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L.A. school applications

{Must for Matisse’s future school: 1 hour of dance a day}

Actor//writer//Mom of the Century//my bestie Barbara King-Wilson is back with her latest on the (hilarious) perils of motherhood in Los Angeles. This week, crawl with her down the maddening rabbit hole that is the L.A. school system… This is Part I of her series on getting into the most exclusive, expensive, desirable club: No, not Soho House. YOUR KID’S SCHOOL. (FYI Barb, this makes me even more terrified to have kids. But, it also made me laugh a lot. And want to bring you a strong cocktail in a to-go coffee mug, because I think you need some liquid courage for these school tours…)

How I (Almost) Lost My Mind Applying to My Kid’s Elementary Schools

Last year I made a crucial newbie-L.A. mom mistake: I toured a private elementary school.

Private school was never really on the table for our kids.

A) It’s expensive.

B) My husband and I both happily attended our local public elementary schools.

C) It’s really expensive.

D) I want to support the public school system. After all, if dedicated, well-educated parents like us aren’t sending our kids to public schools, then how are we expected to fix this broken system?

E) It’s pull-your-hair-extensions-out STUPID expensive.

However, I had heard from several people that this private school had a price tag that was HALF that of most L.A. private schools. So my husband and I naively showed-up to the private school on a sunny Friday morning.

School. Not museum.

{This is a school, not a museum.}

We toured the bright, inspiring classrooms and walked the crisp expansive grounds. Then we took a pit stop to question the fifth graders about their recent class trip…to Paris. And I’m not talking about Paris, Texas. Real actual Paris. My fifth grade class trip was to an ice cream store.

As the tour ended, we gathered around a small garden for Q&A. A mom with a too-perfect blow-out and a forehead that didn’t move casually asked what the annual tuition was and the admissions director just as casually replied that tuition was an “extremely reasonable NINETEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR.” I had the internal equivalent of a car crash and am pretty sure I audibly whispered, “fuck” because the woman next to me grasped her orange Dior purse a little tighter.

NINETEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. A YEAR. $19,000 to learn how to write your name, count to 10, and draw straight lines with the kids of L.A.’s finest.

yoga class

{My son, participating in yoga class. Because in L.A., kids do yoga at school.}

I cried the whole way home. “But did you see how straight their lines were drawn???” I bawled, “Public school kids DO NOT draw lines that straight!

Here is a list of things I came up with of how to get $19,000 really quickly:

  1. 1. Sell organs. Who needs two kidneys? (To do: Google “how to survive with one kidney”)
  2. 2. Kickstarter/Gofundme campaign – Offer free t-shirts for donating $1,000. Everyone wants to help educational causes!
  3. 3. Sell car!!! Use bike and/or rollerblades to navigate L.A. (Google bike timeline to get from the valley to Santa Monica.) This also helps environment. Score!
  4. 4. Ebay – pretty sure my old ’98 Dell laptop is ready to be sold at top dollar.

In my heart, I knew that private school was just not going to happen for us, Paris be damned. Plus, I am not the type of mom to flaunt Manolos to the kindergarten bake sale.

But the private school tour had seriously upped the stakes. Now I knew what was out there.

So in a way, when I visited our local assigned elementary school, I knew I was going to be let down. I had already done my research and wasn’t impressed with the below-average test scores. After the tour I couldn’t shake the depressing images of the menacing chain link fence surrounding a bleak concrete playground. But this is what scared me the most: a clear decrease in attendance in the upper years.  In kindergarten there were five classes full of bright-eyed kids. By 5th grade, there was one. Kids were leaving the school at a scarily high rate.

