Saturday, November 10, 2007

Filling out applications

I spent the weekend filling out independent school applications. Well, two of them. Yes, they're a pain. I'm exhausted. I felt like a senior in high school applying to colleges. I even cried for about an hour on Saturday morning because I was feeling so overwhelmed.

But I understand and respect the process. Imagine if independent schools didn't require applications? More people would apply. Eight hundred families would be applying for 22 spots rather than 250 families. Because I have to fill out an application and write essays, I'm applying only to those schools that truly seem like the right fit for Alice.

And as I wrote the essays, I was forced to think, What am I really looking for in a school? Who is this daughter of mine?

Also, as I wrote my essays, I couldn't stop my mind from going wild . . .

What are your child's strengths and interests? This seems to be the most common essay question. When you think about it, this really is a funny question to ask about someone who is only four years old.

Alice can crack an egg without getting any shells into the batter. She can do a backward somersault, sometimes. She can write nearly every letter in the alphabet—except an uppercase N, which she draws backward. She can swim. She can pinch her brother. She can do downward dog. She can dry wet lettuce leaves with a salad spinner though she would never eat salad.

Alice knows that Pluto isn't a planet. She knows that bats are nocturnal. She knows that Pink Ladies are her favorite variety of apple. She knows right from wrong, most of the time. She knows it's nice to share. She knows her phone number, usually. She knows that she wants to be a ballerina-artist-mommy when she grows up. She knows that Paris is in France. She knows the difference between a guitar and a ukulele though she can't play either.

Alice can identify several types of flowers: camelias, alyssum, nasturtiums. She can eat spoonful after spoonful of peanut butter. She can cry tears that are so big I sometimes start crying myself. She can say hello in Italian, "Ciao!" She can count to 60. She can hop on one foot. She can gallop. She can walk backwards. She can run really really fast. She can name nearly every Disney princess. She can tell funny jokes: "A comb sat on a mouse that turned purple."

Alice likes play dates. She likes preschool. She likes bread. She likes the Boxcar Children books. She likes to watch Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly. She likes to play with dolls. She likes to paint. She likes baking banana poppy seed muffins. She likes visiting Frida Kahlo at the SFMOMA. She likes walking in the rain with her umbrella and jumping in puddles. She likes to go to the park and the science museum. She likes merry-go-rounds. She likes kittens.

Alice can chew five pieces of gum at once. She can tie a knot but not a bow. She can pick beautiful bouquets of flowers. She can play a sweet tune on a harmonica. She can find the mouse on every page in Goodnight Moon. She can pack her own suitcase for sleepovers at grandma and grandpa's. She can make her own bed. She can peel an orange.

Alice says, "Mama" in a sweet voice that melts my heart every time I hear it. She says, "Please, can I have some chocolate?" She says, "May I please be excused," when she's done at the dinner table. She says, "Mom, you need to clean the house." She says, "Monsters, wild onions, and George Bush—those are the bad things in the world." She says, "Leaping lizards" and "Oh, my goodness." She says, "We should take the train instead of the car because it's better for the environment." She says "I love you."

Alice can ride a tricycle. She can scream, stomp her feet, and slam a door louder than anyone I know—and she's not even married. She can create almost anything out of a single piece of paper and a roll of tape: a birthday hat, a slipper, a baby bed, fairy wings. She can dress herself and wear a dress, a skirt, pants, tights, and three tops all at once. She can say big words: "Mommy, you're infuriating." She can help her brother put on his shoes.

Alice gives the world's best hugs—long tight squeezes that always make me feel like everything is going to be OK. She gives friends her toys and clothes to borrow for "one week." She gives her brother kisses and licks. She gives Santa cookies and milk and the Great Pumpkin all of her Halloween candy. She gives her Daddy the raisins in her cereal. She gives her baby dolls haircuts. She gives her family and friends love.

Alice is Alice. She's one of a kind—just as all children are.


