Care and Feeding

Our Public Schools Aren’t Great. Do We Make a Move Now or Later?

A girl raises her hand at school.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Rupreet Sikand-Mouton/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My husband and I love our neighborhood, but the public schools are middling (elementary school) to downright bad (junior high and high school), and we know we won’t want our daughter, currently a toddler, to complete her K-12 education here. As we see it, we have three options:

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1)    Move now, to the much-more-expensive neighboring county, where the schools are better.

2)    Stay put, and instead of buying the more-expensive house, plan to use the money to enroll daughter in private school.

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3)    Enroll daughter in our middling local elementary school and see whether she tests into the public gifted-and-talented magnet school at the end of second grade. If she does, we’d send her there for free. If she doesn’t, then we’d move or switch to private school at that point.

I’m inclined to choose option 3, and kick the can down the road for five years. My husband votes for 1 or 2, with his argument being that moving daughter to a new school to start third grade will be much harder on her than just starting out at the school we intend to keep her in. Do you have any guidance or ways to think through this?

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—How to Choose

Dear Choose,

I see this question often—on listservs, in Facebook groups—and it always gets my hackles up. So, I’m not going to give you an answer—I’m instead going to ask you a question. How do you know the schools are “middling” to “downright bad” if you don’t have a kid in the schools?

Where are you getting this information from? Are people who have kids in the schools telling you? Or people who don’t have kids in the schools? How’s the teacher retention? After more than 20 years in a variety of schools and districts, I can assure you happy teachers indicate good schools. Have you talked to any teachers or checked out teacher working conditions surveys? Are you looking at the rankings on greatschools.org? If so, I encourage you to do some Googling about that website. (Spoiler: It tells you which schools are white, not which schools are great.)

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Finally, have you toured the schools? Have you walked the halls? Have you looked at the work on the walls? Have you eavesdropped on a lesson? Have you spoken with the principal about their mission and vision for the school? I wonder, if you did, would you still call these schools “middling” to “downright bad”?

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If I’m wrong and you’ve done your due diligence, flip a coin. You’re financially well-off enough to move to the “much-more-expensive neighboring county”—your kid is going to be fine.

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

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My 5-year-old is struggling in kindergarten. She’s been in daycare since she was 1, so she’s used to being in care. The biggest struggle she’s having is doing things she doesn’t want to do or leaving an activity she likes. She is having huge blow ups, where she has meltdowns, is hard to console, and kicks things. She knows better when we talk to her about her big feelings but says she forgets when she’s in the moment (which I totally see happening).

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These blow-ups don’t happen nearly as much at home, but they do, especially when she’s told she can’t do something or when her brother has something she wants. She’s been to the school psychologist, and her teacher wants to talk with us about putting her in some type of counseling, which I fully support.

Because I grew up in a household with domestic violence, my husband and I are very calm people who are working on gentle parenting. I’m very afraid I passed my anxiety on to her. I don’t mention any of this around her, but I’m at a loss. (I am in therapy.)

Did I do this to her? Are there books I can read to her to help? How can I support her if/when counseling happens? How can I help her through all these big emotions? What I’m doing doesn’t seem to be working.

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—At a Loss

Dear AaL,

This is in no way your fault. This is a common issue amongst children her age. In most cases no amount of stellar parenting could mitigate these behaviors. What your daughter is experiencing is likely due to a combination of environmental and developmental factors. The good news is that you are taking the correct steps. Starting with counseling is hands down the best thing you can do. Seeking that type of support for your daughter at this age will not only provide potential solutions for your family to try in the short term, but will also set a solid foundation for her mental health that she will benefit from for the rest of her life.

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In the meantime, there are several books you could read that help young children better manage their feelings, but I would recommend using a tailored curriculum. I’ve often recommended resources such as Second Step or Kelso’s Choice to readers of this column. Both curricula teach students strategies that help manage those big feelings. Second Step also produces age specific content so your child can hone these strategies and build off them as she grows and as the problems that she faces inevitably become more complex. So, take a big deep breath, reassure yourself that everything will work out (because it will) and just take this journey one step at a time. I believe your daughter will thank you for being so intentional about supporting her mental health so early in life.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

Our 5-year-old son “Liam” is about a month into kindergarten. It seems to be going okay —he has positive things to share and is enjoying art, music, writing projects, and playing. There are a few things giving me pause, though, and I can’t tell if this is “normal” or not?

