Monday, June 15, 2009

A Word About Public Schooling

Included among the choices for parents who can no longer afford yeshiva tuition is the idea of public schooling with an afternoon program of Jewish studies, either in a formal program or privately provided.

I'd like to say a word here about public school. I attended public school. My reason for doing so was not a matter of choice. The day school in Portland was not started until I was almost at the end of elementary school, and there was no yeshiva high school. I went to one of the top 10 ranked high schools in the country--purely accidental to why I went there--it was the local high school. I can't say I didn't get a great secular education, because I did. But education then and education now is a whole different kettle of fish. And then there is that school is not only about the education.

Parents of children allergic to some type of food talk and talk to their kids about not sharing food with friends, of not taking bites of things they are not 100% sure is okay. It sure can put a crimp into the social patterns of sharing, particularly for younger kids. Now change allergy to kashrus concerns. Put a child into public school and tell that child that they can't eat any snacks provided in the classroom, they can't eat at any classroom birthday parties, they can't eat the food from the lunchroom. Tell that child they can't swap snack with their fellow students. Good luck to you. Ask parents of those allergic children just how many emergencies they have a year when their children have forgotten all the warnings.

Then there is the social aspect. I did not spend any time in my fellow classmates homes. I saw them in school and that was it. Honestly? The younger school years and the high school years are about socialization, about doing things with friends, about finding a peer group. And when you are one of only zero to three frum kids in a school your socialization is difficult to say the least. Sure, the shul and the Jewish Community Center had some after school activities (at least these had some Jewish kids, even if not frum), and the few frum kids in Portland latched on to those, but that didn't truly make it any easier to be sitting around a classroom hearing about activities that you were not going to be a part of, that you hadn't been invited to. Don't discount how hard it is to spend 7 hours a day sitting next to people you are not supposed to become good friends with.

[Note: if you think the social aspect is not all that important, take it from me--it is. Important enough that my family applied to the state to have me graduate after three years with a full diploma so I could get out and head to Stern. I had to go to summer school after my third year of high school to take certain courses I needed, but I was the first person in Oregon to leave high school after three years with a diploma. In its ruling the Board of Ed recognized that "socialization issues" are indeed part of high school and that our petition had merit.]

And let's also be honest and state a truth about children and growing up. Children can be cruel. Those who are different somehow frequently come in for their share of ribbing, some of it not so good natured. When little Sarale walks into the public school with her long socks, her long skirt and her long sleeves do you really believe that the other children won't notice? And that they may not comment? When Moishele's tzitzis hang out over his pants you think no one will notice? When Sarale and Moishele wash for a motzi and bentch after lunch, you don't think they will garner stares? When they bring matza sandwiches to school on chol hamoed Pesach, you think someone won't comment? (And yes, there will be school chol hamoed Pesach and chol hamoed Sukkos.) And just for the record, what will you do if Sarale or Moishele doesn't want to be the odd man out any longer, doesn't want to be all that different? Children seem to have an innate desire for fitting in, for being the same as their peers. What are you going to do if Sarale or Moishele start choosing the "same" they see during the daytime hours instead of the "same" that they see at home?

Now let's look at some real concerns apropos of the public schools. There is a reason why even very young children are being given anti-drug messages in the schools. There is a reason why sex education classes are starting at an ever younger age. There is a reason why anti-drinking posters can be found even in elementary schools. I'm not saying that all students in public schools indulge in every variety of troublesome behavior. But a whole lot do. This is not to say that yeshiva students never indulge in this same behavior, but they do so at a far lower rate than in the general public.

And when frum kids in this milieu see and hear what it is inevitable that they are going to see and hear, then what? Do you think that spending day in and day out in a public school setting will be completely counterable by you at home or by an after school yeshiva program? Pre-teens in particular have a tendency to copy each other's speech patterns. They want to sound with it. I may not be fond of Yinglish, but I'll take it any day over the "colorful Anglo Saxon metaphors" (thank you Mr. Spock) heard in the public school hallways. Once, on a posting dealing with sleepaway camp, a few people commented that such camp was necessary because of the, how to put this, "condition of undress" that can be seen on the city streets during warmer weather. Hang around an elementary or intermediate or junior high public school at dismissal time in warm weather. You'll get an eyeful.

