It’s nice to have a blog when the local paper chooses not to publish the op/ed guest column you submit. I wrote this in response to a rather heated newspaper debate about our area’s charter schools and the financial impact they have on Northampton’s traditional public schools. I’m not going to get into that debate here. However, many of those who wrote columns and letters defending charter schools were quick to assert that non-charter schools are mediocre, and implied that given the opportunity, charters are always the better choice. With 10 years of experience in Northampton’s schools, I can say without reservation that they are excellent, and the first choice for many families.
Ten years ago, in the spring of 2003, we were offered a spot for our 5-year-old son at the Hilltown Charter School after having been on the waitlist for several weeks. We received the letter on a Friday and had to respond by Monday. We agonized. Rumors were spreading that the Northampton School Committee was going to cut art, music, and gym from the elementary schools, but we also had every reason to believe that Bridge Street School, five houses away, would be great for our son. After much exploration, we saw that there was no evidence that he’d get a better education at Hilltown or a worse education at Bridge Street, and at the local school, we’d be remaining in our community. We turned down the space at Hilltown.
A decade later, my younger son is graduating from Bridge Street School, and it’s been an excellent run. Certainly, it hasn’t been perfect: no school is without its weaknesses, and constant budget cuts compound these. However, my sons have been happy socially and challenged academically. Their quirks—the long hair they had for several years, their nutty imaginations—have been embraced. Their teachers have been excellent: patient, creative, and inspiring. My older son, for whom we passed up the spot at Hilltown, entered 9th grade at Northampton High School this year, and hit the ground running, excelling in a schedule made up of mostly honors classes. Clearly the foundation he received at BSS and JFK is strong. Although we had choices for his high school education, we chose the school in his community, with an extremely diverse student base, and classes like Honors Art and AP Physics.
Without a doubt, the greatest gift that the Northampton’s public schools have given my family is its very diverse community. As we like to say, it’s a Richard Scarry world. My kids’ friends come from affluent families, from families struggling to get by, and from families staying at Grace House until they get on their feet. Their friends include kids who are academically high achieving and kids for whom even reading is a challenge. Their friends are those who find it easy to follow the rules and those with significant behavior problems. To them, all of these kids are simply their friends. What matters is whether they’re fun, whether they’re kind, or whether they’re into Doctor Who, Modest Mouse, and Rick Riordan’s books.
As my little guy has finished his last year at Bridge Street, my husband and I have been working on the 5th grade yearbook and graduation slide show. I’ve spent the last three months walking around the school with a camera in my hand and a lump in my throat. Today, as I wandered the halls trying to find the last few staff members to photograph, I asked myself if I regret the decision we made a decade ago? The answer is an easy one: Not for a minute.