Two weeks ago our family hit the LAUSD jackpot: we got a call from LACES (Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies) informing us our daughter had been accepted into the seventh grade. LACES is the Holy Grail of LA public schools (Blue Ribbon, one of the ten best nationwide in test scores). It also happens to be two blocks from our house. For most parents, this was a dream come true.
We were surprised - we had applied to LACES in an effort to game the magnet system, thinking we'd never get in, and thereby racking up points for high school. Our gamble backfired, and two weeks into the school year we were faced with an excruciating choice: yank our daughter out of New West Charter middle school, where she is happy and thriving, or pass up what is lauded as one of the best schools in the city
LACES is a known academic pressure-cooker, with a menu of high-stakes A.P. and honors classes. Their reputation is for churning out college-ready superstars. In this era of hothouse child-rearing, to question achievement-oriented education is close to heresy. But my husband and I have always questioned it, and in the stew of consideration we were embroiled in, we found ourselves once again asking ourselves how we as a family define success. Is an elite college really our ultimate goal for our children? Franny's immediate reaction was to stay put at New West. But I took her to LACES for a tour, on the principle she couldn't make an informed choice without seeing the other school first. She ended up being pleasantly surprised. She loved its big auditorium and art studios, its community services programs and personable magnet coordinator who answered all our questions and put some of our fears to rest.
Back at home we made a list of pros and cons. The biggest pro for LACES being that it goes through high school. In the parched public school landscape of Los Angeles, that is a huge consideration. Where would we send Franny for high school if she remained at New West?
I had as privileged an education as one can get, from private school in Manhattan, to boarding school, eventually graduating from Barnard College. No one ever asks to see my degree, and when I look back on my own education, it was actually the four years I spent in a bohemian boarding school reading and writing about great books, shooting the shit with my friends and hanging around in the theater that shaped me the most. The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree and if my daughter were a young attorney or physicist in the making, she would be starting LACES next Monday and I would be thrilled. But she is more explorer than go-getter, given to dreaminess and poetry with a tendency to clam up when she's put on the spot. I worried she'd be lost in a large classroom full of over-achievers.
After a day of puzzling it over, with a throbbing head, I found Franny in her room curled up with a book. I snuggled up with her and we batted the issue around one more time, both of us filled with worry that we'd make a decision we would later regret.
"I don't know Mom," she said in a voice laced with emotion, "I feel like I fit in at New West -- like everybody sees me for who I am." At her old school she was teased for being "the quiet, good girl" but at New West her friends all call her "deep" and she has blossomed into a funny, outspoken member of that community.
As I listened to her, I realized that all my reasons for wanting to send her to LACES were based on fear and laziness: worry about an uncertain high school future, anxiety that everyone else wants their kids to go to LACES, and the temptation of not having to drive a carpool. None of this had anything to do with the actual person next to me, who was already succeeding on her own terms.
So we did the unthinkable -- we turned LACES down. The choice felt incredibly good, because we didn't vote for one school over another, but instead, cast our vote for our girl -- who she is as defined by herself, and not by the rat race that thinks she needs some kind of edge to succeed and be happy in life.
Crossposted to The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erika-schickel/acceptance_b_65653.html