There were, many decades ago, some single sex frum girl only classrooms in a public school in Williamsburg. There was sufficient registration to make this possible and sufficient room in the school. Even if you were able to get a whole class's worth of frum students together today 1)there would be no guarantee that you would have an even division of boys and girls, so that separate sex classrooms might not be a possibility and 2) there would be no guarantee that all the frum kids would be put into one classroom together. Many of the public schools are already severely over-subscribed. There isn't an empty classroom just waiting for the frum kids to come in. It is likely that the frum kids would be divided up among the already existing classes.

You think you are going to have any clout to get things arranged the way you want when you put your child into public school? Dream on. When your child is absent for yom tov and the school is open, those absences are going to count. When your child misses work because of yom tov, that work will have to be made up, and on the school's schedule, not yours. Don't expect to be able to walk into that public school office and tell the administrator that you are leaving 4 days before Pesach to go to Israel and you need to get all of Sarale's assignments ahead. And don't think you will have any influence on curriculum and what will be taught and assigned. Can't wait to see your face when "Heather Has Two Mommies" shows up in the classroom library and on the reading list. Or when your fifth and sixth graders get coed health ed. Send your child to public school and your frumkeit is mostly irrelevant to the school. You're going to be a very small minority.

No, everything about the public schools I went to was not bad. As I said, my schools provided a top notch education. A lot of the students were very nice and I wasn't totally isolated during the school day. But that was then, and now is a whole lot different. Public school may be an alternative to an unaffordable yeshiva education, but it's hardly the best alternative. Those who are using the threat of putting their children in public school when dealing with yeshivas over tuition had best be very careful that they will not be "hoist with their own petard." Or to put this another way, "Be careful of what you wish for--you just might get it."


Anonymous said...

I think you're really just showing the worst.

I have 2 kids in public school with very mild special needs. It's not my first choice to have them in public school, but it's better than a dysfunctional yeshiva situation in which the yeshiva can only handle perfectly average children. And it's better than putting these essentially mainstream kids in a special ed yeshiva.

This is elementary school, and I imagine middle school would be different, but we don't plan to keep them in public school by the time they get to middle school.

Not one negative word about yarmulke and tzitzis. My kids do not want to eat traif, so they don't, and a caring staff member makes sure they get kosher treats when treats are needed, even if I forget to send them.

Absences for religious holidays do not count against the total. I have been reminded unbidden to send a note excusing the children for religious absences.

I do keep them out of school for Chol Hamoed Pesach, but that is because the issur of eating chametz is a mashehu, that even a crumb is forbidden. I haven't been given any trouble for this.

Benching and washing, that is a problem. I haven't figured out how to get these young children to do so in public school. I reinforce it at home and by sending them to Jewish day camp. They're not bar mitzvah yet, I rationalize.

Dress codes in the public school eliminate the worst of inappropriate dress. Tank tops, spaghetti straps and strappy sandals aren't allowed anyway.

I am only talking about first and third grades, but I think health education in first grade was a good thing. The children are taught about home safety, stranger safety, and how to recognize and deal with emotions. The class was called "Family Life". This is great for six year olds. Given that molestation in yeshivas is not just a fantasy, I wish yeshiva children had the benefit of such a class that my public school kids got. At yeshiva kids a flyer reminding parents about fire safety at Yom Tov and Chanukah time. That's it.

I think middle school and high school would be a whole other story, and I'm not eager to make my kids part of that scene, so we'll avoid it if we can. But even there, I see benefits. There are way more AP courses to choose from at our local high school. There are music lessons and orchestra; my daughter who has played flute since third grade is an anomaly in her yeshiva high school. Exclusive of limudai kodesh, the education is more well rounded.

