Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Choice, Censorship and Change...

Change is hard.

I'd finally settled down here, have a reasonably decent home with access to Brisbane for me, to sports activities for the kids, the beach close enough, a gym and yoga and writers' group. 

I'd really been content to settle down.

But our school isn't working out for the kids, mostly for the older two, and it isn't really meeting my expectations anymore either. 

Let me be the first to say that I tried to fight it.  I did everything I could to make it work.  But I'd already committed to homeschooling Ryan by May/June and just recently decided to withdraw Andrew as well.  That was a long time coming; he hasn't had real peers at our school since we started there. 

The decision to withdraw Aidan and Matthew as well is breaking my heart, but in the end it will be the right one for us as a family.

The boys will all start at a new school - yet to be determined - at the start of the new school term in January 2013.

Our school was there for us when we first came to the area 20 months ago.  It was all we had.  And it was - and still is - so much better than what we had previously.  The adminstration is responsive.  The teachers are excellent.  The twins' first two teachers - last year in prep/kindergarten and this year in year one are absolutely phenomenal.  The twins are learning at a second grade level.  And they just turned six.   Ryan's teachers adore her and Andrew's (often the same) are doing everything they can to expand his learning.  This is our family we are leaving, our first friends and our only support when we first arrived.

My heart is breaking.

But the fact remains that we have outgrown this school.

The silences I get from people who aren't allowed to give us advice say more than anything.

For whatever reason, we landed smack dab in the middle of a low-income/welfare, high-risk neighbourhood when we first got here.  We looked on the internet and booked into a housing development that would have us for six months.

And quite honestly, we were pretty happy. (And still are for the most part.)  A little surprised sometimes at HOW casual Australians seemed to be about things like lack of an education, but hey, all in all a nice group of people and people we got - and still do - get along with.

And our school gave us what we needed; Ryan's self-confidence mostly and an awesome early education for the twins.  Andrew was underchallenged from the time he arrived; after finishing two years of school in Germany he could have (and did most days) gone straight into grade 5 at our school academically and still outshone most of the kids there.  This isn't bragging any more at this stage.  It is fact. 

Andrew flat out needs more than our current school can give him. 

Ryan needs something that she hasn't gotten from either of her previous schools.  She is too mature socially for most kids her age - her good friends are 3 years older (and ride horses) - but still not picking up concepts academically. 

And since the needs of the other kids at our school are so remedial Ryan is the top of her class.  And miserable.

Neither of my older two kids can understand why the other children their age are so immature, why they are behaving like animals, why they don't listen, why they don't complete work, why they can't read.  The why's are obvious.  These are "at-risk" children.  They have parents in prison, they have parents on drugs, they are sexually and physically abused and in foster care.  Or they have loving parents who just don't know how to behave and parent themselves.

My heart bleeds for these children.

But they aren't the ones that have been entrusted to me to raise.

Aidan and Matthew have been in a different cohort of peers since the school's behaviour program has improved learning and discipline at the school from what it was a few years ago.  They have been with TWO handfuls of kids who I'd consider peers.  And they are thriving.

Four weeks ago the school split up this group of kids - the year ones - to put one handful each into separate classes forming two 1/2 classes were formerly there was a 1 and a 2.  The academic advantages of composite classes are that the twins can - and are - learning at a grade two level.  But the reason for the split was behaviour.  The school needs to level out the well-behaved kids and spread them around.  And there goes our peer group.

Next year I have to worry about the monsters they will have with them in a 2/3 class. 

And the fact that there really are no children in the grades ahead of them to look up to.

And what the 8 year olds will be like as ten year olds.

The twins are doing just fine right now.  They adore their teacher.  They love learning.  They are happy. 

But they too are exposed daily to behaviours that they shouldn't need to see.  And they will only get worse with time.

Is our school a "bad" school?  No.  In fact, like most schools in at-risk areas, it has a lower student-teacher ratio than most, and the academics are being taught.  The teachers are amazing; the teaching is way better than what it was in our previous school in Germany.

It's just that there are too many kids - at least 1/3 to 1/2 the class, really easily 1/2 the class, that come to school with behaviour problems they get from home.  At least 1/3 of some of these classes can't even sit in a chair.  They don't listen to teachers and they don't have the basic life skills to be able to learn.

No program or school, no matter how excellent, is going to make up for the what most of these children are lacking at home.

I am a bleeding-heart liberal.  I was dying - searching, begging - for a reason to keep my kids at a school where I could proudly say I put my  kids where my values are.  I wanted to help these at risk kids too, to say that I was a woman of the people, someone who gets along with everyone, who isn't above those who haven't always made the best life choices, whose kids can do well AND help others to do well too.  But not when I see the program failing.  Not when it puts my kids at risk more than it helps those who were already at risk.  There are too many of them.

(If you are reading this, you will know who you are and I am so sorry.  I am so ashamed to see you in the parking lot and tell you that I am walking out on you and your foster son.  I wanted to be a bigger, better person than that.  I wanted to be the person you are.  But it's too big for me.  I am not strong enough.  Maybe it's not my fight, I don't know; I wanted it to be.)

