11 February 2008

school daze

Among the activities that have occupied our time and kept me from blogging is our school search for our daughter Claire for next year. This year she is in a three-day per week (pre-)Kindergarten we really like, but next fall she will begin a five-day, full-day Kindergarten. Since her current school is only a nursery through Kindergarten program, we're searching for a grammar school where she'll be able to stay for the coming years.

Our local public elementary school is merely adequate, at best, so we've been exploring a variety of other options - which in Philadelphia add up to a bewildering variety of possibilities: private non-sectarian, parochial, private Catholic or Protestant or Quaker, public charter schools, parent co-operatives, etc. I've lost track how many we've looked into on paper or via website and, among those, how many we've visited.

The past six weeks or so was prime "Open House" season, which, if followed up with applications, leads to testing, visits, observation days, and financial aid paperwork. We've also explored some various grants, for instance, one offered by a private foundation for eligible residents of Philadelphia who are sending kids to private school. All of this, of course, takes considerable time.

We've been very impressed by several of the schools we've visited (the Miquon School, Waldorf School, and Project Learn especially), each of which has its own particular strengths or interesting philosophy or unique culture, often very attractive, but rendering the process of decision-making difficult.

Growing up, I attended the same private Christian school from Kindergarten through senior high, much of which was very enjoyable - especially in high school - and which had its own benefits. Given the main options we're considering, Claire will not stick with any one school for so long, but will eventually have to switch schools when entering the middle grades or high school. But I think may be a good thing.

Part of me really likes the idea of an explicitly and intentionally Christian education. There's certainly a lot to be said for weaving Christian content into a curriculum from an early age and having Scripture and Christian songs as part of one's school culture. But, having looked at a number of Christian schools, I'm sometimes disappointed that their philosophy of Christian education doesn't seem to extend much beyond intellectual content.

Looking at the Quaker schools really made this stand out to me. While the Quaker schools aren't perfect and don't always live up entirely to their ideals, I have a great deal of respect for how Quaker values are often permitted to color every aspect of how they conceive of education - not only (and perhaps not even primarily) in terms of intellectual content, but in their philosophy of the human person, their pedagogy, their approach to development and socialization, how they handle conflict resolution, and so forth.

I don't see the same degree of intentionality and thoroughness in most models of Protestant education. And this puts one in an odd dilemma as a Christian parent. Several of the schools we looked at are relatively "secular" or, at the very least, not within a confessional religious tradition. This doesn't mean they are at all hostile to religious values. Indeed, several seem to value and encourage students bringing their traditions into the mix and at least one would probably be manifestly uncomfortable for a committed secularist.

But these same schools often have very well-worked out ways of structuring pedagogy, valuing the uniqueness and giftedness of children, training kids to resolve conflicts peaceably, encouraging critical thinking, developing a variety of competencies beyond basic language and math, addressing children holistically, and inculcating a desire to seek justice for those who are marginalized and dispossessed. In these respects, even apart from an explicit Christian confession, some of these institutions seem to embody what looks to me like a more comprehensively Christian ethos than what some of the more religious schools offer.

That is, to my mind, a very odd dynamic and makes the decision-making process often all the more vexing. Nonetheless, through prayer, advice from friends, recommendations, and our own observations, we will come to some kind of discernment in the coming weeks.