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A week ago, Liam casually mentioned that a classmate had touched Liam’s bottom in the group bathroom. Liam immediately told the teacher (who happened to be a substitute that day), who told the dean of students. The dean handled things really well with the kids. She followed up with us to loop us in, and her story matched Liam’s. He wasn’t upset by it. Although it wasn’t okay, I definitely got the vibe it was “5-year-olds trying to joke around in a not-okay way” and not something more sinister. We moved on.

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Today, I got another message from the dean that a student had pulled his pants down during class, and Liam had seen the kid’s private area. Liam told the classroom teacher, who reported it to the dean, and a similar process took place where she chatted with the kids involved. Again, she said Liam wasn’t upset—he just knew it wasn’t okay and knew he should tell a grown-up.

I responded to ask if it was the same kid (we’ll call him Sam) from the bathroom incident, but I haven’t heard back. If it’s not, Liam just seems to be on the unlucky receiving end of some bad kindergarten behavior. If it is Sam, I’m wondering if we should follow up to see if the teacher thinks Liam is somehow being targeted by Sam? I get that teachers are spread thin and not able to micromanage every single moment of behavior, but….it feels like Liam is getting pulled out of class to deal with these incidents every few days now!

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His teacher does not seem very communicative overall. We haven’t heard a single word from Liam’s classroom teacher since the first week of school. No emails, no phone calls, and not even a group message to the usual parent-teacher-sharing app. How normal is this? These incidents aside, we’d love to hear how she thinks Liam is doing, and what her impressions have been so far. Should I email her again? I don’t want to be “that” parent, but….my kid has had some crappy stuff happen! It’s exactly the kind of stuff that makes me think homeschooling parents are on to something. (For the record, my husband and I thrived in public schools and want the same for our kids. We don’t want to be those affluent white parents who send their kids private for no good reason.)

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How can we make sure his classroom teacher is looking out for him, even as he’s one of the “easy” kids who gets overlooked because he’s doing well? And how “normal” is this butt-touching, penis-sharing behavior by kindergarteners anyway?

—First-Time Kinder Parents

Dear FTKP,

It doesn’t seem like the teacher is communicating in a way that makes you feel comfortable and confident. Different teachers have different approaches to parent contact, and it sounds like Liam’s teacher is pretty hands-off, which works for some people but doesn’t seem like it’s working for you. There are two ways you can approach this, both of which are probably not going to get you labelled a difficult parent. The first is to reach out to the teacher directly. Tell her that you’d like to get more communication, even just updates. As long as you aren’t rude or pushy about it, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a teacher to reach out more often. The only times I’ve heard teachers complain about that is when parents are demanding or when the communication they ask for is above-and-beyond (i.e. emailing 7 paragraph treatises and expecting immediate responses…at 10 p.m.).

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Depending on your experience at the school, and your comfort level with the teacher, you could reach out to someone else instead. Because of the nature of the incidents, I would try the guidance counselor or the dean. You can tell them how you’re feeling and either they can work with the teacher to support your family better, or they can support you directly.

Regarding the exposure, the school has an obligation to protect the privacy of the child who did this. That being said, your concerns about bullying are totally valid, especially given the nature of the incidents. Regardless of whether it was the same kid, or a different kid, though (have you asked your son?), when you talk to the school, you should definitely confirm that the situation is being monitored. (I feel pretty confident that the situation is being monitored, and confirming that with the school would probably give you peace of mind.)

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As for how common this stuff is? It’s hard to say. Kindergarteners are just above the age where I would normally expect fixation on the privates, but not so far above that I’d expect every kid to have outgrown it. Besides, it’s been a weird few years. Child development norms are based on, well, normal circumstances. Kids are coming into kindergarten with less socialization, less practice leaving their homes and going places, and in many cases, more recent potty-training. It’s possible kids are just going through that phase of their lives a little later than we’re used to. I wouldn’t consider this behavior totally out of left field.

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Good luck. I hope that a talk with the school puts your mind (and your son) at ease.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, Colorado)

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