  1. Wow Kate,
    What a beautiful tribute to Alice.

  2. Now I have big tears in my eyes. Kate, you've written a beautiful piece.

  3. you have challenged me to write a similar piece (maybe half as long?) for each of my boys...
    what a beautiful piece...

  4. It is a beautiful piece. Kate is obviously a wonderful and insightful mom and Alice seems like a delightful, interesting, and intelligent child. I hope you save this, Kate, and put it in her scrapbook or however you preserve these kinds of memories. I treasure some things my dad once wrote about me when I was a child.

    It's pretty clear from this description that Alice will do well wherever she goes to school and bring delight to her teachers and community, and that Kate will bring many gifts to that community as well. Alice and her family will thrive, whether at MCDS or Synergy or Live Oak or some hidden or not-so-hidden gem of a public school.

    I know I am going to sound like a grinch. I just hate that one of the first hurdles for winnowing out the children at any of these private schools with all of their resources is whether or not their parents can write so beautifully about their children, or will/can do so. As Kate says, if this essay was not a barrier (along with all the other barriers like tuition, commuting to the neigborhood where the school is, plus the cultural barriers that many low-income children would face in private school), then many more families might apply for those few spots. This barrier is there for a reason. And it is a barrier.

    That's not to say that some low-income or lower middle class families can't and won't take on these onerous applications. Some of them will even succeed in getting in, and in getting scholarship funds. It's just that the written application is a barrier for many families. To put it baldly, it is a class barrier, especially in terms of a family's educational background. No doubt it would not occur to most low-income (especially less-educated) families to try, and others would be very intimidated once they saw the application.

    I just wish the also wonderful and delightful children whose parents will not take on this process would have more equitable access to educational options. The SF public schools are not perfect in this regard either, but the enrollment process is leveled to a significant degree by the lottery (which also happens to provide more choice to all of us).

    I just want to be part of a culture that values all our kids, and provides the resources for educating them. I want to be part of a community that understands that democracy relies on educating all our kids, including providing access to decent schools for those kids who need them the most. That is, those 4- and 5-year old little kids who have so much potential, but need more of a boost in getting into a good school, and may need more resources once they are there.

    See, there I am, being a grinch. This was such a personal and heartfelt piece of writing that I hesitate to post this response. I mean no insult or attack upon Kate or Alice or their family's choices. From this blog we can see Kate is a good person, and Alice is an amazing one-of-kind kid who is loved by her parents and who, like all kids, deserves the best. I don't mean this comment personally with regard to anyone. It's just that same old question about the negative effects of private schooling, and the way it winnows out its (potential and actual) applicants, and ultimately removes resources in various ways from the public schools that exist to serve all the kids.

  5. I don't think you're being a grinch. I think you're making some compelling, beautiful points -- things all of us should grapple with, even if we choose to go the private school route. I thought Kate's piece was lovely too, but I had the same reaction you did. I also can't quite wrap my mind around the idea that any child should have to be evaluated this way to get into a school. Shouldn't each child be considered an empty vessel, with the potential to learn and be filled with wondrous things? And, for instance, a place like Synergy -- I know they want people who follow the same philosophy as them (and in general it's my same shared philosophy), and so that's why they claim such essays etc are important -- to make sure the school and family are a good fit. But how is it demonstrating tolerance or democracy to weed out those that think differently from you? OK, I admit that last part was a bit of a tangent (i'm running on low blood sugar). I'm not trying to trash Synergy per se -- it seems like a lovely place, and I came this close to applying.

