Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why Aren't All Schools Like Catlin Gabel?

On Sunday, we attended an open house at Catlin Gabel, the most amazing school I've ever visited.

Admittedly, I don't have a lot of exposure to private schools. I'm the product of some of the best public schools in the country, and I never saw the need for private schools except as a place for the rich to socialize only with other rich people.

But since becoming parents, Scott and I have paid more attention to the problems in Portland Public Schools, and we want more for our daughter. The neighborhood we live in has schools that are rated "strong" by the state, the middle grade possible.

Ellie would probably do fine in those schools. She has two highly educated parents who are already encouraging her love of books. I'm sure she would get good grades at those schools, score decently on the SATs and get into a decent college.

But Portland Public Schools have cut out so much beyond the basics of education. Many schools don't have a formal art or music program for the students. The choices of electives in the high schools are limited.

We feel like every child deserves more than that, but the only one we can really make choices for is Ellie. So we've looked seriously at moving to Lake Oswego, where the public schools are outstanding. And we've dreamed of Catlin.

The campus itself is beautiful, and reminded me of what I'd expect to find at a small liberal arts college. Lots of buildings but plenty of open spaces on the 55-acre campus.

And boy, do they have everything. Foreign language studies start in first grade, when children are exposed to French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. They then choose which language they would like to study. In 10th grade or so, the students travel to the country of the language they have been studying to see it first hand. Wow.

And the students study subjects across multiple disciplines. Our fifth-grader tour guide described recent studies in which she and her classmates focused on paper towels. In science, they did experiments to determine which brand was the "best" paper towel. In math classes, they used spread sheets and databases to manipulate the data and highlight different points. In English class, they composed letters to the president of the company they had chosen as the best paper-towel maker.

Catlin believes in encouraging students to choose their own way of demonstrating their learning. We saw a display of fourth-graders' book reports on a bulletin board in the Lower School. Some students had written reports. Some had made dioramas. Someone had created a mock front page of a newspaper. Others had done art projects about their books.

I can't even begin to describe all the things I found wonderful about this school. It was more than the low student-teacher ratio. It was in the enthusiasm and excitement and attitude that the teachers displayed. (All the teachers were in their classrooms, available to talk to parents who stopped by during their tours.)

It's going to break my heart if the only reason Ellie doesn't get to attend this school is because of our finances.

The odds are against her anyway -- I think Catlin only accepts about a third of the students who apply. And while our income is technically within the range that they say they have given scholarships to families, we're near the top of it which means even if we get some financial aid, it's unlikely to be enough that we can really make it happen. At least, without giving up our savings for retirement and Ellie's college education. And that isn't a trade I'm willing to make.

We've talked about my getting a job solely to provide enough income to pay for tuition at Catlin. But I worry that with a chronic illness, it will be harder for me to get and keep a good job. And if I'm working fulltime, how can I volunteer in Ellie's classroom?

We all want the best for our children. And for us, this means really wanting Catlin Gabel for Ellie. We'll see if we can make it happen.


Kristi said...

So...stating the obvious...but to your question, "Why Aren't All Schools Like Catlin Gabel?"...

Answer: money

I've been reading some fascinating books about education in and out of schools. The break down of public school expenditures that John Taylor Gatto lists are startling. It's amazing how much of a tax dollar that is directed at education is absorbed by the 'education machine' or rather, the BUSINESS of education...which ultimately leaves less for the students.

Anonymous said...

I have also been a product of east coast public school system.

And I leave myself wondering, “What if I went to a school where every teacher every year was the most inspirational?”

The Catlin experience is what every child, who wants to go to school in America, should have the opportunity to apply.

I salute the parents who have, and are making it happen. They care.