The first in a four-part series of Scout articles exploring the decisions families make about education.
by Jason Rabin
Parent: Greg Nadeau, 42
Children: Charlie, 6; Max, 9
Greg Nadeau of Thorndike St has it all at his fingertips: enrollment demographics, graduation rates, assessment data, attendance and suspensions records. As Manager of Public Consulting Group, Nadeau helps state departments of education track and analyze statistics related to these topics.
So evaluating schools is his job, but having two young sons, Charlie and Max, makes picking schools in Somerville personal as well.
The first criterion in his decision was safety. “You would never want to send your kid to a place you felt was unsafe,” he says.
His second factor was part of what inspired him to live in Somerville in the first place: diversity. “I grew up in Marblehead,” he explains. “My wife grew up in Groton. So those are significantly less diverse communities and we felt that they were less representative of the real world and that our kids would be prepared better for the real world growing up in Somerville.”
His third factor was “quality of instructional experience” – an area in which he feels Somerville High School (SHS, 81 Highland Avenue) could improve. He explains that in assessing school performance, you don’t just want to look at a snapshot of scores but at how scores have changed over time. In this regard too, Nadeau wasn’t thrilled. “We know that Somerville has rather low test scores. Unfortunately, in the first year that it was calculated, last year, we don’t see Somerville having sufficiently high growth,” he says.
Nevertheless, Nadeau opted to send both Max and Charlie to a Somerville public school, the Arthur D. Healey School (5 Meacham St). There, they were part of the Choice Program, which offered a progressive education style to entrants selected through an open lottery. Nadeau was satisfied with the overall safety of the public schools. “Anecdotally and in data there are not a lot of incidents, and the school system is safe and orderly,” he says. He also found reason for optimism about the test scores. “The school administration is very much looking at that and will continue to focus on that until they get high growth,” he says.
In June, the Somerville School Committee voted 6-2 to unify the Choice Program with its counterpart at Healey, the Neighborhood Program. About 90 percent of the students in the Neighborhood Program were below the poverty line, compared to roughly 38 percent in the Choice Program. So while the Healey School as a whole had the diversity Nadeau sought, much of it was not in the program in which Max and Charlie were enrolled. “Diversity turns out to be much, much harder than we want,” says Nadeau.
Nevertheless, he is confident that diversity remains an advantage of the public schools. “I talk to people all the time who go through the system, and by the time they get through high school, they really do have an experience of having friends who are all different types of people,” he says.
While Nadeau’s desire for diversity stems largely from a desire to provide Max and Charlie with “real-world” exposures, he is also a pragmatist. He believes attending a city school will make his sons more attractive to college admissions boards. He describes a wealthy suburb in New York where an uncle of his teaches, which “generally spends $25,000 per kid.” Nadeau believes that “there are a gazillion high-achieving kids coming through suburban communities like that. Admissions actually don’t need another 4.0 GPA with 1600 SATs. They look for kids that are different. Somerville is different enough from the typical suburban elite school factory, that it gives kids a better chance.”
Still, the decision to keep his children in public schools will never be automatic. “If my kids weren’t happy I wouldn’t hesitate to transfer them to PHA [Prospect Hill Academy Charter School, 15 Webster Ave]. Private school would be a more extreme circumstance. I’m not morally against private school in any way. It just wouldn’t be my preference.”
For the present, he describes his children as both happy and successful. And nothing speaks louder than that.
Parent: Alex Jackl, 46
Children: Noah, 9; Natasha, 10; Nick, 13
Alex Jackl of Highland Ave is another Somerville parent with major knowledge of the numbers. He serves as Director of Information Systems for the Council of Chief State School Officers. He co-chairs the Technical Board of the Schools Interoperability Framework Association. Both national organizations work with school performance data.
With three children, two of them older than Nadeau’s, Jackl has more experience on the ground to weigh against statistics. His perspective varies in other ways too. Growing up in Rhode Island, Jackl was “relatively dysfunctional in public school.” He was abnormally tall and gawky for his age (he now stands 6-foot-7). He was more intellectually inclined than he was interested in football. He got bullied. “I was beat up all the time,” he recalls. “I hated public high school and I felt like I was surrounded by idiots. So I decided to take the plunge.”
For Jackl, this plunge meant enrolling in Bishop Hendricken, a private high school in Warwick, RI. He describes his time at Hendricken as “spectacular.”
So Jackl knows how tough the wrong public school can be – and how wonderful the right private school can be. There’s also the money factor. Despite his own public school experience, Jackl claims that “if all the other variables were the same, my tendency would always be to have my kids go to public schools.” It makes sense – why wouldn’t anyone choose the more affordable option, all else being equal?
But when it came time to decide where he would send Noah, his youngest, some other factors entered the equation.