I don't know what if anything will save the yeshiva system, but only showing the bad about public school is just not the truth. When people find out public school is not this unmitigated evil, they're going to wonder what else they've been taught that's just not true.

Oh, and my kids' special needs? There are tons of kids like them in yeshivas. Many of them are struggling socially or academically. Many of them are ignored by unqualified teachers or relegated to shadows so the teacher doesn't have to address them at all. Many of their parents are going through heartbreak, paying extra for resource room, shadows, and tutors and essentially begging schools to keep them.

On the other hand, my kids have certified teachers who help us deal with their relatively minor problems. The teachers have seen a ton of kids with the same issues over the years. My boys have limudai kodesh tutors that we hire on the side. They are learning well and they enjoy learning.

I really think we have it better because we have not rejected public school. And this district we are in is average. It is not a particularly highly rated district, but it seems to be quite capable of handling a few minor issues.

Renee said...

Tesyaa, special needs children no matter to what degree are an ongoing problem in the yeshiva system. Part of it is the attitude, coming from who knows where, that frum kids are perfect and have no problems, regardless of how many examples there are that the opposite is true.

I spent my whole professional life in the public school system, my husband in the yeshiva system. We've compared notes over the years and shared our experiences. What ProfK wrote exists. The social issue is a big one. And also the influence of what is seen which is so different from what frum kids see at home. Even you wrote that some of the things she said you have problems with, such as the bentching and having to keep the kids out for chol hamoed Pesach.

It's interesting that you warn that the Prof made things sound too evil but you aren't considering the public schools for when the kids get to middle school. For some children being in a different school every four years is the type of disruption that affects their learning.

For the average kid a full yeshiva education is still better than a mix of public school and yeshiva. Do the yeshivas need fixing? A lot of fixing? A number of them do. But public school is not a better choice for most parents, just another choice and not necessarily the best choice.

Gail said...

Mine isn't a religious family (I'm bt)and I went to public school all the way straight through. The system is not as bad as everyone likes to believe but a lot of that depends on where you live. Saying public school doesn't say anything. Which school in which district? The elementary school I went to was fine then but is on the state watch list now.

My husband and I (he's also bt) chose only day schools for our kids. We've seen both sides and believe it really is better for religious kids to be in a religious environment. We chose the place where we live because of the day school/high school available. And yeah, the cost of that education has put a real twist in the money available to us, but we figure it to be a kind of investment in our kids so that they grow up religious without taking the detours that we did.

Orthonomics said...

I have a number of comments and all in all I don't want to see public school become the default position.

However, I do think you are overstating some aspects. I don't think the teasing aspect is quite what you make it out to be, depending on what type of public school we are talking about. At least in my experience, public school is somewhat diverse. There were siblings from strict religious backgrounds who dressed the part that were perhaps thought strange, but they were socially accepted and maintained close friendships and were in fact popular in a nice way.

At least when I was in school, all sex ed materials were previewed by parents and kids were pulled out. Certainly were I grew up a book like "Heather Has Two Mommies" simply wouldn't have made it into the classroom. But, I'm afraid where I live currently, it would.

I do know that the teachers of kids I know in public school have been extremely accomodating about food. Some might say too accomodating. Apparantely the kosher pizza shop has been picking up some business they wouldn't normally have.

That said, I hope to keep my children in a religious environemnt and I think dealing with tuition should be a #1 priority.

Rae said...

Public school as an alternative keeps turning up in the arguments about high yeshiva tuition. Could we be honest here? Those who would or do put their kids in public school now who are frum are doing so for reasons similar to Tesyaa's reason--for services not available in a yeshiva or available at only an exorbitant charge. Maybe a few others who have a terrible fit with the yeshiva available locally for their kids. But the vast, and I do mean vast majority of parents want a full Jewish education for their kids, and the yeshivas know it. Why do you think it's so hard to get them to budge about opening up their books and being more transparent about where the money goes? They know we aren't pulling our kids out to public school, so what weapon are we bargaining with?

