The Paradox of Choice*

When I was a kid and started kindergarten, I went to the school down the street from my house. The daughter of a public school teacher, we were squarely in the middle-class socio-economic column. We lived in a working-class neighborhood, and my elementary school was fairly diverse, both racially and economically. The only choice we had insofar as where we went to school was whether or not we chose to move to be near a more desirable school.

My how things have changed. In two weeks I will officially be the mother of two kindergarten students. Getting to this point has not been easy, and still now, two weeks before school starts, we aren’t exactly sure where they will be hanging up their backpacks this year.

We moved into our last house in a bit of a rush. We’d had to literally threaten our landlord with legal action because he’d refused to repair the air conditioner during August’s triple digit weather while J had 104 fever. This was the final straw in our dealings with him, and we moved out to be closer to my office. We didn’t have much time to research schools and such, and honestly we didn’t even know if we’d be in the house long enough for it to matter. Unfortunately, we discovered that the school of residence for where we were living was not a place we wanted to send the twins. We were, however, right around the corner from a fantastic, and highly desirable, charter school. In addition, ever since I was pregnant with the twins, I’d had on my radar another charter school that had multiple campuses. We naively believed that we would get one of these two options, especially considering the one school had three campuses we were ok with moving near.

As a plan C, we also put in for an transfer to the highest performing elementary school in our district. What was ridiculous was that apparently we missed the “open enrollment” period because we didn’t already have students in the district. Had we known about open enrollment, we could have saved ourselves a lot of frustration, but apparently notification was done by way of the phone system that parents with children already in school have access to. A lot of good that does those of us with only 5 year olds. But they decided to put together a waiting list, despite telling us that the chances were pretty much nil.

Well, at one charter school, we got one spot. And at the lottery draw I was told that I had no option for another spot unless another kid turned down their spot – almost 50 times over. N got a spot but J was like 50th on the waitlist. Scratch that one off the list. The other charter school came up empty for us too, at ALL THREE campuses. I was heartbroken.

So, we did some extensive research, and ended up moving back to where we lived when we got pregnant and had the babies. A lot had changed in the district since then, and all the elementary schools were now K-8, and doing well. The high school had been transformed by way of a brand new campus site. The school district is one of the few in the area NOT on the State watch list for finances, and the schools performed better than even the best elementary in the district we currently lived in (a district that is still awaiting possible State takeover). Now, before you lecture me about test scores and API and how they don’t tell the whole story, trust me I know this. Trust that I’ve done my research enough to make decisions for my kids based on more than a number on a piece of paper.

So, we find a house, move back to our old neighborhood, and the day the ink is placed on the lease agreement, H goes to sign the kids up for school. We were very excited, because we found a house in the boundaries of our first choice school. H goes to sign them up only to be told (in MAY, mind you) that they are already at capacity and N and J are like 11 and 12 on the waitlist and will likely be “overflowed” to the next closest school. Ok, well, that school was on our radar and we’d actually looked at a few houses within the boundaries of that school as well, so that was fine by us. A district employee told us not to worry, because movement of a few kids would probably make that unnecessary. They just wouldn’t know until closer to the school year’s start.

Two weeks ago, I get two letters in the mail, telling me that the kids’ transfers to our school of choice in our old district were approved. Are you kidding me? Well, a lot of good that does us now, because we don’t even live in the district anymore. But after moving, increasing our expenses by doing so, and gearing ourselves up for completely changing our expectations, finding out we never had to move was frustrating.

Meanwhile, after a few tense emails with the principal of what we hoped would be their school (about keeping them in the same class – a topic for a whole other post), we found out just last week that the school they will likely overflow to (and now it’s almost a certainty) is one even FURTHER from our house and never even on our radar at all. H called me on Friday after she’d received an email from the principal of the school they are supposed to go to and started off with, “ok, you’re going to be mad, so just know you’re going to be mad.” She was right. But, to be fair, I took a breath and did some research. This school isn’t bad at all. It just wasn’t on our radar because it’s in an older neighborhood where we wouldn’t prefer to live. But it’s a school that was relocated to the old high school campus and therefore the kindergarten classrooms and playgrounds are all brand new because they converted the old shop classrooms. It’s the only elementary updating its website. Kindergarten orientation is at 5pm to accommodate working parents. The PTA is active enough to be doing an ice cream social after orientation for the whole school. It’s the district school site for kids in the GATE program. Now, we won’t know for sure for another week if this is the school they will attend, but given what we were told by the principal, it seems to be almost a sure thing. I even spoke to the Admin at this school and asked about putting the twins in the same class and she made it sound like it would be no big deal, and while I’ll believe that when I see it, it certainly didn’t seem to be the federal case the other school made it out to be.

So, I’d gotten to a point where I felt really good about this school, and the path in front of us. Until today. Right after lunchtime my cell phone rings and it’s a number I don’t recognize so I let it go to voicemail. Sure enough, it’s one of the campuses of the charter school that was my first choice telling me they had a spot for us, and possibly two spots by the time I have to make a decision about the spot on Friday morning.

Sigh. You know, I’m almost hoping the second spot doesn’t open up. Because then the decision is made. But you guys, this is where I’ve wanted them to go since I was PREGNANT. I think the philosophy is fabulous, you can see the results in their test scores as well as the stories of the kids after they move on to high school. But. The school is now 27 miles from our house. It’s full day kinder as opposed to half. It’s 27 miles from home. It’s amazing. But it’s 27 miles from our house.

Now, I wholeheartedly believe if we had gotten this call in May we’d have moved much closer to the school because the high schools out that way are great too. But now, well, what are we supposed to do? Suck it up for a year and do the commute and deal with it? Because really there aren’t shots at 1st grade spots. It pretty much is a “if you don’t get a kinder spot, you won’t get a spot,” kind of school.

You know, the reality is, I know that success in school has often little to do with what’s measurable in the classroom. Success in school depends on my involvement in their educations first and foremost. And I know that if we’re involved in their education and advocating for them, the school they are at isn’t always the most important thing. But the paradox of choice is that when you have a choice in front of you, even when presented with two equally acceptable options, you will always look to see if one choice outdoes another in some way in order to tip the scales.

So now we wait, and see what Friday brings. But I’m already believing that maybe the choice isn’t really a choice, because the hardship on a day to day for a school so far away when we don’t have the flexibility anymore to just pick up and move is just too much.

But I can’t close the door just yet. This school has been my dream for five years for them, and I will wait until the last possible second to let it go.

*If you’re interested in where this came from, there’s a great book called “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz. Fascinating stuff.


One thought on “The Paradox of Choice*

  1. I developed an ulcer just reading this post so I can only imagine how you must feel. I am so overwhelmed by the thought of choosing schools. I keep putting off researching it because we’re planning a major move between now and then, but the excuse is becoming flimsier by the day and I’ll probably pay for it when the time comes to enroll him and there aren’t any spaces left anywhere decent. I really believe that the right decision will float to the surface for you, and as you said, YOU are the one that will optimize the environment for them, and you’ll be there wherever they go. Good luck, and I hope Friday brings an obvious choice you can feel at peace with.

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