The Big Reveal

It’s time for the Big Reveal. Which school did we pick after nearly three years of searching?

We’ll get to that in a moment. First, let me say that my choice shouldn’t mean much to anyone else. If I’ve learned anything from this process, it’s that school decisions are highly personal. I judge other people's decisions a lot less than when I started looking.

Also, this region is blessed with lots of good schools. Maybe the best advice we heard as we looked was from certified school psychologist Martha Benoff who told a group of worried parents to remember that “there is no one right school.”

In fact, parents fortunate enough afford private school face a classic First World problem. We have so many options that we start parsing the value of one school’s college-like campus or comparing language programs. These are good problems in a city where so many people instead of a choice have only a crummy local school where many kids are strugging.

I had hoped to send our son to a Philadelphia public school, but as mentioned earlier, my catchment school seemed unknowable. We did not get into a nearby school, Bache-Martin, through the district’s Voluntary Transfer Process.

Would we have gone there if we had? I don’t know. By the time the district gave us our answer, we had already put a deposit down on a private school. It would have been hard to turn back.

The parents organizing around Bache have done an amazing job, and the school, last I checked, has surprising assets, including small class sizes, a refinished library and music lessons. Everyone I talked to who had children there was happy, and I gave more weight to their opinions than to those of neighbors who had negative impressions but no direct experience at Bache.

Even so, it seemed impossible to evaluate, and the district’s letter left me relieved at having one less decision.

We applied to Independence Charter School via the lottery but were at the bottom of their waiting list. I thought about other charters, but by the time we had to apply, looking had worn me out. The more I looked, the less it seemed I knew about what made a school good.

In fact, so many schools seemed good that I had to do triage on my list so that our occasionally shy son would not have to go through needless “play dates” where teachers and administrators at a potential school evaluated him.

My reasons for crossing schools of the list often felt niggling. An administrator at one school said, “We don’t accept your child unless he’s smart.”

 I regret not shooting back: “I can’t see how any child is going to do well here if you are predicting his future based on meeting him briefly when he is 4 years old.”

Fear that a rough retort would hurt my son’s admissions’ chances left me silent, but the comment made it easier to strike that school from the list later.

Price was another deciding factor. The Philadelphia region has plenty of private schools that charge about $20,000 yearly. I didn’t want to rule them out completely, so I let myself choose just one: Germantown Friends School. I know so many happy families there. The school’s academic reputation is unquestioned. Despite the price, parents who had children there said it felt not like a bastion of privilege but like a strong, urban academic community.

Two schools were more affordable, and they, too, felt wonderful:  Greene Street Friends and Waldron-Mercy Academy.

Germantown Friends nearly had us. It seemed to have more resources than the other two, including a gleaming new athletic facility. When the GFS admissions counselor sat down with us in the meeting house and talked about how students get a chance every week to engage in silent contemplation in that sacred space, it felt like we belonged.

Greene Street Friends is just across the street from Germantown Friends. Kindergarten tuition is $12,800 yearly, a much more gentle number to work into the family budget.

Housed in a series of small buildings, Greene Street feels warm and nurturing. Parents with children there love it.

Waldron Mercy is on the Main Line. What was the point of living in the city if I was going to bus my child to a suburban school?

Plus, I had mixed feelings about Catholic education. My husband and I both think we benefitted from our combined 32 years in Catholic schools, but we were still wary. How could we not be, given the priest scandal and the many ways in which our beliefs diverge from current Catholic teaching? And would the education be too traditional? Would there be enough time for science and reading with daily religious instruction?

But something made me look. The mansion and surrounding campus were gorgeous – so much so that it felt a little too privileged. With tuition at just $11,700 and a relatively diverse student body, though, it seemed like the school was trying to keep a good education affordable.

When our tour guide said something like, “By eighth grade, all our children can write a 10-page paper.  We start working toward that goal in 5th grade.”

Those words made me feel like Renee Zellweger in Jerry McGuire , only instead of “You had me at hello,” I felt like saying, “You had me at 10-page paper.”

I never wrote anything that long until college. As a writer, I know that consistent practice is the only way to improve. The soaring wood ceilings in Waldron’s new, airy library invite children to sit and read all day. I pictured Luke spending happy days reading there. Waldron also had music practice rooms, a sign that they take such instruction seriously.

The school emphasizes care of the poor and community outreach in its teachings, which also fit with our family’s view of Catholicism.

Even so, I wanted to make this decision using my head as well as my heart. We loved Germantown Friends, but the price felt high.

Greene Street was charming and seemed to have a strong curriculum, but we chose Waldron for a few small reasons and one that surprised me.  All the children there must sing in a chorus. My son likes to stay in the background, and a chorus felt like a great way to help him build confidence by performing. Waldron also has a swim team. I’m a lifelong swimmer and want to make sure my son can enjoy the water.

And then the surprise factor – the nuns. The school was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, an order that emphasizes helping the poor sick and uneducated, and while there aren't many nuns at Waldron now, their influence is there.  Project HOME’s Sister Mary Scullion belongs to their order. I thought about all the wonderful nuns who had educated me, helped me plan my wedding, and have simply been there, really, at crucial junctures in my life.

The New York Times’ Nick Kristof captured the spirit of nuns and their work in the church beautifully here.

And that was it - Waldron Mercy, for its music, swimming and nuns.

(This will be my last blog post. I am leaving the Inquirer for a job at another company.)