School of Choice Demands Achievement

I just went on a middle school tour and I nearly cried in gratitude for the whole two hours. Ainsley is off to 6th grade and that’s middle school where we live. It’s a big transition that I’m sure she’s ready for.

Progressive Piece of the Planet

We live in Fort Collins, Colorado, a progressive piece of the world. Colorado State University is in the center of town. People are heavily into the arts, mystical healing professions and craft beer. The roads are lined with bike lanes and pedestrian paths connect the city. There are composters on public streets. My real estate agent describes our city as a the perfect marriage between engineers and environmentalists. This city is often listed in the top 10 places to live lists. The schools are equally progressive.

I feel extraordinary gratitude to have the privilege to live on this particular spot on the planet, and to raise my children here. During the middle school tour, Lesher Middle School, it struck me again. My children are so lucky to have access to a top-notch education in a public school. 

School of Choice Creates Competition

We have a school of choice policy, which means that your neighborhood does not necessarily dictate which school your children must attend. You can attend your neighborhood school, but you can also enter a lottery and win a spot in a different school. This does create competition between schools, if the school is not excelling then the neighborhood kids choice out and their enrollment drops. The dollars follow the student. Schools are at risk of closing if they don’t perform. As it should be.

Why would you want to go to a different school? Is it because your neighborhood school sucks and your children will have a terrible education and their life track will change? Not here. The amazing thing is that the district is full of fabulous, top-notch schools. But, each school, though they do have to adhere to state minimum guidelines, has the creative and educational liberty to focus on a variety of teaching methods. They focus on different skill sets and serve their students in unique ways.

Different Learning Styles Are Legit

For instance, my book club is full of smart, educated mothers who all choose different schools for their children based on their own values and their own kids’ individual learning styles and special needs. Some want a more project-based education, others want to focus on core knowledge, others want college prep and a rigorous academic standards, others are more interested in science, others art, others have kids with special needs who want the best curriculum for their kids’ special gifts and challenges.

The school that we’re choosing for Ainsley is an IB (International Baccalaureate) World School. Essentially, it’s a college prep school with high academic standards, but which focuses on the whole child, placing emphasis on arts and physical fitness equally with science, reading and math. The emphasis is on giving students a world view, an identity as global citizens, and an education to prepare them for 21st Century-as-yet-not-invented jobs by teaching them how to learn, verses teaching them what to learn.

Their IB program is great, the curriculum is structured, the academic standards are quite high, the extra-curricular programs they offer are fantastic. Equally as important is that it will be convenient for me to drive to because I’ll have to handle drop offs and pick ups. We’re using her dad’s address to get her in.

Culture Before Curriculum, Rise to Expectations

I also love the philosophy of the school: they put culture before curriculum, which means they create a positive learning environment. They teach to the top third of students and provide the necessary scaffolding and support to help the other students rise to that level of excellence. Expect students to rise to the occasion and they will. And their test scores offer the evidence for the skeptics. It is a school with a large hispanic population, a subgroup often underserved and exhibiting lower test scores. They are a school with 40% free or reduced school lunch, an indicator of poverty which is also an underserved population with traditionally lower test scores. Often these statistics end up lowering expectations. Rather, this school maintains its expectations and teaches every class at an honors level, providing support for every population to experience growth. In other words, the population is diverse, the standards are high, and the results are exceptional across the board.

Geeking Out Is Cool Here

But, what really touched me at my core and made me teary-eyed was that the kids were so happy there. They are being pushed to achieve, for sure. They are held to a very high standard with all honors level courses. But they love their school, their education, their teachers and the administration. Their creativity is allowed to flourish, their assignments are very hands-on, with collaboration between real scientists and researchers at various universities and research labs, they have access to technology and other essential learning tools. And they love it. They rise and they do it happily. Their self esteem is high, they are set up to excel, not fail. The vibe in the halls is electric and exciting. They love being there. We dropped into classrooms and asked questions and the students were so well-mannered, articulate and just glowed from the positive, enriching environment. They had such great things to say about their education. Geeking out is cool there.

The staff too is creative and passionate about their work. Given the latitude to get to state and federal standards in whatever creative ways they think best and most appropriate, they too rise to the expectations and exceed them.

My kids are so lucky. I wish every kid in this country were this lucky. I wish every state, district and school were rising to this level of achievement and attitude.

Image via iStockphoto

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