The school's goal should have been to retain children who aren't at risk as well as help those that are.   Retaining my kids would have helped others.  But not at the expense to my own kids.
In the silences and pointed stares, I get the message that we don't belong there anymore, that we should take advantage of other opportunities elsewhere.  I owe it to my children to give them the opportunities I can, to place them with peers whose behavioural expectations at home are the same as ours, to show them role models of what they can achieve as adults.

The school owes it to all the children - mine and others - to keep standards of behaviour high enough to keep middle-income families there.  I hope they can achieve that in the future but it is too late for us.  Why are we expecting lower standards of behaviour from these kids?  Why are we praising them for things they they know they ought to be doing anyway?  These kids aren't stupid; they know when they are being condescended to.  These kids ARE just as good as mine; maybe we should start treating them the same way and expecting the same behaviours.

How can I tell my boys that pulling down their pants isn't acceptable when they see it at school?  And the child isn't suspended.  How will that child know?  How about that child's parents?  Should I tell my kids that some social classes of people do stuff like that but people from our socio-economic background don't?  Do I tell them that certain classes of people DO use words like "fuck" and "cunt" in everyday casual conversation and that is what differentiates them from people like us?

We're becoming snobs just by not condoning the everyday actions of the people my kids go to school with.

The twins are doing fine where they are now.  For now.  But fine shouldn't have to be good enough.

I haven't said this before - I haven't blogged at all because if I can't write the truth I have a hard time writing at all - out of respect for a staff I admire and friends I care about. 

But the truth is that we all have a choice.  This school has a better program, staff and academics than many others.  (I'd say most but I will let you know once I have visited more of them!)  It is everyone's individual choice - harder for some, admittedly, than for others - to take advantage and grow or to stay where they are, physically, intellectually, emotionally and in all other ways.

It's not a bad life.  It's just not one I have chosen or will choose for my kids.

And while being courteous and respectful, and grateful for what the school gave us when we needed it, I don't want to have to censor myself on how I feel.

We are leaving the school because the school-wide behaviour program isn't working for us.  The kids are still unruly and they still aren't learning.  My kids are getting conflicting signals on what is and isn't acceptable behaviour.   Too much positive reinforcement for behaviours that should be the norm. 

"Why is a ten year old being excessively praised for not throwing a chair this week, Mom?    Why does that kid still throw rocks at me even when I have asked him - courteously - not to?"

"Because they aren't as lucky as you are."  I reply.  But my kids still shouldn't have to put up with it.

If one or two children in a class of twenty has severe behavioural problems, that is acceptable. That is when those kids can learn from being in a classroom with other children.  My heart DOES bleed when I hear some of these stories.    But if half the class has them, if 1/3 of the class is having troubles, then there are just too many of them and it helps noone.

It's not the education system that's at fault.  It's life and the unrotten unfairness of it.

But that still doesn't help my kids.

In Australia, unlike the USA, we have a choice.  We can compare schools online and in person and choose to put our kids elsewhere.  We can go private.  We can apply for scholarships.  We can homeschool.  We can apply to schools outside our catchment area if our children have special talents in academics, the arts or sports.

Choice is the beauty of the system.

And censorship limits that choice.

I have a right, not to malign or criticise, but to give fair and objective comment based on our experience. 

If the school would like to change public perception, the school should change its outcomes, not ask parents to mind what they say in the local community.

Our school is a wonderful opportunity for the low-risk community it is situated in.  But it is not for my kids.  My kids don't need to hear how fantastic they are for sitting in a chair or for listening to directions the first time they are asked.  Or for not pushing on the way down the stairs.  My kids need to see other kids actually doing the same.  It's a behaviour program for at-risk kids. 

My kids need peers.

So that as I struggle with the thought of this huge change next year, I have to reluctantly acknowledge that it is the natural progression of things.

I will be forever grateful for what our little school has done for us. 

I will cry and I will be sad and I will second -guess myself (on the twins only) a thousand times.

Choice is hard too.  I have to choose to move on.  It would be easier to stay, to accept 'just fine' and 'isn't hurting anything REALLY' as an alternative.

But prayer...or tarot...or just the energy in the telling me that the easy way isn't my way, that good enough isn't good enough for me, that I'm not meant to settle, down or in any other way, that the point of my path is in the following of it, in the exertion, not in reaching any set point of contentment.

My balance might just be found in movement.

Change is hard.  But it'll do if for the kids.  And me.


  1. Your strength is beautiful. Good for you and your lucky children, Christine.

  2. Thanks Linz...a bit of a ramble here but that's what happens when I don't cleanse myself on the blog regularly! Been attending poetry sessions at the QLD poetry festical last weekend and the QLD Writer's festival is next week.....feel so lucky to be here! If and WHEN you come visit, you have to come late Aug/early Sept to take advantage of the writing opportunities!