About the only things that might stand up to yeshiva bullying are if full tuition paying parents, especially in the preschool and younger grades, pull their kids out for cooperative learning groups--sort of homeschooling for a bunch of kids together. That is feasible, even for working parents. Even a tiny percentage of full tuition paying parents who might leave the school spells disaster for a school's budget.

But please let's leave public school out of the discussion. Those who need it would choose it even if yeshiva tuition weren't exorbitant. Most of the rest of us wouldn't.

JS said...


I was disappointed with this post. Maybe this was your experience however many years ago in Portland, but I didn't feel it gave your readers an accurate picture of public school. I did not attend public school, but I had a group of friends who did - two were Jewish, but not religious at all, and the rest were Christians from various ethnicities. We all got along just fine. No one made fun of my kippah or the fact that I couldn't eat what they were all eating. Besides, if any of them did it was immediately shut down by the Jewish, but irreligious kids. Besides, teasing is just part of growing up. I was teased mercilessly by kids when I was growing up for various reasons. Is that a reason to say yeshiva is inappropriate? If anything, kids in yeshiva should know better and be taught greater derech eretz and kavod habri'ot.

Which brings me to my next point. It seems that every time I hear parents talking about kids in yeshiva or a bar/bat mitzvah or a wedding or NCSY, etc invariably the conversation turns to how kids are vilda chayas - how they have no respect for parents, teachers, rabbis, or others' property. What kind of middot are kids learning (or not learning) in yeshiva? If you're going to be spending $12-15K per child for K-8 grade, shouldn't you expect more?

Also, in many areas where Jews live, the public schools are quite good and have a significant number (if not majority) of Jews (albeit not Orthodox Jews). We live in an incredible age of multiculturalism and I don't understand why Jews only see the bad side of it. The accommodations that non-Jews or non-religious Jews WANT to make for religious Jews is just astounding. It's just as unacceptable in a school to make fun of a child for a kippah as it is to make fun of a child for being a different race or ethnicity. Just as schools make accommodations of allergies, they would make accommodations for kashrut and bring in extra snacks for a party or look for brands that are kosher. You shouldn't assume that everyone is an antisemite out to get the Jews - people want to be inclusive, they want to be nice.

Finally, relying on a school to make your kids frum is a huge mistake and in some instances amounts to mild brainwashing (especially for the year(s) in Israel after high school for kids who have low self-esteem). Many issues you pointed out aren't even issues, and if they are, they're not bar/bat mitzvah'ed and are part of the chinuch process. Frumkeit, in all its aspects, has to come from the home. If your children see how much emphasis and importance you place on it and you spend the time with them on it, they will learn that and appreciate that.

Orthonomics said...

Just a funny laugh.
My child came home asking why some kids had two mommies. I was slightly confused knowing that "Heather has Two Mommies" is not at all part of the curriculum.

After a little more discussion I found he was trying to identify which caretaker was the Mommy and why there were two of them.

Of course, some kids with nannies also are trying to wrap their head around this. I remember one time when we were at the park and a girl around 5 years old asked my son who I was. He replied, "that's my Mommy." She said to him, "but where is your nanny?" Of course, he did not know what a nanny was, so I explained to the girl that he does not have a nanny. She was trying to wrap her head around that and kept inquiring who did x, y, and z if there was no nanny.

Anonymous said...

ProfK, many of your comments are the reason I don't want to put my kids in Public schools if they will be the only frum ones. But if there are plenty of other frum kids there, then I wouldn't be so reticent about it. Maybe if (when?) the MO day schools implode, it won't be just a few families that have to send their kids to public school, but instead a larger number of them will be forced to do so? Meanwhile we bankrupt ourselves.

Mark [never attended public school, well, except in Israel:-]

A Living Nadneyda said...