  6. Perfect. When tallying up all the things my son can do, then the things he can't, I thought, how do I tell a total stranger without sounding too proud? But you can never be too proud. We all love our children. Each is unique. For myself, Kate and all the other parents going through this tremendous process, cheers! We should all meet up for a cocktail :)

  7. there's really no way around it -- the private schools put a lot of effort into designing their populations. the "aren't children empty vessels" comment is intriguing...maybe this is a huge paradigm difference between privates and publics. private = each kid is already something and we insist that your something jives with our something. public = let's become something together, whoever you are. it's the you're-special vs. you're-part-of-a-whole thing again (i.e., i get the sense that privates are all about bestowing a sense of entitlement and specialness, and publics about inculcating kids with the idea that the self, while great and all, is subordinate to that amorphous thing we call community).

    our family's sole experience with private school applications was children's day school for preschool. the process was onerous and silly. i think it is creepy and potentially damaging to subject kids to interviews. no matter how you frame it, it introduces the idea that some people are good enough to be accepted and some people are not. since my daughter hit another kid with a ladle in the sand tray and spent the whole session crying in the corner after being forcibly separated from us (at age 2), i'm surprised we weren't advised to get a psychiatric consult.

    and, yes, kate, that is a marvelous and heartfelt essay. you're an excellent writer.

  8. But I suppose it's well within their right to cherry pick from their pool of applicants, those that would be the best fit for the school's community. No?

    But on the other hand, I can't imagine personally subjecting our family to such an ordeal. The essays I can stomach. It's the playdates, the assessments, the coffees?!? that I have a hard time imagining. The process seems well intentioned enough. I mean there has to be a process of some kind. It's just that the uber-competitive nature of it makes it dissolve into an absurd comedy. I almost hurled at our preschool's kindergarten information night when they started talking about the thank you cards. To think that acceptance into kindergarten could at least partially hinge on a delicately written thank you note is really crazy. Okay that's an exaggeration, but it's still crazy.

    I wonder if Kate is annoyed by all this anti-private school bashing. Wonder if we should lay off a bit lest she and others start thinking that the pro-public school contingent is made of a bunch of fanatical nutjobs.

    Kate, it's a poetic, beautiful essay. I wish you the best of luck.

  9. I like Kate am struggling with application essays. Well, I guess Kate has finished hers, and I'm still trying to validate 4 years of college and 2 years of graduate school by writing something that doesn't make me feel like I wasted 6 years of my life.
    I know all the “nut jobs” out there are wondering why I'm applying to a private school. The brutal truth is that it is a way to hedge my bet on the public schools. I think there are some great public schools in this city, but like most of the schools Kate has profiled my kids chance of getting in is about 5 to 10 percent. Ironically, that is about the same odds as any of the private schools in the city. I'm not sure if this is the case or not, but at least I feel that I have some control over the private school application process. If I write a good essay and schmooze like a politician I feel that I have a better chance than playing the SF public school lottery.

  10. I agree with the others who commended this beautiful tribute.

    I also agree with the frustration over this process, which is definitely biased towards people who have greater flexibility in their schedules, whether through financial means or otherwise.

    Peronally, I work full time, and my job is often, like now, more than full time. Plus I attempt to spend all of the time I can with my children. I am theoretically applying to both private and public schools, but I'm not close to completing the applications for the private schools, and have had time to visit very few public schools. I fear that I'll be doing what we are urged not to do -- rank the publics by (1) test scores and (2) proximity to my home.

    Sure, I see that the process needs to be how it is for the reasons stated all over the place. I just need to vent about how I am finding there to be just not enough hours in the day to make it through this.

    March can't come soon enough!

  11. I'm now a public school booster, but true confession, I also applied to two privates as a hedge when we went through it. Funny thing, got our first choice of public but we (was it our family? our daughter?) were totally rejected, not even wait-listed, at the privates. Ouch.

    Now I'm glad that happened, because if it had been reversed I would probably have jumped at the security of an acceptance at one of the privates and therefore not done the whole wait-list process, even though that's likely to pay off if you hang in there. Plus the privates make you pay money to secure the spot, so once you've done that, there is a sense of investment.

    What I mean to say is, I remember the anxiety of that year. Waking in a cold sweat. Talking incessantly about the search to my friends, some of whom do not have children and really thought I had jumped off the cliff of sanity. Hedging your bets--I bet a lot of people are doing that, because the anxiety of this process is so hard to bear.

