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Educational paradise lost

When we arrived from Cali, Colombia to live in Green Valley in 2001, my older son, Jesse, was only 4, and Dylan was due in seven months. Our life in schools was just beginning. That summer, we toured a nearby Montessori school. We were immediately attracted to its philosophy: small groups, learning at your own pace — ideal for Jesse’s entry into a whole new culture, including a new language. But we couldn’t afford it. Luckily, we wound up developing an arrangement in which my wife, Joana, would teach at the school. Two years later, we did the same at Imprints Day School. Her work made it financially possible for Jesse and then Dylan to launch their education in private schools.

In hindsight, those years appear to be a Shangri-La, when my boys were happy to be learning and going to school. At Montessori, Jesse was one of 17 students with two teachers. Not speaking English wasn’t an issue. The Montessori system wrapped him in its caring, intimate world and, within months, he was spitting out sentences. Class included sharing something from home; he felt special about his background, bringing Andean hot chocolate made from scratch. He wrote poetry in his newfound tongue, a testament to how the Montessori method conquered the problem of learning English.

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Neither Montessori nor Imprints was heavy on grades or even tests. But there was no question my boys were learning — and having fun. At Imprints, little Dylan and growing Jesse took to the family atmosphere and the project-based, arts-centered curriculum. Most days began petting a shaggy dog named Sydney, splayed across the hallway. Jesse threw himself headlong into monthly plays based on different cultures, learning geography, science, English, even math. By the fourth grade, he knew more about global maps than some adults. Dylan also took quickly to reading and writing. Twice a year, dozens of families camped out in Imprints’ sprawling backyard. We were part of something bigger than a bricks-and-mortar school.

But in the end, Shangri-La imploded. At Montessori, Jesse’s teachers left. So we did too. At Imprints, it turned out the fantasy wasn’t well-financed. The parents, many of whom were professionals, tried to “save the school.” But they couldn’t. The last day we drove away, all of us cried.

All that summer and into fall, a group of families from Imprints made a valiant attempt to rescue the best of what we had in a homeschooling project. But after two years, it folded too, a victim of the mismatch between ambition and time. Even before then, Jesse in particular was drawn to public school, a vast ocean of social connections. He also wanted to know exactly how smart he was, as measured by numbers, by tests. Would he do well?

We enrolled him in the oldest magnet school in the valley. We got a waiver for Dylan to attend a school outside our zone with a bilingual curriculum and a warm, enthusiastic principal. At first, Jesse had some teachers who actually enjoyed their work. But by early seventh grade, schooling became a numbers game. Both of us got used to logging onto Parentlink (the site where teachers enter grades) to monitor his performance, like players in a fantasy football game. As for Dylan, his bilingual principal left and, with her, some of
the programs for which she raised money — and the knowledge of two cultures that made the school special. Fortunately, his teachers are caring, but they’re often overwhelmed by bureaucracy and budget cuts.

Both my boys bring home As and Bs. But neither has much fun anymore, except for seeing friends. Especially for Jesse, it’s become more about meeting requirements. The joy of reading, of asking questions or discovering the world, has steadily slipped away.

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What kind of future citizens does that create? Someone who knows how to succeed, but who’s uninformed about anything beyond what they need to know to get the job done. I hope someday they rediscover the joy of learning. But in this era of budgetary knife fights and No Child Left Behind accountability metrics, I doubt it. 

Timothy Pratt is a Las Vegas-based freelance journalist who also writes for Reuters and PODER magazine.