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.
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.