Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guest blog: Now Nearing the BPS Lottery Starting Line...

I'm pleased to present a second submission from a guest blogger. This time, it's from a parent currently going through the lottery and school preview process alongside many of you. Stefan Lanfer writes about "the big mysteries revealed in the small moments" of fatherhood at http://www.dadtoday.com/. He is the father of two and lives in Jamaica Plain.

I'll still take submissions at kydecosta at yahoo dot com if anyone else wants to share their wisdom.


We moved to Jamaica Plain in 2001. In 2006, we became parents. And in 2010, we are stepping up to the starting line of a process that feels overwhelming and only nominally under our control - the lottery and school assignment process for the Boston Public Schools. Last year, like many young parents across the city, we tuned in to the Braving the BPS Lottery blog. We enjoyed the warts-and-all account from a family in our neighborhood going through the process just one year ahead of us. While it didn’t make it all seem any less intimidating, it did demystify it a bit. This year, it’s our turn.

Maybe it is just stupid optimism – the kind of optimism anyone feels who buys a lottery ticket, or heads to Foxwoods with a pocket full of cash – but whenever the hypothetical scenarios play out in my mind, I tend to picture us winning big. I imagine our form letter from the Boston Public Schools informing us we’ve landed one of the coveted spots at one of the “highly chosen” schools – one of the schools with the epic wait lists, a school that makes it easier for families with choices to hang in there in the homes, and communities, and neighborhoods they love, and to give it a go with the City’s public schools. Even as we just near the starting line, we hear other parents refer to those schools in almost hushed tones, as if speaking them too loudly would somehow jinx their slim chances – the Lyndon, the Kilmer, the Manning (where last year, at least the rumor mill has it, after special needs students, and siblings of older kids, there were something like five open seats for the dozens of parents that selected the school as their first choice.)

But you never can quite bank on winning the lottery. It’s possible that, after visiting, and visiting, and deliberating, and deliberating, and registering, and ranking, we end up just being assigned somewhere we didn’t choose, or not getting a placement at all (which does happen for K1 – Boston’s four year old kindergarten, which we’re looking at for James next year – where demand significantly outpaces supply, and placement is not guaranteed – as it is in K2). If that happens, we could revisit the budget, and tighten some and cut some, and pull off another year with our James (next year joined by Maya) at the private pre-school that we all love. And having them in the same place would be logistically a lot easier, if not financially. Then, we could try the lottery again next year, and hope again for the best. And if luck fails twice – then what?

Do we sell our home, and move into something half the size in a run-down corner of Brookline (does Brookline even have run-down corners)? Do we flee to some more distant suburb and convince ourselves that days and weeks and months of our lives on the commuter rail, or in road rage-y gridlock is a price worth paying for quality public education?

This was certainly the dominant choice for families in our boat for the last several decades. One set of our neighbors confided to us that they had given up on getting to know any of the young families who preceded us in our house. They churned through too often and too fast.

I spent much of this summer and fall training for the Marine Corps Marathon, which I ran on Halloween. On my long training runs, I often crossed out of Boston into neighboring Brookline. When I did, as the street signs switched from Boston’s white on green to Brookline’s black on white, I sometimes imagined life on that other side. Sometimes, sure, I admit it, I felt jealous – lately, above all for the luxury of top notch neighborhood schools, where enrollment is not based on lottery, but on address – as it was in the town where I grew up. I also just wondered who these people were, and how they could possibly afford such beautiful homes.

Yet on my last long run, my head was in a very different place. I made my way back from the Charles River along Market Street, through Allston-Brighton, and passed Boston College in Brookline’s Chestnut Hill Neighborhood. Then I added a loop around the Brookline Reservoir that sits beside Route 9 just west of the City line. The loop offers a hillside view of the Prudential and Hancock towers of Boston’s downtown. Then I made my way back towards JP by heading in to, and up, and over, and down, and through Lars Anderson Park. This time, instead of anxiety about the unknowns of school decisions arrayed before us, I thought about all we have, and all we get right where we are –

A car that sits in the driveway 90% of the time, because we can walk, or bike, or T to work and to play.

Nightly sunset displays from our back porch or dining room, and unobstructed views as the sky lights up over the lush hills of the Arnold Arboretum.

Over a thousand acres of green space in our backyard – nestled between the Arboretum, Forest Hills Cemetery, and Franklin Park, the jewels of Boston’s "Emerald Necklace."

One of the most diverse communities in Boston or anywhere, with a rich array of community traditions (the Wake Up The Earth Festival, Lantern Parade, First Thursdays, Worlds Fair, Open Studies, and more).

We are in such a special place.

And I know there are many special places, including many that would feel more comfortable, and more familiar to what I grew up with (and benefited GREATLY from) in an affluent suburb of another US city.

It does seem like something is changing. Some of our peers, including some among our friends, are already pulling the trigger, and splitting for Brookline, or Newton, or Needham, or Winchester, or Wareham, or Waltham, or some other town I have a hard time keeping straight on my mental map of Greater Boston. But there also seem to be new and different waves of young families, who are discovering, or rediscovering the kind of convenience and connection and quality of life that cities uniquely afford.

