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'My Kid Goes to an Alternative School' ... Cue Judgment

Photograph by Twenty20

Whenever I explain that my son goes to a tiny, alternative middle school with a focus on emotional development and an outdoor program that leaves only three days in the classroom, I get a similar response. It’s usually an awkward pause and a quick change of subject. Occasionally someone loves the idea of this “whole child” approach to education, but most people seem to think it’s naive at best, and possibly downright negligent.

I’m new to the U.S., so it took me a while to realize why so many parents were skeptical about what I saw as an incredible environment for any middle schooler. Finally someone asked the million-dollar question, the one everyone had been thinking but was too icily polite to voice: “But how will that help him get into the right university?”

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I’d always thought the American obsession with Ivy League universities was an overblown urban myth. Obviously, I was wrong.

I finally understood how early this starts when my younger son, a fourth grader, said his new friend was going to study at Stanford. Apparently she decided years ago. My son happened to know that Stanford existed at all because he’d seen a water polo game there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought it was just a particularly fancy swimming center. Spanish 9-year-olds simply don’t have their university plans mapped out the way American kids seem to.

Even as parents, college was certainly not our sole focus when we arrived in Los Angeles last summer with three boys ready to start fourth, seventh and ninth grades. Obviously, our eldest needed to be thinking ahead. Luckily, he slotted neatly into the first year of high school.

I’m still puzzled as to why people think a traditional classroom routine is the only possible route to college. ... So much of traditional school is spent watching the clock.

But an alternative approach seemed logical for a seventh grader, especially one who had always studied in Spanish. This is such a vulnerable yet vital age in terms of emotional and educational development. The idea of sending him into the second year of middle school with almost 2,000 kids was tough.

Obviously, we want him to study a curriculum that would let him go to university if he eventually chose to, but at this stage I’m more concerned about him developing into a confident, capable person who enjoys learning and knows how to seize the opportunities—and cope with the challenges—that come his way. Where, or whether, he goes to a university could hardly be further from my mind.

But even if it was at the top of my list of priorities, I’m still puzzled as to why people think a traditional classroom routine is the only possible route to college. I guess the problem most people have with an alternative approach to education is thinking kids won’t spend enough time preparing for the tests that determine whether they get into the “right” universities. I don’t agree.

Don’t all these parents who think five days slogging it out in the classroom is essential to academic success remember how many hours they spent waiting for kids who couldn’t keep up, or who couldn’t be bothered? So much of traditional school is spent watching the clock.

I grew up on a remote Australian farm so far from the nearest school that we did all our schoolwork at home. We picked our work up from the mail box, and it usually took around an hour to finish. The rest of the day we were free to do whatever we wanted. We always scored way above average on standardized tests.

So my son is now at a school where he spends one day a week in the countryside, doing practical outdoor activities like metal work and rock climbing, another day hiking or visiting museums and cultural landmarks around L.A., then three intense days in the classroom. Every semester the whole school, all 50 or so kids, goes away for a week’s camping or hiking.

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He loves it. He looks forward to going to school every day, and he comes home full of detailed stories of what he learned both inside and outside the classroom. His school is so small and so focused on making sure everyone works together, he seems to be bypassing all the angst and social drama that can be so destructive at this age.

Of course I’m happy that he is happy. I’m also thrilled to see how much he is learning in terms of life skills and academic content. The confidence and sense of responsibility that can be nurtured in smaller groups means these kids make the most of their time in the classroom. They are all so motivated I doubt they will have any problems mastering the concepts covered in the standardized exams. I believe my son’s university options will be at least as open as if he he’d been slaving away in a classroom all week.

And better than that, he will have a wealth of confidence and experience to help him deal with all the challenges that life, and possibly college, will throw at him.

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