Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of 4 articles in a series about one Champaign parent’s experience with the Champaign Unit 4 Schools of Choice process.
By Kari Croop
Last time we talked, I was feeling pretty organized. I had an official short list of five schools I wanted to look at based on proximity (Dr. Howard, South Side, Westview, Stratton and Bottenfield), and I had a general sense that there were several great options among them. I even managed to get myself on a school tour the first week of February and had plans to visit the rest of the schools on my list in rapid succession. To top it off, I was going to attend some evening open houses. As I like to say: I was really doing it.
But then, my kids got the flu. Yep. All of them.
I’m not sure if it was better or worse that the virus worked its way through my triplets in stages, beginning with Nora and Connor (who woke the very same night with sky-high fevers while we were on vacation in Wisconsin for the weekend, no less) and waiting until almost one week later to infect poor Cameron, who had it for another 7-10 days. My husband and I somehow dodged it. But when the Great Plague of 2017 finally lifted, the kids had missed several weeks of school, and I’d been a prisoner of my own home for most of the month. It was exhausting, sometimes scary — and we were all wiped out. And then I realized it was March.
Cue the cold sweats and a mild sense of panic because not only did I have several schools on my list that I still hadn’t visited, but I had also missed ALL the open houses. (Remember what I said about perfectionism being a lost cause with triplets?) In fact, the only good thing I had going for me at that point was that the ONE school I managed to visit before the kids got sick, Bottenfield, truly felt like THE ONE, if you can actually believe it. But my analytic brain wouldn’t allow me to go on gut instinct, and I still had no idea how I’d rank the rest of our Top 5. With proximity and the triplet factor in play, we had a pretty good chance of getting our first choice — after all, some 85 percent of families do. But what if we didn’t? I had to know that I’d be OK with any of the schools on our list.
I never gave the “strand” factor much thought before, say, a month ago. In fact, I didn’t even know what strands were, aside from the gray ones my kids keep finding on my head. In the realm of education, however, a “strand” refers to the number of classes per grade level, and when you have triplets, the number of strands becomes really important. At least it does for me.
Consider, for example, a two-strand school like South Side, which was one of my early favorites based on proximity to my house, general neighborhood vibe and positive reviews from people I know personally. (It also scores major nostalgia points for reminding me of my childhood elementary school.) Though I’m pretty adamant about keeping my kids together for the first year or so to ease the whole elementary school transition, I acknowledge and more or less expect that I’ll want to split them up down the road — and at South Side, that means an awkward 2-1 splice that I fear would give the singled-out kid a complex. It’s a really tough choice that I don’t want to make, and I know I’d work it out if I had to. But it still stinks that South Side isn’t three strands.
Thankfully, Bottenfield has a triplet-friendly, three-strand set-up (in addition to a triple slide on the playground, but I digress), yet another reason it feels like THE ONE. But one of our other proximity schools, Westview, has a three-strand structure, too, along with one big difference: It starts really, really early.
Pulling Off the Impossible
Early-start schools might work fine for other families, but I know in my heart it would be hard for us. My kids naturally wake between 7 and 7:30 a.m., and though I’m pretty efficient and they’re generally cooperative, getting all three of them ready for their 8:30 a.m. preschool three days a week is nothing short of a “situation” as it is. Herding three kids into their clothes, coats and shoes; taming three heads of hair; making and monitoring three breakfasts; double-checking the contents of three backpacks; and, come kindergarten, making sure three lunches are in order – all these things have to happen before we even get out the door. And I just can’t imagine that going well if it means waking them up before daybreak, which is what I’d have to do to make an early start work.
Some of my friends who prefer early start times like the earlier afternoon dismissals (around 2 p.m.) because it gives them more time to do things with their kids after school. But, for me, there’s still plenty of time to do something fun like go to the park — or something not so fun, like grocery shop — if I pick them up an hour later (around 3 p.m.). Early start times can also work better for parents with jobs outside the home in terms of morning drop-off, but my flexible work-from-home gig as a writer-editor for a West Coast company has no official start time or end time, so it truly makes no difference when I clock in. I’m also partial to having a larger block of time to myself after lunch to re-focus and get more work done before it’s time to leave and pick up the kids again.
I guess you could call me selfish — or call me practical, which is simply more accurate. Just don’t call me before 7 a.m., or we’ll all be cranky.
Early-start time aside, another major concern when it comes to Westview specifically is that both the principal and a veteran kindergarten teacher are leaving at the end of the current school year, and their replacements have yet to be named. I understand that teachers and administrators come and go, but for a prospective parent, those are two big question marks, and I’d feel a lot more confident choosing Westview if I had those answers in front of me.
The Great Gifted Debate
The only other issue for me is the question of gifted programs – and, to be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about Unit 4’s approach. Both my husband and I tested in the gifted range as children in Pennsylvania, where we were pulled out of regular classes for weekly enrichment time with other gifted students, so it’s reasonable to assume that at least one of my children will test in the gifted range, too. But Unit 4’s approach to teaching gifted students is very different, designating four of its 12 elementary schools as “Gifted Program Schools” and placing all gifted students there in the same class from grades 2 through 5. As it turns out, two of the schools on my proximity list — Dr. Howard and Stratton – fall into that category.
By contrast, gifted students who choose to stay at non-Gifted Program Schools like Bottenfield, South Side or Westview receive in-house “enrichment” that’s offered to everyone – whether they’ve tested in the gifted range or not – though when that starts seems to vary from school to school. So part of me worries that my potentially gifted child(ren) wouldn’t be challenged enough at a so-called “regular” school, but I also know we’d have the option to transfer if necessary. That said, a good friend whose gifted son went to Dr. Howard once told me that while he had a great experience in his classes there, he really struggled when he transitioned to middle school, where he was no longer in an all-gifted class and found himself navigating some brutal social hierarchies. Her real-world critique of the system has really stuck with me, and I don’t think I want that for my kids, no matter how great the gifted curriculum is. Middle school’s tough enough already.
