School choice should be my choice

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I am the proud mother of two girls, 10 and 14. My journey with the education system, however, started in 2001 as a young, single, Puerto Rican foster mother, raising two African-American children. The challenges and limitations that I faced shaped my journey as a parent leader and advocate for my children and other children in my care across the Rochester City School District, charter schools and homeschooling. 

Maria S. Cruz

As a foster parent I was expected to make sure that my children’s educational needs were taken care of. However, the choices provided in the city school district were limited and tied my hands when I saw obvious requirements were not being met. I learned a lot from this experience that I applied when I started my own family. I know my children best and believe the choice—finding the right fit—should be mine to make. 

When my oldest daughter was getting ready to transition from preschool into kindergarten, I was prepared to make the right choice for her, but I had no direction, no GPS. I attended the school convention for the district and went from table to table asking questions. I went to this convention with the Montessori program in mind. I wanted to get all the information I needed to make my choice. The moment I started talking to the representative, I realized that the program was not a good fit for my child. I became worried because that seemed to be my only choice at the time. I left that day with two choices that were a good fit: One was a school in the district that offered everything I wanted, including the bilingual piece that was so important to me; the other was a charter school.

Charter school? I left there scratching my head about it; I had no clue what a charter school was about and what it had to offer my family. So, I did my homework. I went online and learned about charter schools. I researched the school I chose and called them to ask questions. Then, I applied. The only thing left was to pray and hope for a door to open. I was called on the day of the public lottery and my child received a seat. I was excited.

My journey with this school was positive for the most part. We all know that there is no perfect system, but I held this school dear to my heart for many years. Over time, it was clear my daughter needed a different kind of support. The school’s open-door policy allowed me to help her both at home and in the classroom. 

The support my daughter received from the teachers was exceptional. Her kindergarten teacher continues to be a close family friend. What I appreciated about this school experience was that it was driven by me, supporting my child, and fighting for her rights—alongside the school asking me to partner with them for my daughter’s success. Every teacher my children had in the charter school walked the extra mile with me on behalf of my children. I felt supported, included and valued. I paid it forward by volunteering my time in the classroom. I created the first and only Girls Scouts Troop in the school (and the only after-school program at the time). I traveled to Albany each year to advocate on behalf of charter education and even got involved in a lawsuit against New York State demanding better funding for school choice

Six years after my daughter first walked into her kindergarten classroom, I was faced with the fact that the same school that I loved was no longer serving her needs.

At this point, I decided to exercise my right to make another choice that was best for my children, so I pulled both girls out of the charter school and opted to homeschool. My time at home was another opportunity to research and do my homework to learn more about my options. I looked into the district again and learned more about its special education services. I began looking for another school that would be a good fit for my family and my daughters.

My choices were made easier this time by new sources of information like GoodSchoolsRoc.org where I could compare all the charter schools in Rochester and apply to the lottery with one online form. I am lucky that both of my girls got into great schools. My youngest daughter wants to be a nurse and attends the Academy of Health Sciences. I remember hiking with our homeschooling group when the text came in. I immediately called the school and the principal answered the phone. I asked all of my questions and went home to accept the offer and get the paperwork ready. 

My daughter loves her school, and I am working with the school leader to support empowering other parents. My oldest daughter received a seat at Young Women’s College Prep. By the end of the first week, I had a call from one of her teachers asking for more information about my child and asking for my thoughts on how she can best support my child at school. 

My family has been failed by many people and systems throughout our very long journey, but the understanding that I had the power to make things better for my children and family has sustained me. Whether district, charter or homeschooling, I get to assess and direct the best path for my children. My bottom line is that I have choices for my child’s education, and they are mine alone. 

Maria S. Cruz is a parent leader and advocate. 

4 thoughts on “School choice should be my choice

  1. You are a great Mom. It’s unfortunate that you had to do so much work to find a good education for your children.

    I don’t have children, but have gone to schools through a Kodak outreach to help with English and communications. My friend and I went into a city public school 6th grade and were so dismayed. The students all had expensive sneaks and talked about pool tables at home, but could not put a sentence together and had no clue about grammar. Words they wrote ran into each other, making no sense. When we asked the students to write an opening paragraph for an essay, the teacher pulled us aside and told us that he always writes the opening paragraph for them. In 6th grade? The opening paragraph is the most important part of any paper, presenting your thoughts and the direction they are taking. When should you learn how to write an essay?

    The scientists who went into schools worked on challenging math and science projects and the students loved the challenge, even though the teachers said the students wouldn’t be able to keep up. Well, maybe the teachers couldn’t keep up.

    Last year, I went into a city public school with the aim of sitting in one of my neighbor’s classes because the teacher couldn’t handle the students alone and there had been a lot of problems in the classroom. I couldn’t believe the number of students wandering around when classes were in session. It took 3 people to find my neighbor and then her teacher said I didn’t have permission to go into the classroom (I actually did). Why were so many students not in class? What are they not learning?

    Our city school system and the teachers’ association needs a major redo and push to do a great job. They owe it to the students.

    • I almost had an anxiety attack reading this. Unfortunately this is the case in almost every classroom across the district. I count my children blessed to be in a charter school setting.

      Is not a perfect system but is the system with the best results, nowadays. And the one that meets my family’s needs.

      My daughter’s biggest struggle is writing, or I should say, WAS writing. She’s not out of the woods yet, but YWCP teachers encourage her to get better everyday.

      I think we need to understand that one size does not fit all. We need to teach each child in the way he or she is able to learn and stop pretending that we have THE one answer to each individual problem.

  2. You are a great parent advocate for your children, reminds me of my parents. You represent a small number of parents of color who have the wherewithal to begin to approach school head on, advocating for their children. Their needs to be more like you helping other parents navigate with confidence. I believe that many who are in the struggle economically don’t feel like they measure up, and avoid what they consider to be a hassle. Keep helping you’re needed.

  3. Thanks. I really appreciate your comment. I truly believe that complaining leads to nothing. If the system fails you, then you go and change the system. When it comes to my children education, I can’t complain if I’m not willing to partner. I hope this COVID-19 crisis teaches parents that teachers alone can’t educate our kids, this is a partnership. I learned throughout my journey that I can’t do this alone. We have choices when it comes to choosing what type of education we want for our children, but we also have the responsibility to form partnerships with those that impact their lives every day.

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