime and parents worked until at least 5PM (6PM for me in particular), but they needed to eat dinner and do an hour-plus of schoolwork every night. Her response was to the effect of, “Yes, some of our families find home-life scheduling a challenge…”. I suddenly felt like I was talking to some incompetent middle manager from corporate America, telling me “That does seem like a problem. I want daily reports until the situation improves.”
Then we were shown a weird video of a school assembly where children from K-through-4th were being lead through a mind-numbing series of chants and recitations that sounded like excerpts from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book of Educational Philosophy. At this point, the alarm bells in my head were beginning to turn into a full-blown anxiety attack.
At some point during all this, I came to the realization that they were using the same creepy crowd-control tactics on us parents that my wife had relayed as those she was expected to use on students at her own job with the school. They were literally talking down to grown adults like they were eight-year-olds, “Glow”ing people (aka “attaboy!”) who were following the rules and reproving those who spoke to each other, looked at their phones, or persistently asked questions that weren’t really being answered (It is left as an exercise to the reader to determine which category I fell into).
Then there were the workbooks. Each family was given a binder full of “life’s work” for their student. This was homework to be completed by the student before they started school. It was a requirement, we were told, that our child be able to complete all of the assigned work before starting kindergarten to ensure that he would not have any trouble keeping up, which might require extra classes or homework to rectify. It had to be fifty pages long!
Let me stop, at this point, to review all the things currently feeding my feelings of dread about this process. We were sending our kindergartner into a clearly high-pressure/high-stress environment where he would be required to wear a uniform and sit quietly in “poses” all day long, for at least an hour more than regular kids in the same grade. He was effectively going to have no home-playtime on weekdays, and limited recess opportunities at school. He would be attending daily “rallies” that looked and felt like creepy evangelist church services, where he would learn to sing and chant slogans in unison with a crowd. He was was going to lose 30% of his summer camp experience and spend what was left of his summer doing homework with his parents. On top of all that, he was going to have to wear a uniform which was indistinguishable, I shit you not, from the awful, tone-deaf, this-is-what-cool-young-people-dress-like-in-their-spare-time-right clothes handed out by corporate “motivators” on “team-building” retreats.
After the parent
indoctrination orientation was over, both our children were returned to us apparently safe and happy, with glowing reports on how bright and talented they both were, and what fine additions they might make to the school… I got us out of there as fast as we could, and nearly hyperventilated in the car driving home. Slowly, over the course of hours, we convinced ourselves that the school’s performance spoke for itself, and that while they were a little weird, maybe we should try it for a year, and just see if it wasn’t really as insane and cult-like an environment as it seemed. I was still anxious, but my wife calmed me down and made me see reason (I thought!).
In the three weeks following the orientation, I continued to do research, and made some troubling discoveries. I found several people online who described having posted negative reviews of the school and having had their posts scrubbed from review and social media sites via “reported content” mechanisms. Several of the few I could find, now having a better idea where to look, were horrifying. They contained words like “military”, “exhausted”, and “miserable”. One of them disappeared within a week of my having found it. I assume the rest are gone by now.
Over that same three weeks, the events described in my previous article transpired. After my wife’s experience with the toxic, unreasonable, and frankly psychotic-seeming behavior of the people running the school, we had had enough. In a discussion that lasted for approximately eight seconds (Me: Holy shit, they really are as fucked up as they seem! How can we put our child into that psychotic pressure-cooker?!?!? Her: We can’t.), we decided that our son would be going to public kindergarten with his friends from the neighborhood after all.
My wife turned in the papers withdrawing him from the school and registering for public school around 12 PM the next day. Within five minutes, I received an email from the school telling me that our son’s “application for admission has been rejected”, and if you read nothing else about what kind of a place it is, you could just read the last two sentences to tell you all you need to know!
Our son will be going to public kindergarten. He will have a full summer of fun and actual “life’s work”, like learning to boat and swim and play soccer and hike in the woods, and such. If he needs tutoring to look good on standardized tests in a few years because of it, SO. FUCKING. BE. IT.