Of course, even if they weren’t Gifted Program Schools, both Dr. Howard and Stratton have early start times, which we’ve already established I’m not thrilled about. Mix in the fact that Dr. Howard is a two-strand school that’s facing major reconstruction over the next several years that will involve relocating students, and I’ve essentially ruled it out. And though Stratton offers the three-strand structure I need, it adds the extra layer of being a uniform school, which, while it works for some, I personally find stifling – unless I’m sending my kids to Hogwarts. For me, uniforms are a major deal-breaker.
OK … So Now What?
Now that I’ve run through all my proximity options and found some daunting downsides, is it crazy to consider a popular, non-proximity school like Carrie Busey? Maybe so, but they’ve got plenty of strands, a beautiful, brand-new facility, an amazing playground and some of the highest scores in the district, which are all major selling points. That said, the school is about 15-20 minutes away, depending on traffic (and, as we learned on our way there for a tour recently, train schedules), and they’ve also got that dreaded early-start time. Bussing the kids to Savoy would require even earlier mornings for all of us, and if I drove them, it would eat up precious work time. I kind of wish Carrie Busey hadn’t impressed me so much when we visited, but, doggone it, she did — and now the school is one of my favorites. Go figure.
So with three strands, a later start time, proximity and a ton of other “pros,” Bottenfield is my obvious No. 1 — and though it flies in the face of all logic, Carrie Busey is my surprise No. 2. But how do I rank the runners up? And, as we learned from my little story about the paint swatches last time, HOW DO I DO IT WITHOUT GOING INSANE? I know no other way to sort it out than to make a list. Here’s what I’ve got:
Option 1: Bottenfield (AKA “The No-Brainer”)
Pros: Convenient location within proximity (1.5 miles); late start time (8:55 a.m.) and dismissal (3:10 p.m.); three strands; highest-performing school in the district; in-class enrichment begins for all students in kindergarten and moves to a “50-50” model in second grade that pulls gifted students out for one-on-one engagement but maintains in-class enrichment for all; newly renovated building with an impressive library; new playground for younger children with plans to renovate the play area for older children; strong PTA with active parent involvement; ringing endorsements from parents I personally know; highly responsive principal.
Cons: One of the smaller schools and also very popular, making it potentially more difficult to get into; no formal gifted program.
Option 2: Carrie Busey (AKA “The Faraway Gem with Great Facilities”)
Pros: Four strands for K-1, consolidating to three strands for 2-5; one of the highest-performing schools in the district; in-class enrichment begins for all students in second grade, with some one-on-one pull-outs for gifted students; brand-new building with awesome facilities, including a spacious library and amazing play structures; strong PTA with innovative family programming; great word of mouth; personable and approachable principal.
Cons: Inconvenient location that’s out of proximity in Savoy (5.3 miles), so we may not have a chance of getting in; early start time (7:45 a.m.) and dismissal (2 p.m.), making the process of getting to school a major feat; no formal gifted program.
Option 3: South Side (AKA “The Two-Strander with Solid References”)
Pros: Convenient location within proximity (0.65 miles); late start time (8:55 a.m.) and dismissal (3:10 p.m.); slated for major renovation to improve existing structure and expand facilities (including a new gymnasium and music room) that won’t involve student relocation; expansive play areas with good equipment; strong PTA with active parent involvement; ringing endorsements from multiple sources, including parents and teachers I personally know; highly responsive and personable principal.
Cons: Two strands; existing structure, while historic, needs significant updates; construction won’t begin until 2019, and some will occur during the school year, which may cause minor disruptions; one of the smaller schools and also very popular, making it potentially more difficult to get into; no formal gifted program, and though in-class enrichment begins for all in second grade, there are no pull-outs for gifted students.
Option 4: Westview (AKA “The Flawed But Workable Fallback”)
Pros: Convenient location within proximity (0.97 miles); three strands; in-class enrichment begins for all students in second grade, with some small-group pull-outs; recently renovated building with brand-new kindergarten wing; innovative extras include an in-house student television station and a gymnasium with a climbing wall; strong PTA with active parent involvement; ringing endorsements from a parent I personally know.
Cons: Early start time (7:50 a.m.) and dismissal (2:05 p.m.); no formal gifted program; both the current principal and a veteran kindergarten teacher are leaving at the end of this school year, and their replacements have yet to be named; playground/school yard needs a major update.
Option 5: Dr. Howard (AKA “The Neighborhood School with a Gifted Program”)
Pros: Convenient location within proximity (0.43 miles – this is our true “neighborhood school,” as we could literally walk there); formal gifted program with a great reputation; slated for major renovation to significantly improve facilities.
Cons: Two strands; early start time (7:50 a.m.) and dismissal (2:05 p.m.); existing structure has serious problems; extensive renovations will involve student relocation; mixed word of mouth from friends who have worked in the district.
Exhausted by my whip-smart analysis yet? Yeah, me, too — though I’ll admit that I’m still waffling on my ranking of South Side over Westview. But in any case, I’ve finally decided, and we’re now officially registered! (Clink!) The only thing left on my “Lottery Mom” to-do list is to stop second-guessing myself and find a good distraction until the end of April. Because, let’s face it, I think I’m going to need one.
Kari Croop, a proud graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is a writer and editor who works part-time for Netflix from her home office in Champaign, where she lives with her husband, Andy, and their fraternal triplets, Nora, Connor and Cameron. Bonus points if you can guess how many times she was interrupted while writing this column.