For all of the effort and dollars now focused on trying to fix public schools, sometimes I wonder if the most meaningful and impactful thing we could do – and that any family with choice could do – is to stay put. It is one of the few incontrovertible levers for lasting school reform – when more and more parents are more and more engaged, schools get better. Way better. Neighborhood and sense of community gets richer too. I know this kind of talk triggers clichés of bleeding heart liberal parents sacrificing kids on the altar of their ideals. But that cliché is based on a false paradigm. Because giving up on reaching for whatever it is the suburbs may have to offer isn’t our only possible sacrifice. There is gain and there is loss no matter what we choose.

I sure would like to stay.


Sarah said...

Just posted a long rant on Universal Hub, the essence of which is...stay. Stay, stay, stay. The lottery is dreadful, but it may be the worst part. Talk to as many parents as you can--not just your preschool cohorts but parents with older kids. There are a lot of us here with older kids who have survived and thrived in the BPS and strength lies in numbers. The more active, engaged, assertive parents we have in the schools the better they will become, and I would argue that most of them are not so bad in the first place.

Emanuele C. said...

Wouldn't be better to give a support or protest to change the bad Public School's quality? Maybe with a voluntary teaching with extra hours of History and Geography and Math...

Stefan Lanfer said...

Thanks, Sarah. What's the link to your Universal Hub article?

Stefan Lanfer said...

Interesting idea, Emanuele. I know some of Boston's top schools make great use of volunteers

Kathy said...

Hi Stefan,

Whenever someone criticizes the Boston Public Schools, I am one of the first to jump to their defense. I have two sons,one in 6th grade and one in 2nd grade. Our experiences have been very good but it does take a lot of time, work and involvement. Sometimes, it gets really tiring and I doubt the whole process. I develop these fantasies about suburban school systems, where none of these problems exist or the problems they have are on a much higher level (do we fund a little less music and art?? Or do we stop paying for sports uniforms?) While suburban schools may not have the complexity of the problems that BPS has, I know from talking with suburban friends that they have to stay involved in their kids' schools too. But my son is in middle school and if he does not make it into an exam school, we may consider a private school. The public school choices for middle and high school beyond the exam schools concerns me a whole lot. While again I think this is a problem that involved, active parents can help fix, I keep wondering if it's something I want to be part of (again) after having done this level of advocacy with my older son's elementary school. It does take a lot of time and energy to keep on top of these issues and school improvement starts to take over your life. I could easily go to several meetings a week, but I don't know how long I want to keep doing that. So, good luck to you with your decision. It's not an easy one.

Geeky Mama said...

Lots of comments there, Stefan.

Nora said...

When my parents were going through the lottery process to get me enrolled in kindergarten, the Haley was very low on their list. At the time, it was considered one of the worse elementary schools in our area. They were less than thrilled when I was assigned there, instead of a more desirable school such as the Lyndon or the Curley. It turned out to be an incredible stroke of luck.
Looking back now, as a 9th grader at Boston Latin School, I can honestly say that the four years I spent at the Haley were some of the best of my academic career. All my teachers were very nurturing and supportive, always pushing me to my limits, always challenging and supporting me. They gave me an educational founation that helped me succeed after I transferred to the Bates in fourth grade for the AWC program, as a sixth grader at the Irving, and has continued to help me in my two years (and a few months) at Latin. I'm coninced that I could not have gotten a better experience at one of the coveted first choice schools.
So, if your child doesn't get into the school(s) you want, don't worry. You might be surprised by the quality of a school that's not considered very good. I agree with Sarah, that engaged parents can have a huge role in changing a school for the better, and most of them are already a lot better than people think.

Mark B. said...

Do what you want - they're your kids. But this 'days and weeks and months' on the commuter rail? I think you're confusing it with the Red Line, which seems to break down like clockwork. The truth is, if you own a house in JP, you could sell it and buy up here in Dedham where I live, and pocket a profit while you're at it. And you can walk to the commuter train - I can - and be in South Station in minutes. Certainly faster than it takes you to get into downtown on the bus from JP.

There is a world outside of Jamaica Plain and Brookline - a scary world for some, with pickup trucks, and - horror! - Republican voters here and there - but a world none the less. Don't be suburbophobic - it's not a virtue.

Stefan Lanfer said...

thanks, kathy. really appreciate your perspective. clearly a process that doesn't end or get easier as the kids get older.

Stefan Lanfer said...

so glad to have your perspective as a student in this conversation, nora. the haley was actually the first school we visited during preview season, and wow what a relief and so encouraging to start the process at a school I could completely picture and feel great about for our kids. definitely a special place

Stefan Lanfer said...

thanks for the thoughts and advertisement for dedham mark. I've had far too many great years in suburbs and pickups and in the company of republicans to be phobic about that as possible choice. am just grappling with fact these are big decision with no easy answers

Kathy said...

Stefan, just a follow up. The situation may be better re: middle schools and high schools once your child gets to that age. But the reality is that the exam schools peel off a lot of kids. If an exam school is not the right place for your child or he/she doesn't get in, right now BPS doesn't have too many good alternatives.

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