    From our happy place in our preferred public school, it probably sounds easy for me to say this, and maybe it sounds like I'm on the PPS payroll (I assure you, I'm not). It's just that I really think you can be sure of finding a good match for your child in SF public, if you approach it as a process:

    * there are several dozen good public schools that have a higher than 5-10% acceptance rate.

    * If you can find one or two of these that would be acceptable to you, perhaps they can be your hedge.

    * Put these hedge schools in the 6 or 7 slot on your list. Then if you don't get one of your top picks (though it is possible that you will, as I can attest), you at least have a decent option as a fallback while you go through the wait list process.

    * If you don't get one of your top picks, and want to still try, do hang in during the wait list process. It is anxiety-producing, no doubt; I have best friends who did this so I saw it. But your chances get better and better as time goes by and other people take other options. (Yes, my friends ultimately got their choice.)

    I also have friends who have switched their kids to some top-ranked public schools in later grades (for various reasons--seeking K-8; seeking language immersion; seeking inclusion for their youngest and wanting the kids to be together). As crazy as this process seems now, there is more room than it appears along the way. Actually, lots more room than private, from what I can see.

    You have more control than you think with the lottery. Maybe not in terms of using your education to write an essay, but in making good choices and then seeing the process through. I don't know anyone who actually hung in there who didn't end up with something they liked.

    I don't know about the odds for private. In our case I thought we wrote some thoughtful essays and I know my daughter is bright and interesting and lovely, and we could have afforded to pay full freight at the time. But they turned us down. That didn't feel good at the time; now I laugh. At least the lottery process is not a judgment upon us or worse, our kids.

    Someone listed over 30 good and also up and coming public schools and more have been mentioned by others. I'm glad for our first choice pick, but with a couple years under my belt I am certain I would be less anxious about the dozens of choices if I had to do it again.

    Don't mean to sound preachy, just that I have been in and seen the process. It will work out.

    Good luck to you.

  12. To the poster who needed to vent about not having enough time, I hear you.

    May I suggest taking advantage of the PPS parent ambassadors, who are often willing to chat on the phone at the odd hours available to working parents? At least that would be a better and more human picture than test scores (which can tell you about demographics, but not so much about how well your kid will learn). If you have time for any school visits at all, talking on the phone might also be a good screen to get you down to a manageable number to see in person, even one or two.

    I'm a working single mom of two, so I get it! There is not time in my week for this. I have had a couple of really interesting phone conversations though.

    Good luck.

  13. News flash: The public school lottery doesn't "provide more choice to all of us." It provides more choices to educated, energetic, car-owning parents who want to avoid enrolling their children in under-funded schools tasked with educating the local population of crack babies or English learners. Now that's what I'd call elitist! Sorry, but sending your child to Clarendon does not help the kids at Daniel Webster in any significant way.

  14. Um, "crack babies?" Did you mean that or are you being sarcastic about what you perceive to be the anxieties of the middle class families in the school search? At our school (one of the more diverse elementary schools in the district, and not Clarendon), our free-lunch-qualified kids are not "crack babies," though many of them are English learners and many are African American and Pacific Islander English speakers as well.

    If your point was to be sarcastic, well, I wouldn't have been mean about it like that but I do think it is not totally wrong to point out that many of us are really quite privileged, relatively speaking, and also quite anxious beyond what we need to be given the privilege! I count myself there too as we look at public middle schools this year for my GATE-identified child.

    Also, you are correct that there is inequity built into the lottery system. Those that have the means and energy to seek out the better schools are doing so. The schools have greatly resegregated since the consent decree was ended and the lottery system began. However, if they tried busing and school assignments again people would riot (and flee the system, and cause more money hemmorhage, and lose more political clout for public schools), and if they reverted to neighborhood school guarantees as per the poll on this blog, as so many middle class families might want, then the schools would become even more seriously segregated by race and class, which I hope this city would not allow.

