Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why I Switched My Child from LAUSD to Private School

By Jenny Heitz

Before I even begin this tale, I’d like to state for the record that I went to LAUSD through 7th grade (after that I attended Crossroads). For the most part, until middle school, the public experience was positive. Perhaps I wasn’t challenged as much as I might have been at a private school, but it was the 1970s and the Los Angeles private school mania hadn’t gone bonkers just yet.

So, when it was time for my daughter Anna to switch from her Montessori pre-school to elementary school (she attended kindergarten at Montessori), sending her to Third St. Elementary seemed like a fine idea. It was, after all, our neighborhood school. I believed in the concept of public education, as well as the diversity a public school provides. But from moment one, there were problems.

Anna’s first grade teacher was a newbie, and she had very little love for my admittedly precocious daughter. “I thought I had a teenager in my class,” the teacher told me, not in a nice way. The year progressed rather poorly. Anna blew off homework (copious amounts for first grade). She didn’t return after a bathroom break and was found playing on the monkey bars. On the other hand, the teacher was barely in control of the class, assigning absurd animal reports to six year olds (black widow spider, anyone?), and seemed overall not up the task at hand. We stuck it out and hoped second grade would be better.

And it was. Anna’s second grade teacher was a total pro. He recognized her need for academic activity and had her do extra work, help the other kids, and generally kept her out of trouble. It was a good year. At the end of the year, he suggested she get tested for Gifted and Talented (GATE) status. We signed her up for the test.

Meanwhile, third grade begins. She is assigned a teacher with a wonderful reputation. Yet, Anna was bored. Really, really bored. She finished her homework in ten minutes. She never had anything to say about anything she’d learned. Her teacher complained Anna seemed “distracted,” yet her grades were terrific. The teacher never wanted to assign extra work, so this cycle continued. Something was up.

After not hearing from LAUSD regarding her test, we decided to get an independent opinion. We took Anna to a child psychologist, who administered the WISC IV, an I.Q. test. It took about an hour, and Anna enjoyed it. At the end, we found out that Anna’s scores indicated she was highly gifted. The psychologist recommended private school for her, especially Mirman, one of the few schools in the country teaching only highly gifted children. We took her advice, and luckily got Anna into Mirman off the waiting list for fourth grade.

We never got a real I.Q. test from LAUSD for Anna. And it wouldn’t have mattered if we had. The joke is, there is no real GATE program through LAUSD to cater to gifted students anyway. Yes, the program exists on paper, and it has a name and requirements for entrance (there’s even someone in charge of the GATE program at Third St., although we never could get her on the phone), but since there’s no enrichment classes available at Third St., it was all meaningless. It seems almost funny now, but at the time we were just scratching our heads in bewilderment.

The lack of enriched academic resources aside, there were other problems with LAUSD that seem glaringly apparent to me after the fact. The school, which has fabulous test scores, struggles annually to provide anything for the children beyond the bare minimum. The parents work tirelessly on the school’s behalf, but it’s a Sisyphean task as there’s always another budget cut on the horizon. All those Culture Days, all those fundraisers, don’t seem to keep the school from sinking deeper into budgetary mire. I still hear about goings on at Third St.; this year they lost their librarian and janitors and have a truncated school year.

I wonder sometimes: where does all the money go? How can it not get to the individual schools? How can teachers have to beg parents for basics like copy paper (I bet there’s no shortage of copy paper at LAUSD headquarters). Each year, more cuts ensue, more extras like art, music, and physical education are eliminated from curriculum's. Each year, either classroom sizes increase, or teachers are fired (always the new and enthusiastic ones), or the school year is shortened. Yet there’s still never enough money, just endless ways to make the classroom as ill equipped, dull, dirty, and dispirited as possible. How can a bureaucracy that is supposed to, in theory, serve children, be so callous toward them?

So, I gave up on LAUSD for a variety of reasons. And the irony is, Third St. is a good LAUSD school. It makes me wonder about all those other schools, the ones with really poor scores and not enough parents with the time and money to devote to their school (not that, as at Third St., all that parent involvement makes that big a difference in the end). Life might not always be fair, but the state of LAUSD is way more unfair than it needs to be.

My friends who have stayed in the public system are mostly sending their kids to charter schools or magnet schools, where the demands for volunteerism lead to palpable results. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s far better than the standard LAUSD alternative. But many of these parents look into the future with dread, as middle and high schools looms with few good options available. They are scrambling to gain “points” through the LAUSDprivate school entrance competition can be fierce), it’s easier if she makes the switch to private now.

Private school has been a blessing for Anna. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to send her there. She’s fulfilled and enthusiastic, and talks about what she’s learning constantly. The campus is idyllic. It’s a total sea change from the LAUSD experience. Switching her out of LAUSD was the absolute right decision. And I know that we were lucky to have the option.

Jenny Heitz writes the gift giving blog Find A Toad ( She is the mom of a 4th grade daughter who attends The Mirman School. She lives in Los Angeles.