School Stories: Going with my Gut: From Neighborhood School to K-8 Charter School

Gretchen is a mom of 8 who writes about the large life at Lifenut. She has a photo blog called snap cake. She is also a featured blogger at The Denver Post’s Mile High Mamas.

How old are your children and do they require special accommodations in school?

We have 8 children. 5 are in school all day. This year’s line-up includes 8th, 6th, 5th, 3rd, and 1st grades. Two of our children have Advanced Learning Plans, which are administered by their teachers in their home classrooms.

Which school did you ultimately choose?

When our eldest was on the brink of kindergarten, I visited a well-known JeffCo charter school on an information night. I gathered paperwork and signed up all our kids on the spot—including our 6-week-old son. It left a negative impression on me. I felt like one of those parents you read about. I like when learning evolves organically, at home, especially during the first 5 years of childhood. Knowing I had just written my newborn’s name on a kindergarten class list made me feel nauseated.

I assumed all charter schools were the same, so I abandoned the idea for several years.

A teacher friend constantly sang the praises of neighborhood public schools. I began to relax, believing the school down the street and around the corner was a perfectly fine choice. Really, how many ways are there to teach US Geography and spelling? The proximity and familiarity made it the optimal choice for our family, especially because we are larger-than-average. I strive to simplify. I never felt spurred to research the school. It was a nice, clean place with art on the walls and well within walking distance. We spent 3 years at that school.

When we moved to our current home, it was a given our children would attend the neighborhood school in our new subdivision. I enrolled them without a pang of doubt.

Our discontent with their school grew slowly. I began to question the quality of the curriculum, especially math. The school used a curriculum called Investigations. There was something about it that bothered me deeply. It seemed to focus on how students felt about math rather than learning hard math facts. I wasn’t seeing my kids challenged in any of their subjects. It was a nice school, but it seemed to play it safe.

Another thing that annoyed me was the school practiced for CSAPs. A lot. My kids reported taking practice tests several times. They were also instructed to write using a formula that would make CSAP scorers happy but sucked personality, tone, and creativity out of the process completely.

I pined for a richer, deeper, more challenging educational experience for them.

One morning, a few days deep into the 2007-2008 school year, I had coffee with some friends. We talked about the new school year. I wasn’t wild about it and expressed my concerns about the school. One of my friends had children at a JeffCo charter school. She shared how the curriculum differed from JeffCo’s standard, telling me the types of things her kids were learning, how they were challenged, the philosophy of the school. It sounded exactly like what I craved for my kids.

She casually mentioned there was an opening in 5th-grade. Our eldest was in 5th grade.

I felt electrified. I knew, in my core, she would thrive in that environment. I also loved the idea she wouldn’t have to attend a traditional middle school.

I left the coffee shop and drove to the school. I requested a tour. They obliged on the spot. I asked questions, saw classrooms, heard about the registration process, and went home. After talking it over with my husband and our daughter, we made the decision to enroll her the next day.

The next day.

Unfortunately, they did not have spots for our other school-aged children that year. It was a difficult year, logistically. The kids were on different calendars. When choice enrollment time arrived in January, I completed the paperwork for the rest of the kids to move over to the charter school. They were on wait lists. Eventually, thanks to sibling preference, our kids were back together for the 2008-2009 school year.

Did you, or would you consider relocating or driving a long way for a school and why?

One of the drawbacks of charter schools is they don’t often provide transportation. I drive our kids to and from school every day. I’d love to carpool, but most fellow parents don’t have room for 5 extra kids in their vehicles. Also, parents are relied upon to drive for field studies.

The upside of attending a charter school is that kids from all over the district attend. There is more diversity than at our neighborhood school.

JeffCo recently announced that every child utilizing school buses next year would have to pay a $150 fee. Next year, we’ll have 6 kids in school. I’d rather drive them daily than pay $900 in fees just for the bus.

What are the signs your children are thriving, engaged, challenged in their school?

They are eager to talk about what they learn each day. At their old school, they would often say, “I forget” when asked what they learned that day at school. They hadn’t forgotten. They simply didn’t find the material worth repeating most of the time.

We can engage in interesting conversations about history, great books, music, art.

Throughout the year, they must complete many in-depth projects which involve writing, art, research, observation, speech, and time-management. Even kindergartners are expected to research information and share with their classmates and families.

Teaching methods are enormously creative. At the same time, fact, truth, and precision are expected.

Kids are assessed at the beginning and end of each school year. Just because a child is in 4th grade, it doesn’t mean he or she must be in 4th grade math. This leads to happier children, too.

Do you recommend every parent go with their gut when it comes to school choice?

Absolutely. If you don’t exercise your right to research, choose, and change if necessary, we could lose those rights. Parents should never be complacent or happy with the status quo if the status quo isn’t optimal.

