Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Challenges of Choice

If you live in Asheville and have one or more children who'll be entering kindergarten next fall, it's time to start the process of selecting a school. It's a privilege to be able to choose from among a number of great schools, but to some parents, it might feel like a burden.

Growing up, most of us attended neighborhood schools. There was no choice: We took the bus to the same school where everybody else went. Now, however, Asheville residents have choices in spades – more than 14 all told, including public, public charter, private and religious schools.

Here are a few thoughts to guide you as you embark on this exciting journey:
Pick the best school for your child, but do consider your public schools with an open mind. I am a champion of public education in the same way that I champion public radio. Both are so important. Healthy, diverse public schools are the lifeblood of a thriving community — and a meaningful democracy.

Asheville's alternative spirit is a hallmark of our community, but our skepticism of all things traditional may prevent us from investing in one of the most progressive, equalizing and democratic institutions ever to grace our nation.

When you think public schools, are you seeing desks in a row? Consider the community gardens bursting forth each spring at our elementary schools, or the arts-integrated classrooms that teach Shakespeare to fourth-graders. If you worry about standards, investigate the opportunity to study Spanish at least three days a week by the third grade, or learn about the various services available to the hundreds of gifted and special-needs students in the Asheville City Schools, who come from every corner of our community.

In the city schools, kindergarten families can choose from among five magnet elementary schools, each with an overarching theme designed to draw kids in. That enables you to find schools that match your own priorities. In my family, we're very concerned about environmental responsibility, so we're staying close to home. (My vision of a perfect world includes walking or biking to school in the mornings.)

The themes for the five magnet schools are as follows: technology and science, ecology and diversity, experiential learning, arts and humanities, and global scholarship. But that doesn't mean that other key areas are excluded. The arts-and-humanities magnet, for example, also teaches math and science, and all the schools encourage hands-on, experiential learning. Magnet themes are really a hook to engage families and kids in exciting and expressive ways.

All this choice, however, means that to secure a kindergarten slot in the Asheville City Schools (, you must apply by Monday, March 15. And keep in mind that while the district will work hard to ensure you get your first choice, each school's racial makeup must also be considered when placing students, because the system is still operating under a desegregation order.

Nonetheless, last year, every child whose application was complete and submitted on time (complete means including the required additional documents: Read the back of the application carefully!) was placed in their first-choice school.

Relax — all the schools are staffed by excellent teachers who are ready to delight in your child's unique qualities. Our district serves more than 3,700 students in 10 schools (one preschool, five elementaries, one middle school, two high schools and one middle/high school combination). Talking with parents whose kids are already in these schools can give you good on-the-ground information. But don't get caught up in the hype: School spirit is infectious, after all, and it's easy to be swayed by all the talk you may hear about the "best school."

And whatever you may ultimately choose, you're not stuck with it. If you find you aren't getting what you want or need for your child, you can make a change. Switching schools should not be done capriciously, but it's important to remember that you do have options.

So what's the best way to ensure that your child is nurtured and successful in school? Get involved, become an advocate and volunteer. Your child will thrive — and so will our community.

And if you're feeling a little freaked out, it's a sign that you care deeply — and that means your child has everything he or she needs. At my son's preschool, they sing a version of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" to prepare for graduation. It goes like this: "Don't worry about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be all right in kindergarten!"

I strongly encourage you to take those words to heart.

To learn more about some of our local programs, take the Asheville City Schools Foundation's Tour of Excellence on Thursday, Feb. 18, from 9 a.m. to noon. RSVP online at

Leah Ferguson is co-director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation.
Healthy, diverse public schools are the lifeblood of a thriving community — and a meaningful democracy.

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