We are a “dual-school family.” Our daughter is in 6th grade at the local Orthodox Jewish day school while our son is in 3rd grade at a public school.
We often get asked how this came about. I enjoy replying that when deciding which child should learn Torah, we picked our daughter as a corrective step for generations of reduced access to Torah by girls. But that’s really just a line. As with most things in life, there’s a longer story behind this–and as with much of parenting, our intentions only played a minor role.
When we were first considering kindergarten options for our daughter, we chose the day school. We had seen the way that graduates from the day school can navigate rabbinic literature, converse in Hebrew, think critically about moral issues, and behave generally as mensches. We decided that this upbringing–which I think is a more appropriate word in this context than education–was worth the high financial cost.
Our daughter’s kindergarten application was accepted, she enrolled, and her experience there confirmed that we had made a solid decision. We’re not Orthodox, but this day school was our dream come true. Our daughter was growing, learning, exploring and all through kindergarten–and the years that followed–the school was appropriately fostering her mind and her soul. We planned to enroll our other children there as well.
But when the time came three years later and we submitted our son’s application for kindergarten, it was–to our complete shock–denied.
Of course our first question was “Why?” We were told simply that he wasn’t “ready for kindergarten” and that we should apply the following year. But what does that mean that he’s “not ready”? We were invited to talk to the admissions committee, and the conversation went like this:
“Is he too young?” “No, he’s a full month older than our minimum age cut-off.”
“Is he academically unready?” “No, he’s actually already reading at a first-grade level.”
“Is it his social skills?” “No, he seems to play very well with the other children.”
“Is it his emotional maturity?” “No, he seems perfectly happy, able to focus and handle transitions.”
“Is it his physical development?” “No, he’s actually pretty big and coordinated for an incoming kindergartner. Though I suppose his fine motor skills are a bit weak.”
“THEN SERIOUSLY, WHAT’S THE ISSUE? Is he really being rejected from kindergarten because he can’t cut out a damn paper circle?!?” “It’s not just one thing. We have years of experience with this and we can just tell that he is not ready for kindergarten. You just need to trust us that when you reapply next year, he will be ready and we’ll accept his application.”
My wife and I have different theories as to what the “true” reason for this rejection was. But this speculation doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they refused to reconsider their decision despite our pleas. No matter what arguments or questions we brought, their only response was a calm, polite nod and assurance that they knew better than we did what our son was capable of.
For us it was shocking. For our son, heartbreaking. He had been greatly looking forward to starting kindergarten at the day school. He had even convinced his big sister to teach him the morning kindergarten rituals so that he could sing along on the very first day of class. But once our appeals were turned down, we needed to be direct with him.
“The day school has decided that you cannot go to kindergarten in the fall. They think you’re not ready. We think they’re wrong but they won’t listen to us. So we’re going to find you another school.”
He collapsed onto the floor, sobbing.
We enrolled him in the public school. And, to his surprise as much as ours, he loved it and still loves it. At the time we were unsure of our decision. Maybe this was a mistake? Maybe he’s really not ready? But without going into detail, it has been made overwhelmingly clear over the past four years that he was, in fact, completely ready.
As astoundingly good luck would have it, his kindergarten year was also the pilot year for a new program in Berkeley called Edah. In short, Edah takes the logistical convenience of a full-service five-day-a-week afterschool child care and infuses it with rich Jewish content. Although Edah can’t deliver the same textual mastery of a formal classroom, it has provided significantly more in terms of Judaic knowledge, experience, and pride than any of the supplementary programs which were available when our daughter was entering kindergarten.
Kindergarten readiness is something of a loaded topic. Parents’ judgment can be clouded. Schools make mistakes. Hard age cut-offs ignore differences between children’s developmental rates.
I don’t know what the answer is. In fact I don’t think there really IS a satisfying answer to this dilemma. But in our story we have our “dream” Jewish day school making what in hindsight was an error in judgment, greatly altering the course of our children’s education from how we had intended, together with a fortuitous outcome.
And that is how we became an accidental “dual-school family.”