Here’s the thing about LAUSD: it’s a very broken system. As the second largest school district in the USA it’s become impossible to manage. This is essentially why the charter school system sprouted. It’s a way for parents and teachers to have more influence over where the district money is spent. It is still publicly funded education, but there is just more freedom. As one charter school I toured put it, “basically, we choose not to spend a quarter million dollars on lawyers on retainer like most LAUSD schools have to. Instead, we are spending that on things other public schools have cut, like art and music.” But the “popular” charter schools are virtually impossible to get into. They are either located in the most expensive neighborhoods in L.A. or have so many applications you have a better probability of finding a four-leaf-clover on the Sunset Strip than getting in.

wait list

{2 things are of note in this email: We are #244 on the wait list for an extremely desirable charter school. And this purportedly “amazing” school can’t even spell “wait list” correctly.}

So I began to spiral down the LAUSD rabbit hole. It started with some informal phone calls and internet searches but within a short period of time turned into a whirlwind of weekly charter and magnet school tours, countless hours spent researching schools online, coffee meetings with moms who had survived the public school trenches, and a school folder that brimmed over with colorful pamphlets. I BECAME OBSESSED. I had calculated the probability of getting into each school. My excel file was updated daily. I was determined to unearth THE BEST PUBLIC SCHOOL IN THE UNIVERSE. I was Howard Hughes except instead of peeing into little cups I was creating color coded graphs that ranked the test scores of dozens of LA schools. I was the mom on the tour taking copious notes, furtively judging the handwriting of book reports that hung on the walls, and scoffing when a parent asked what, “common core” was.

L.A. school applications

{One of many color-coded charts I created to compare all the schools.}

Dinnertime conversations with my husband turned into one-sided comparisons and assessments. Each charter school seemed to have a different “flavor” and I was determined to uncover the BESTEST flavor for our family. “Would you rather she start Japanese in 1st grade or Mandarin in Kindergarten? Do you think kids should ‘live in their imagination’? Sign language or sewing? Gardening or yoga? Is Singapore Math an appropriate learning technique? Do you believe in a ‘constructivist philosophy’? How important is it that she learns to grow radishes? She needs at least an hour of dance each day, right? Is 2 hours too far to drive each day to school?”

I was lost in the L.A. rat race of keeping up with the Joneses. But more importantly – I had lost myself. I was justifying my craziness with how important education is, but education doesn’t just come from school. It comes from the community a school can help create. If there is one gem I learned from my plunge into the depths of schools – it is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some of my favorite schools had the lowest test scores. Some of the most popular schools were uninspiring. A 10/10 on greatschools.com does not mean a 10/10 for my own child.

For the record, I ended-up touring our local school twice. It was the first school I visited and then over a year later, it was the last. During the second go around I’m not sure if the sun was brighter or my coffee was stronger or just that I had spent a year driving to schools all over Los Angeles and I was simply exhausted and overwhelmed, but I realized my local school really wasn’t bad. In fact, it was actually good. And to my surprise about a third of the families on my tour were actually trying to get INTO my school via lottery and here I was inexplicably trying to get out. I suddenly noticed trees and grassy yards, gardens and artwork, a beautiful library and a professional-looking science lab. Lastly, it was the only school that I could close my eyes and imagine discussing every moment of my daughter’s first day of kindergarten while we held hands and WALKED the 5-minute walk home instead of facing LA traffic for an hour.

chicken coop

{And it has a chicken coop!}

So what does this mean? Maybe this IS the school for us after all? Did it take touring Los Angeles’ best schools for me to realize that? I wonder these things and then get a text about another lottery taking place and my heart lurches with the hopes of getting into a different charter.

feet at school

feet at school

feet at school

{I have enough photos of my feet on school tours to make a coffee table book no one would buy.}

Here are my current particulars:

As of now, I have applied to 14 public schools including charters, magnets, and inner-district transfers.

Each school chooses its students by random lottery except for the inner district transfer.

Fun fact: The “random” lottery isn’t actually random. Most schools have preferences – none of which we qualify for. So we fall into the pool of anywhere from a couple hundred applications to SEVERAL THOUSAND at the more popular schools.

I’ll find out about most of these lotteries by the end of this month and I can’t wait to keep you all updated. I want to hear from other moms out there who are going through the same thing. How many schools have you applied to? How far would you be willing to drive for a good school? If you don’t live in L.A., what is your take on this insanity? Do you just go to your local public school? Do you think I’m crazy for not just going to my local school? And can you please tell me it will all be okay?

Barbara King-Wilson is an actress and writer living with her family in Los Angeles. Follow her @TheBarbaraKing and visit her at www.barbaraking.com! For past posts by Barbara, get over here, here, here, here AND here!


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