Our firstborn will be in high school next fall. We’ve felt a bit like first-time kindergarten parents. It’s not a nice feeling, actually, to be confused and apprehensive about major changes in a child’s education.

It doesn’t matter if the kid is 4 or 14—that’s been our latest lesson. Change is difficult. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds, what high school is like, and then begin to plan for college.

For info on how to have your own “School Story” posted, here, visit this post. I’m looking forward to hearing more “School Stories”.

Comments

  1. This post really speaks to me, Gretchen. The public school across the street would be so convenient, and for an Aurora school, it’s one of the better ones. I’ve told myself, It will be just fine. Then, after reading your FB post about Investigations, I looked into whether our public school also used it, and, sure enough, they do. Then, I found out they won’t let us take a tour of the school until Orientation Day. Well, if I wait until then, it will be too late to register anywhere else! Now I’m hearing many of the Charter schools hold lotteries and are hard to get into and I should’ve registered Reagan when she was 2. She doesn’t start Kindergarten until 2012, and I’m already starting to feel anxious about it. This is a good thing though, because it means I’m going to do my due diligence, like you did and not just accept the status quo. My daughter deserves better than that, even if it means I have to drive her 5 miles to/from school every day.

    • And you know, that trip in the car can be a wonderful time. You know what it’s like driving with a kid. If you have to be there anyway, make the most of it.

      It seems odd that you can’t check out the school until the day of orientation, when it would be too late to change your mind. I’m sure it would be fine, but you really can pick up a vibe about a school by visiting. Office staff nice and friendly? Do teachers look harassed and harried or like they want to be there? What’s the library like? Lunch room clean/bright? Gym equipment falling apart or in good shape? Etc.

      Will they let you and Reagan observe a kindy class? That’s fun and telling, too.

      Good luck, Chris. It will be here before you know it.

    • And you know, that trip in the car can be a wonderful time. You know what it’s like driving with a kid. If you have to be there anyway, make the most of it.

      It seems odd that you can’t check out the school until the day of orientation, when it would be too late to change your mind. I’m sure it would be fine, but you really can pick up a vibe about a school by visiting. Office staff nice and friendly? Do teachers look harassed and harried or like they want to be there? What’s the library like? Lunch room clean/bright? Gym equipment falling apart or in good shape? Etc.

      Will they let you and Reagan observe a kindy class? That’s fun and telling, too.

      Good luck, Chris. It will be here before you know it.

  2. Oh this is so good to know. I am about to start the grueling and tedious process of visiting schools and starting next year my oldest one will start Kindergarten. Between this and the other articles I read from @notahandbag and the casual perfectionist, I think I am ready… but am I? I feel like crying too when I think that she is starting Kindergarten. Wow! thanks for writing this!

    • No problem, Ratna. If you have any specific questions, I’m happy to help. January is when you have to submit the paperwork. It will come fast.

  3. One thing I didn’t fully “get” when planning for schools is that it’s not like other decisions — changing can have huge implications. So you don’t want to make changes too often, if possible.

    We went the opposite way you did. We started at a charter, a fabulous one with a terrific reputation. It “felt” good, too, in my gut.

    But after a few years it became gut-wrenchingly clear that even though it was good, it was not meeting the needs of one of my children. We moved to the neighborhood school and have had a good year. So far.

    Whew!

    • Lori, you should write your school story! I really hope you share.

      I’m glad your kiddo is doing better. That’s always the main goal, no matter what.

  4. Gretchen, you were a wonderful resource for me when I started my research for Kindergarten (and schools in general, because like Lori says, the thought of transferring once we’ve started is daunting at best.) I loved that you gave me the questions to ask. (Finding answers is hard enough, let alone when you don’t even know the questions!!)

    We, too, chose a Charter and I’m so excited to jump in this Fall!

    I was just shocked at how early you have to plan these things. At least with Jefferson County, *most* of the Charters have abandoned their “put your babies on our wait list” wait list, but not all have. In fact, one that piqued my interest is one of those, and I didn’t even know about it until Claire started preschool, which was YEARS too late to get her on the list.

    Still, I’m excited for our choice and thrilled that the luck of the draw went the way it did.

    I can only hope that I have a happy story to report back as the years go by!

    • I think you will, JoAnn.

      And August? Don’t be in a hurry. Sigh.

      Beatrix will be in kindergarten. It’s nice that I didn’t have to worry so much about where she was going to end up. She’s thrilled she’ll be able to climb out of the van with all the big kids every morning, but she’s worried I am going to be bored without her! 😀

  5. Go, Gretchen – you are 100% right. We are the best and only advocates for our children’s education and it’s everything – it can not be taken for granted. I love that you found something good for your kids. Yeah!!