    In an aggregate sense (I'm not pointing personal fingers here), the systems we have show the limits of our racial and class tolerance as a society. The BOE is stuck with some big contradictions: how to keep middle class families and their resources and advocacy in the system, and how to provide equitable education for the poorer, and Black and Latino, kids. Tough choices. They punted the question last year.

    I think the lottery could be improved, but it may be the best thing we have that is politically feasible. No, it really doesn't help the kids at Daniel Webster to send our kids to Clarendon, except in an indirect way in that more parents may be committed to public education and vote for more money, etc. However, in the steady advocacy of PPS and others, more parents have been willing to look beyond Clarendon. There is good work happening at some of the schools with interesting mixes of kids and resources. Seems better to me than it was 10 years ago when there were supposedly only five good schools and middle class families fled if they couldn't get one of them. Just ask the families at Marshall and others.

  15. "News flash" poster, the lottery does too provide more choice for all of us, albeit imperfectly. I think you are mixing up choice and equity.

    Think about it: the fact is that anyone (well, outside of special ed and inclusion, which is another equity issue) is allowed to and encouraged to put down any seven choices out of all the elementary schools. Any school in any neighborhood. You are right, it does not redress the equity issues of who has the energy for school searching, transport, etc. But the choice is there in a strict sense.

    Other systems, like neighorhood school assignments, would provide less choice, and probably less equity too. And on the other hand, a return to mandated busing might provide more equity, but it wouldn't provide more choice for anyone (middle class or poor or of whatever race); we'd all be assigned somewhere. Looking at your comment about Clarendon and Webster, there is a certainly a problem here of balancing equity and choice.

    Anyway, I think the point of the poster was to say that the lottery provides the power of more choice, to wider classes of people than the private school roulette and the barriers built into that system. Two different (though also related) questions, public/private and equity within public.

  16. I was in no way being sarcastic about crack babies, but here's a more sensitive description: children with learning/emotional/physical issues resulting from exposure to drugs and malnutrition in utero. They do go to school in San Francisco, you know, just not with your children. Look at Daniel Webster: surrounded by some of the richest and some of the poorest people in San Francisco. People with means (time, money, energy, smarts, self-esteem, cars) head out of the 'hood for school, because they can. This is hardly a public school vs private school issue.

  17. Thank you for the clarification. I would only say that it would unfair and wrong to say that all project kids are in those circumstances. I know some moms and grandmoms from the projects who are quite heroic.

    You make an imporant point that while there is public vs. private choice, there is also a public vs. public choice--and that some families have a lot more choice due to their social and economic circumstances. Yes, that is true. That is the dilemma faced by the BOE. How to keep more middle class and even affluent families in the system (offer choice) and how to serve the poorest kids (provide equity). I don't envy them.

    I do think there has been improvement in some targeted schools in poorer neighborhoods, perhaps in part because of teaching methods and leadership (Moscone?) and perhaps because of more resources flowing to the school due to increased middle class involvement (Marshall?). Will be interesting to see what happens to Paul Revere which does serve the Alemany projects.

    The fact that none of the schools have enough funding and rely on PTA funding (thus creating big inequities) is certainly a shameful state of affairs.

  18. What I love about Kate's essay is that it is all about Alice-- it makes the readers feel like they know this kid. We can see, as people have been posting, what a charsmatic, idiosyncratic, amazing. charming, cool child she is-- what makes her distinctive and special. It doesn't shmooze, which is the thing I find so repellent about these private school apps-- the implicit pressure to name-drop, to be obsequious and clubby. It's true that the essay application is a barrier that will discourage and even exclude people who can't write (and thus, as Anonymous pointed out, it's a class barrier). But at least Alice is getting into a prestigious, competitive independent school because she's an amazing kid whose mother is a gifted writer, and thus very good at illuminating what is distinctive and special about her; that's a lot better, and somewhat fairer, than getting in because of her connections and money. I'm still not sure whether I'm willing to tackle the independent school app process, but Kate's essay is inspiring: it focuses on the child.