I'm with Tesyaa... public schools (good ones, at least) can have multiple merits.

I had an excellent public high school education: four solid years -- each -- of hard science, math, literature, the arts, phys. ed., a second language (Latin, and yes, I know, if I ever meet some ancient Romans, I'll be ready!), and US / European history.

I exercised my option to take a written exam in lieu of a semester health/sex ed. Our school had a dress code outlawing the most outlandish options, and as for the rest, well, in California you just learn to deal with it. Swearing? Please... as if religious kids never swear. (I've heard plenty...)

As for social life, mine revolved around other kids, mostly Jewish, mostly religious, mostly female, not all homogenously dressed, but we learned not to exclude on the basis of externals alone, a crucial social lesson especially relevant in a town with few religious Jews.

We learned that every one of us could -- and did -- make a difference. I'll take that any day over the bust-out-the-ruler approach way too many religious girls' schools use to objectify their students.

And, BTW, a majority of us are at least as "religious" as we were then... how many graduates of religious high schools can say that about their peers?)

Yes, there are gaps in my Torah knowledge, but if I haven't "caught up" by now I only have myself to blame.

I am sure there are many good religious schools out there, but I would never assume automatically that a religious school provides a better education. When you throw the financial wrench into the picture, I really start to wonder if, at least for some families, public school isn't the preferable option.

SubWife said...

Excellent post. i went to public high school for two years, and from my experience I can see that almost everything mentioned by ProfK will or has a good chance of being a problem for a frum student in public school.

Education might be better there, and if many frum students go to public school, even social aspect might become easier. however, inevitably children will be exposed to behaviors/attitudes that are completely unacceptable to a frum person. And if you think seeing that won't affect a pre-teen or a teen, then you are fooling yourself.

just to clarify, i don't think that every child going to a public school is destined to become a druggie and an unwed mother. But sometimes just seeing things has an affect, and not a good one.

gilmore said...

js- You said: "Frumkeit, in all its aspects, has to come from the home. If your children see how much emphasis and importance you place on it and you spend the time with them on it, they will learn that and appreciate that."

What if we replace the words "public school" with "school that is a lot more RW than we are"? Would you still say that it comes from the home, and that the kids will choose to stick to your ways, as long as they see the emphasis, importance, and time you spend on it, and that they will learn and appreciate it more than what they see and learn in school?

Or do you think parents who send their kids to a more RW school figuring they can always deprogram them at home are delusional?

I don't want to cast aspersions on you, but I would like the honest answer to that question, because many of those who are the first to play down the problems with public schools are also the first to say "well whaddya expect?" with regards to the aforementioned parent.

If you are of the opinion that the home is an adequate counter-weight for the school, that's fine, as long as you acknowledge that it cuts both ways.

JS said...

I don't think public schools are trying to push an agenda the same way that any religious school is. I don't consider "secularism" to be an agenda, as I'm not even sure what that means. All yeshivas teach secular subjects as well. Public schools aren't trying to get a child to believe, or not believe, certain things. Whereas even the least religious yeshiva is specifically trying to indoctrinate and instill children with a certain belief system.

So, as someone who is more left-wing MO I see more of a threat from a school that is actively trying to indoctrinate my child with values and hashkafas I don't agree with. In public school my child might see things we don't agree with, but no one is actively telling my kid it's a mitzvah, so to speak, to dress inappropriately or speak inappropriately, etc. Whereas in a RW yeshiva they are actively telling the children that kollel is good, work is bad, getting money from in-laws is good, taking welfare is good, etc.

Much easier, imo, to counter a passive influence than an active one.

Tuition Burdened said...

JS, GREAT point!

Anonymous said...

JS makes some great points.

I think that whether or not PS will work depends a lot on the child (some children can really suffer from being the "different" one at school while others can probably do fine and on the community -- will the child be ostracized at all for going to a public school? Personally, it it's the later, I think its time to move to another community, but I understand that many may disagree.