I always loved school. Even chronic shyness couldn’t dampen my drive to learn and do my schoolwork and please my teachers. From elementary through college and years later in graduate school, I failed only one class, and that was because I decided I’d rather sleep in than go to my 8:00 a.m. Intro to Economics class. So, despite early and frequent signs that they were not thriving, it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that my children didn’t love school. I am still coming to terms with it.
I was lucky. I grew up in a time and a place with excellent public schools filled with compassionate and creative teachers who taught me using informal methods in an experimental program. I had art and music and played in the orchestra from the time I was in 4th grade. My conductor was a surrogate grandfather. He instilled in me a lifelong love of Mozart and Bach and Aaron Copeland, even though I never practiced. I got to choose what language I wanted to study in 8th grade. Every single one of us got to take wood shop and drafting and metal and cooking and sewing and home economics. I learned how to balance a checkbook. And I learned multi-variable calculus. We took minorities and government and public speaking, which serves me well to this day. My experience in public school made me a die-hard believer of our public school system.
Three children and six public schools later, I have nearly lost hope in our system. My children, each one very smart and creative and full of dreams and goals, have struggled to make it in their schools … schools in communities known for excellent schools. They had over-crowded classrooms and overwhelmed teachers. They had very little art or music and no home ec or wood shop or metal shop classes. Their orchestra teacher kicked kids out if they didn’t practice or forgot their music three times. My kids didn’t stand a chance. My 19-year-old daughter never quite understood that not trying in classes because she didn’t like a teacher only hurt herself. My 17-year-old son, who was most motivated to do well in school and fit in, struggled off and on with such strong anxiety he either skipped classes or self-medicated or both.
My 13-year-old son’s 8th grade year began with class sizes of 40 and more. He made his way during the day from a class with no windows to classes with all the blinds drawn. He struggled to stay still and pay attention during each 90-minute class – classes that were 15 minutes longer than my longest college lecture classes … classes I had struggled to stay focused through.
After a rocky 7th grade trying out living with his father across the country, and then moving back mid-year, he fell into a cycle of failure. I talked to his counselor and each of his teachers (both 7th and 8th grade) about his situation, urging them to be patient and encouraging him to simply show up and do his best.
Even so, as the year went on, he lost any interest in doing the work, and began skipping school. I dreaded 11 a.m., when an automated message would alert me that he hadn’t shown up for school that morning. The penalty for truancy sounded dire. At the low point (knock on wood), I asked him what his ideal school situation would be.
“I want to be home schooled,” he said. I stifled the sigh that begged escaping. As a working single parent, I couldn’t imagine a way to make home schooling work. Especially with my proven impatience when it came to helping my kids with their homework. I dug deeper.
“What is it about the idea of home schooling that you like?” I asked him.
“The freedom,” he said. “And getting to do the work on my own.” Any chance he could, my son spent outside on the hills behind Occidental College. At 13, he is happiest searching the backyard for creatures or exploring the neighborhood with friends.
“Do you think you would be motivated to do it on your own, if you weren’t in a classroom with other children and a teacher?” I asked.
“Yeah Mom,” he said, nodding energetically. “I would do it on my own.”
Determined to find an answer that might work for us, I researched alternatives to home school for working parents. I came across unschooling, a movement in which children are gently guided in exploring and studying their own world. It sounded ideal for his curiosity about the natural world, but again required hours of parental guidance. Friends suggested the charter schools and private schools their children happily attended. But both had ridiculously early application deadlines, which I had missed for the following school year even though we were just starting the second semester. And, when I toured the schools they just didn’t seem different enough. There were still hours of sitting inside on a chair in windowless or shuttered classrooms.
His growing truancy rate made finding an alternative school an urgent matter. After hours of research, I stumbled across the option that I thought would work best for us: self-directed learning. It turns out, Los Angeles Unified School District offers a self-directed study program at campuses throughout the district. Within a week of finding out about the program, I had met with the teacher closest to us, enrolled my son, and taken him to his first meeting on his way to finish his 8th grade year.
“How come I’ve never heard of this program?” I asked Ms. Wammack at the end of our meeting. After struggling to find options for both he and his older brother, I couldn’t believe not one of their counselors or teachers had suggested it before.
“Schools don’t like to recommend us,” Ms. Wammack said. “Because they get funded per pupil. The more students they lose, the less funding they have.” I am still trying to understand the motivation of going against what a student needs, since it seems contrary to school goals to keep students who are failing.
The City of Angels School, a public school in LAUSD, provides teachers who work with our children one-on-one. My son has an hour appointment with Ms. Wammack every week to get his assignments and have them reviewed. He can spend as much time as he likes in the classroom, where a teaching assistant, plenty of brand new text books, and comfortable seating feel more like a college library study lounge than an LAUSD classroom. Almost any student is eligible.
Our first evening home, my son sat next to me and read the entire 20-page story “Flowers for Algernon” in his English Literature book. I couldn’t remember the last time he had read anything willingly. Now finishing week two, he took his literature book to the park each morning last week to do his reading, spent Saturday night after I went to bed doing all his math work, and sits next to me now finishing up his English workbook. His five hours of required physical activity each week for P.E. (in addition to reading about physical health), is accomplished by walking or riding his bike back and forth to the park several times a day. He studies there on the benches by the handball courts, meets his friends after school, and often just spends time there being outside in his element.
I check in with him every day to see how he is doing and feeling. But there have been no battles of the wills. He is owning this education and this process and it feels right in a way I haven’t experienced with any of my children except with a few very special elementary school teachers. I wonder how different my older son’s experience might have been had I known about City of Angels two years ago.
Unfortunately, as with all LAUSD schools, the City of Angels School is funded per pupil each year. So, just as the traditional schools fight to keep students from transferring to charter schools or private schools or other schools in LAUSD, City of Angels School is struggling to gain 400 more students this year in order to keep all of its teachers. If you think your child could benefit, check it out. If you have any questions or want to hear more about our experience, let me know below. I will answer you privately if you prefer.