His daughter Natasha is thriving at the Cambridge Montessori School. Alex Jackl’s mother, a staunch supporter of the holistic, self-directed Montessori model, paid for Natasha’s preschool. Jackl was pleased with the results. “She really learned fast there,” he says. Since Natasha thrived, Jackl “bit the bullet” and continued to pay the tuition, which even with some financial aid costs him $18,000 per year.
Meanwhile, Natasha’s older brother, Nick, a special-needs student (he is mildly autistic), attended Winter Hill Community School (115 Sycamore St). “Teachers have been consistently really championing what he needs,” says Jackl. “Principals have been great and in regular contact with us. At all of our end-of-the-year meetings we’ve gotten everything we’ve asked for.”
Now attending John F. Kennedy Elementary School (5 Cherry St), Nick has received physical, occupational, and speech and language therapy. He has been able to meet with a counselor twice a week. An aid has accompanied him to regular (non-special needs) math and sciences classes. Somerville public schools even paid for two years of a special camp for children with Asperger’s syndrome held by McLean Hospital. Next year, Nick will be fully integrated, attending all mainstream classes.
And therein lay the dilemma of where to send Noah. Natasha had an excellent private school experience. Nick had an excellent public school experience. Whither Noah?
Ultimately, Jackl explains, “We had such a great experience with Nicky at Winter Hill that we decided to try Noah there too.”
As far as which high school the Jackls will attend, Nick will serve as the test case.
Jackl would like to see all of his children attend SHS, but the choice is not yet made. Future editions of the Scout’s series on schooling will follow-up on the decision.
Parent: Masha Shoykhet, 46
Children: Elizabeth, 8; Zach, 13; Gabe, 14
“Public schools are too crowded,” says Masha Shoykhet of Winter Hill, who works in I.T. at Harvard University. “It’s hard to get anyone to listen to you unless you are way out there.” By “way out there,” she means way above certain thresholds – or way below them. “I think Somerville is primarily concerned with helping children who are struggling and failing, and I think when children have other concerns – I mean my son for example, he’s academically very strong – there’s a sense that, okay, parents will take care of it.”
She is talking about her oldest son, Gabe, who started at The Healey School and transitioned to the private Faye School in Southborough, Mass. He will begin high school next year at New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy. A year’s tuition at this school can run $40,000/year, but Gabe got a scholarship, reducing his tuition to $3,000.
According to Shoykhet, Gabe was in a tussle with a classmate with a history of behavior problems. Shortly after their scrap, Shoykhet claims, the classmate became the subject of a police investigation over a vandalism charge. While Gabe had nothing to do with the bringing the police into the situation, he feared that his classmates would view him as a “rat.” He did not want to face them.
Gabe’s younger brother, Zach, also struggled at The Healey School. As with Gabe, Shoykhet feels like Zach’s special needs weren’t taken into enough account. “He has a learning disability,” she explains, “called mixed expressive receptive language disorder. So he doesn’t present himself as someone who needs a lot of help, but he has a big gap between his IQ and where he performs on the tests.”
Much of Shoykhet’s frustration arose when Zach was not put into a second class with a teacher who had been his favorite. Shoykhet says they were told that it had to do with having the right mixture of boys and girls in the class. Both she and Zach felt like they were being blown off. “I think if I actually lived in the projects and was a different color I’d get different treatment,” she says. “So there is actually a kind of reverse racism, like ‘those parents, they’ll figure it out.’”
Shoykhet felt her children’s needs were being ignored, and that she herself was being ostracized. Moreover, she worried about how her children would get a progressive education, if they were outside the Choice program. Specifically, Shoykhet wondered where she would send Zach and her youngest child, eight-year-old Elizabeth.
Shoykhet looked into Prospect Hill Academy, Somerville’s charter school, but worried it was “more like a Catholic school without religion. It’s strict. You wear a uniform. It’s somewhat militant with testing, testing, testing. Charter schools have to prove that they are better than other public schools. How do they do this? Through MCAS scores. How do you increase scores? Test, test, test, more testing.”
Jed Lippard, head of school at PHA, finds fault with this characterization. He describes his school as able to both employ progressive teaching styles and achieve high MCAS scores, goals that he does not see as inherently in conflict.
“We take elements of progressive pedagogies and of very traditional pedagogies and we make it work for every student,” he says. “We are not a school that is hell-bent on standardized test scores for the sake of standardized test scores. I would never be the head of a standardized test factory. But if you look at what MCAS is assessing, it’s students’ abilities to read, write and problem-solve. If we’re not teaching kids to read, write and problem-solve, then we’re delinquent.”
“But it’s not about teaching to the test,” he adds. “It’s about really good teaching. With good teaching we’re confident our students will succeed on standardized tests, which is important for them because society values and judges them on the basis of their MCAS scores. It’s not an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and proposition.”
Lippard acknowledges that PHA’s environment is probably stricter than most American schools both in terms of academics and social life. “We have appropriately high standards for our students,” he says. “We’re a mission-driven institution. It is our mission to be a college preparatory school. We know that in order for students to have access to college and to have these skills, the habits, and the confidence to succeed once they’re there, it requires a certain amount of discipline.”
