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Thursday 12 January 2012

The School Merry-go-round...

The new school year is about to start back home in Australia, but here in California we are in a completely different stage of the school cycle: application time.

The school system here is very different from what we are used to so I thought I'd share a little of the madness that is applying for schools in America.

Back in Adelaide we had decided to send Ava to a private school. This was a personal choice that Kim and I had made based on several things, one of the main reasons being that we weren't happy with any of our local public schools. Although it would have been an extra expense, the private school that we had selected for Ava was relatively inexpensive when compared to some of the other schools around.
Now that we're in California, those expensive private schools in Adelaide (Westminster etc) seem like a bargain. Private Elementary (Primary) schools in the East Bay area start at around $21,000.00 per year!

So with private schools out of the picture (unless Kim gets another full-time job!) we've decided to send Ava to a public school. Initially I was really worried about sending our kids to a public school in America. The picture painted in the media of America's public schools is not a rosy one. For the most part, the media has pretty accurately portrayed the plight of America's public schools. Cuts in public funding, particularly in California, have meant that a lot of what we consider standard in Australian public schools has been taken away. Luckily though, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) is one of the rare exceptions. Berkeley residents are proud of their public schools and have voted to increase public spending on schooling through a special local tax (Berkeley Schools Excellence Program) which was first introduced in 1986.

This means that all public schools within the BUSD enjoy standards that are above those in other school districts in California. For example class sizes are kept to strict numbers. Kindergarten, which is the equivalent of Reception at home, has a maximum class size of 20 students. This is in line with the California standards however most schools throughout the state do not meet the standard.

Arts education, which has been cut from many schools across California, has been maintained as an important part of the curriculum within BUSD schools. Dance, drama, music and visual arts are all very important parts of the curriculum. Visual Arts are heavily focused on and the hallways of any school in the district are plastered with the creative output of the students. In regards to music, all students leave Elementary School in Grade 5 with the ability to read sheet music and play at least one instrument. I'm sure there are exceptions, but in general this is the case.

With such an emphasis on creativity one would expect that academic results might have suffered. This does not appear to be the case within BUSD. Literacy and numeracy results within BUSD schools rank very high. The focus on creativity and artistic endeavours seems to have resulted in students who, for the most part, are happy to be at school and eager to learn.

So, it would seem that public schools in our area are pretty good and we should have nothing to worry about regarding our girls getting a good education. This in fact, was one of the main factors in us deciding to live in Berkeley rather than San Francisco. The tricky part, however, lies in getting Ava into our chosen school. This is something that is completely out of our control. Rather than just sending Ava to our closest Elementary School we are at the mercy of the "random selector computer" that lives deeps within the bowels of the BUSD building.

When applying for a public school in California parents must select their top three preferences from their zone within the school district. Your application goes into a lottery and you keep your fingers crossed that your first choice comes up in the first round. If you don't get your first choice school in the first round your application goes back into the lottery for round two and so on. Last year approximately 70% of a children ended up with a place at their chosen school.

Now remember I mentioned the word "random" above? The lottery is really only random to a certain point. When submitting your child's application to the BUSD you are required to answer questions relating your child's race and your own education level. BUSD requires this information for the sake of diversity. Each school must have a particular ratio of children from different racial, cultural and economic backgrounds. This means that your child may miss out on your chosen school as the allocation for your particular racial or economic group has already been exhausted. There may still be places available at your chosen school but they will only be available to children of a particular race or economic background to round out the diversity of the school.

If your child misses out on your preferred school they can be placed on a waiting list. Unlike most waiting lists this one does not work on a first in, first served basis. Children are segregated into their racial and economic groups on the waiting list and will be allocated a place in the school only if there is a requirement for a child of their particular background. Hmm, segregating people based on race or economic background... What's that called again?

I like the idea of Ava and Lola attending a school with children from diverse backgrounds but this method of allocating places at school is crazy. Good old political correctness going over the top again.
It also means that children may have to travel much further to school than they really should. If your local school has already reached the allocation of children from your particular group, your child may have to travel much further afield to another school. Two of the schools within our particular zone are within walking or bike riding distance, one is just a little too far to walk but fine to ride to, and the remaining two would require us to purchase a car. Needless to say those two schools, although good, will not be making it into our top three selections. School buses are available but the idea of sending my five year old daughter off on her own is more than a little daunting!

So fingers crossed Ava gets offered a place at our chosen school, a nice 15 minute walk away. We won't find out until March so I'll try not to get my hopes up in the meantime.

Good luck to all those kids back home who will be starting school in a few weeks. Ava is very jealous and wishes she was joining you :)

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