Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Kennedy Academy Cattle Call

I am re-posting the series I wrote when we were exploring our daughter's options for Kindergarten.  This was the first installment.

My wife Paddy, I and daughter Sarah recently visited John F. Kennedy Academy on the west side of South Bend recently for Sarah’s admission test. That’s right -- there is a test to determine whether one is worthy to enroll in Kindergarten in that school.

To be fair – some winnowing is needed. This year, for example, 295 students are vying for 115 openings in the program. Still, the idea of my child facing a pivotal moment in her life -- when she’s not yet five – makes me uneasy. More on that later.

For those unfamiliar with the evolving South Bend School Corporation program, a magnet school program has been in place for some time. By next year, the program will have expanded to four target schools. The purpose of this concept, as I understand it, is twofold:

SBSC has struggled to achieve racial balance in the system and (like in most areas) forced bussing has not gone over well. Our neighborhoods probably are segregated more in terms of socioeconomic status than by strict racial lines, but of course there is a racial component to SES. By placing attractive programs in schools which are located in “minority” neighborhoods, a certain amount of voluntary integration is achieved.

The other half of the strategy is to offer programs with specialized emphases at the magnet schools. I won’t attempt to explain the distinctions (I’m not sure I understand them entirely) – rather I’ll use the broad terms employed by the school corporation. An academy program, a traditional program, a fine arts program and a Montessori Method program are available by application to students in the district – all in addition to the standard neighborhood schools.

Back to the stock pens…

Our odyssey to primary education began with an orientation session in early December along with dozens of other families. This consisted of a presentation and a tour, which I found pretty useful. But it, and the subsequent event, began somewhat inauspiciously.

The Kennedy School building was constructed in the 1960s when architects seemed to be fixated on innovation. Necessary components of innovation seemed to require that the buildings be severe and dramatically ugly. Rough, unpigmented concrete was the façade of choice in many of these buildings and Kennedy is no exception.

The main entrance can only be described as weird. One enters through a short, narrow vestibule (which provides an airlock). That empties into a small, round lobby. There are no exterior windows, only glass block. There is one small interior window – reminiscent of a ticket window – on a curved wall which offers the only contact with the front office. Every event seems to begin with us being held in this small pen until those in charge granted us access to a larger area.

On our test date about thirty children were invited. They were split up into six groups of five and led off to their testing out of our view. I found that mildly disconcerting – but that’s on me, not on them. I’m the parent of a young child and I will have to adjust. And I will.

That left the parents and ancillary children in the gymnasium for a presentation given by the school principal. There’s no point in sugar coating this – it was dreadful. The principal is likely a highly capable administrator, but the material was not well organized and redundant in a repetitive way. The delivery was bordering on admonishment.

Here’s what I got out of it. They expect children to come to school. Children can’t learn if they’re not at school. Children need to behave in socially acceptable ways. The Academy program is not targeted at “gifted” students; rather, those ready to learn. (That point was made three or four times). Parents are expected to help teachers, if not in classrooms, then in other ways. Unlike the Traditional Magnet program, we weren’t required to pledge a certain number of hours of service. (Whew – there’s a load off). A certain level of conformity is expected of the children -- including corporation approved attire. You get the idea.

At a certain point, glancing at my bride and noting her expression, I leaned over and whispered something like, “Don’t worry, it won’t really be that bad for her”. She replied with a quick, somewhat weak, grin.

At this point you may wonder why Paddy and I would be so interested in having Sarah go to Kennedy. As Pad and I discussed later, where is the emphasis on the joy of learning, personal growth and creativity so necessary for successful learning?

The answer is that we have a lot of anecdotal information that tells us that children thrive at the Kennedy Academy. We socialize and interact with people who value the concepts of joy, growth and creativity and have heard many accounts from them that their children do very well in the program. In fact, I have not heard an exception to this.

We are relying a bit on that. The information from the school itself is rather off-putting.

This experience did make me think about some larger issues. That will be the theme of a follow-up piece.

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