Lippard offers three reasons for the uniform policy. “Socioeconomically it levels the playing field,” he begins. Secondly, “We want our students to express their talents through their ideas, their writing – through their contributions to class and not through their clothing.” Finally, “Seventy percent of our families come from immigrant cultures and, for them, the uniform is a very comforting and familiar aspect of what we do, because for most other countries there’s a uniform.”
As it happens, Shoykhet herself is an immigrant. As a child, she moved from Russia to Brooklyn, where she was a day student at a school called Saint Ann’s, which she describes as “very selective.” Shoykhet felt she got a strong education at Saint Ann’s but never quite fit in. “I was just one of the Russian girls,” she recalls. Because of this experience, she thought to herself, “I want my children to be grounded, to be proud citizens of Somerville, to go to school in Somerville and have their friends in Somerville.”
Ultimately though, she decided to send Zach to a private school: the Carroll School in Lincoln, Mass. Shoykhet feels a certain sadness about this. On the other hand, she loves the level of personalized attention Gabe received at Faye – and hopes Zach’s private-school experience will be comparable.
But the Carroll School ends at 9th grade. Private school tuitions being what they are, there are plenty of decisions left on Shoykhet’s horizon. While she insists that at this point, “there is nothing that will draw me back to Somerville Public School system,” she also reserves the right to change her mind. Despite her concern about public schools in general and PHA in particular, Shoykhet decided to start eight-year-old Elizabeth at PHA this fall – at least as a stopgap measure, while she researches alternatives. Elizabeth had been a student at The Healey School.
Parent: Jamila Xible, 46
*Children: Joseph, 5; Renaldo, 8; Maria, 9
*At Xible’s request, Scout has used pseudonyms for her children.
Jamila Xible of Highland Rd was the Director of the Somerville Human Rights Commission in the mid-90s. Like Shoykhet, Xible is a longtime Somerville resident who immigrated to this country. Xible was born in Brazil and her husband, a manager at Children’s Hospital Boston, was born in Portugal but grew up in Somerville, attending both private and public schools. Based partly on his experiences and partly on what she has heard from her friends and neighbors, she is worried that the children of immigrants suffer the consequences of low expectations from the public school system.
Xible started all of her kids at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School (105 College Ave), a lab school at Tufts University which goes from preschool through second grade. For third grade, she sent them to the Healey School as part of the Choice program. She was devastated with what she saw as the program being “dismantled.”
“Right now,” she says, “after the entire Choice issue, I’m very disappointed about School Committee leadership. I feel if you have a School Committee that is hearing from parents saying, ‘please don’t do that’ and you do it anyway, that is not welcoming parent opinion and parent involvement. So we need to start changing the leadership.”
Asked to comment, Gretchen Kinder, coordinator for public information and grants for Somerville Public Schools, says, “I do want to underscore that the decision made by the School Committee was to unify Choice with Healey, and to use Choice materials as one of the foundations for the unified school community. The decision is perceived by some as being the ‘dissolution’ of Choice, but this is neither the spirit nor the intent of the School Committee’s decision.”
Says Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi, “The School Committee chose by public vote and took the future of the school into account in a unified manner. They had a series of meetings, at least one a month for four months, and then they had a public hearing. The principal and I as superintendent met with the Choice Council and the PTA. There were Friday morning coffees — lots of input was given. Parents were surveyed and students were surveyed and the faculty were surveyed.”
Taking all of this input into consideration, he says, “Myself as the superintendent of schools and certainly the School Committee as an elected body have a responsibility to make decisions that they feel are in the best interest of the student body and the community, and I think the school committee followed this process admirably.”
Still, Xible’s chief concern is that without the Choice Program, it will be difficult for her children to find a progressive education in Somerville. She fears that within the Somerville system, her children will be stereotyped and banished to an industrial arts wing rather than being encouraged to reach for first-rate higher education and the career of their dreams.
She sometimes yearns to send them to an elite private schools, but worries about the money. “We have three kids, and without scholarships it would cost something like $70,000 per year.” At present, she is turning her eyes toward PHA. She says she has heard good things about the school from parents, but like Shoykhet, she worries about strictness, uniforms, and excessive focus on the MCAS.
“The reason so many people are sending their children to PHA,” she wrote in an email, “is the emphasis they place on college preparation. If you read their web site, the first thing you will see it that their mission is to ‘prepare each student for success in college.’”
“A majority of their students are low income and/or immigrants. They set high expectations for all their students alike – they are all expected to attend college. Their results seem to be excellent.”
“I have been opposed to the idea of charter schools for many years,” she continues, “but unfortunately, I see lack of meaningful leadership in our School Committee and public school administration, and I see excellent leadership practices at PHA. It hurts to have to make this decision. I have many friends with the same dilemma.”