Finding YOUR Community At LA Private Elementary Schools

If all goes well, hopefully many of you will have a child starting private school this fall. It’s an exciting time but also a big adjustment for kids and parents alike After all, this is LA, where meeting other moms can be a Sisyphean task under the best of circumstances. Private school is no different (at least it wasn’t for me and a lot of my friends). If you’re like me, you may find that trying to establish friendships with other moms can be difficult. And, if you’re like me, you’ll care because it will impact your child’s ability to establish friendships in the lower grades.

 

Finding a sense of community at The Willows has been much harder than I expected. I often get the feeling that the only thing I have in common with other moms is the fact that we have kids at the same school. Sometimes that can be all that’s needed to establish a group of friends for you and your kid. Other times, it’s just not enough to feel like there’s a true sense of community.

 

I’ve learned that the issue of “community” at your child’s school is one that means different things to different people.

 

Some moms will say, “I don’t want to hang out with parents at my kid’s school, I have my own friends.”

 

Others will expound on the virtues of having a close group of friends at their kid’s school, saying  ”we love our school because we feel such a sense of community with the other families.”

 

But what is “community” at a private school? For me, it’s moms who get together for coffee or lunch. It’s dads who get together for “guys night out” or organize a group of kids to play on the same sports team. It’s about being able to call a mom in your kid’s class to ask advice or just vent without being judged. It’s families who have dinner together. It’s about a mom calling to say, “I saw your daughter on the yard today and she looked so happy.” It’s more than a quick “hi” at morning drop-off. It’s knowing each others’ names.

 

I was talking with a Willows mom recently and she brought up what she perceives as the school’s lack of community. Her kids are not in the same grade as mine. She was lamenting the lack of community, but she told me it does allow her family to maintain their privacy. “Nobody is in your business, because nobody is interested,”she said. “True.” I responded. What she’s talking about isn’t a clique. It’s the opposite of a clique.

 

It’s not that I want the epitome of a sorority. But, community at my kids’ school is  important. I want my kids to feel like they belong to a community of families. It hasn’t happened overnight, but I have made a few good mom friends at school. My kids have made some good friends too.  But, it hasn’t been easy. It’s taken time.

 

Our first year at The Willows was difficult for a number of reasons. My daughter was bullied by a girl in her class, which made her transition more difficult than it would have normally been. It was (and still is) a geographically fragmented 4th grade. This has been one the biggest obstacles to building a sense of community with other families. The other obstacle, quite honestly, is that my daughter’s grade has a lot of parents who fall into the category of “I don’t want to hang out with parents at my kid’s school.” Some of them still don’t know each other’s names after having kids in the same grade since kindergarten. Friendships, in my opinion, tend to be superficial among the majority of moms. Many have older siblings and are busy with their activities.

 

The lack of community in my daughter’s grade has been the single biggest challenge with our school. I had hoped for a closer knit group of families. Now that my kids have finished 2nd and 4th grade, it’s less important than it was the first few years. By this age, my kids are picking their own friends. By secondary school, I imagine I’ll be looking for other qualities in a school like academic offerings and athletic programs.

 

I was baffled by the mom who had been saying to me for the past few years, “let’s get the kids together for a playdate.” We had one playdate set up several years ago. She cancelled five minutes before I left the house to drive my daughter to her side of town. She asked again this year, I contacted her, but they weren’t available. I told my daughter this is a “school friend” not a playdate friend. I’m equally baffled by moms are “too busy” to say hello to other moms in the class.

 

I’m in a parenting group run by parent educator Betsy Brown Braun. When I brought up this issue in the group, she gave me very reassuring advice: “Christina, it doesn’t matter whether your daughter’s friends are from school or not, it just matters that she has friends.”

 

A mom who is new to the school this year confided in a friend of mine that she and her child were having trouble meeting families (and kids) at the school. I immediately called her and we had lunch with our kids. To me, that’s what a community is about.

 

This might be a good topic to think about when you pick a school. If I had it to do over again, I’d make sure to ask the question of the parents at the school and anyone else who might know: “Does your school have a strong sense of community?” What kind of events does the school have to give parents a chance to get together? Do kids do playdates? How many of the kids have older siblings? Does the school emphasize community? If so, in what ways? Do parents here develop meaningful friendships?

 

Ultimately, if you want a school where there is more than the mere illusion of community, you’ll have to find a school where that exists. Or, create it yourself once your child is there. The latter is much harder.

 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to love about The Willows school. The strength of it’s community, in my experience, isn’t it’s strongest attribute. And, it varies by grade and even by class.

 

To its credit, The Willows made an effort to help moms get to know each other. “Willows Wednesdays” was a new event for parents to meet for coffee each week. I don’t know if this event will continue since turnout was low. But, it’s a recognition that more can be done to facilitate community. After all, our school has the word “community” in it’s name.  The Willows Community School.

 

Let me know what you think. Do you think all or most LA private elementary schools are fragmented and disconnected like I’ve described? Will a sense of community be at the top of your priority list when you look for a school? Does “community” matter once your kid is in elementary school?

 

Here’s a great article called “The Other Mothers” on the Power of Moms blog. The perfect piece as you begin to meet other moms in the private school world. Then if you want a really good laugh, read the popular Bloggess as she talks about mommy business cards at the park. 

Private Elementary School Buzz…

  • Overheard. Sitting outside Anastasia brow salon in Beverly Hills, two Curtis School moms were chatting. One mom liked the fact that Curtis had allowed her “highly gifted son to flex his other muscles and make a great group of friends and play sports.” Then, they saw another Curtis mom walk by and remarked casually “There goes a Curtis mom…she has to be perfect.” The other one replied, “Yeah, I used to have that mindset, not anymore!” Other topics of conversation? Hawaiian vacations, home purchases in swanky neighborhoods, divorce, ex-husbands, one mom’s former interior decorator, Mary McDonald of Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Decorators, bikini waxes, a Carlthorp mom, adult braces, health scares…and more. 
  • Money Talks. One mom we spoke to is annoyed that whenever she volunteers at her kid’s school, overseeing a big project, there’s barely a mention in the school newsletter if she’s lucky. The family who donated a major gift with a plaque for everyone to see gets a big “thank you” in the newsletter every time they bring muffins. School spirit?
  • Random? Over the years, we’ve heard from several sources that the admissions process at The UCLA Lab School (formerly UES) is a random lottery based on ethnicity and economic diversity (the kids and parents are not interviewed), with an asterisk. The * is because certain families who check off income boxes on the application form of $500,000, $750,000/year can expect to receive a call from a board member asking if they will donate generously ($50K +/yr) to the school. This, we hear, happens before admissions letters are mailed. Not surprisingly, UCLA faculty are given priority. Random? You decide. 
  • Fear Factor. At one well respected LA school, the pressure is so intense from the head of school to ensure kids from the elementary school continue on to its middle school that parents have begun to refer to the families who gather the courage to leave as “the ones who got out.”
  • Her Lips Should Have Been Sealed. A mom we know told us a story about how she wished she’d kept quiet about the schools she was applying to. She’d spent time researching schools, visiting them and figuring out where to apply. She made the mistake of raving about one school to a “friend” who unexpectedly decided to apply there too, using this mom’s research, information and application strategy. Guess whose kid got in? The mom who made the last minute decision to apply to one school! They are no longer friends.

Guest Blogger Jenny: Big Recital Fail: Are We Rewarding Our Kids for The Mediocre?

Recently, I attended a piano recital where my daughter and a horde of other people’s kids, ranging from ages 5 to 18, performed. With the exception of three of the players (not, unfortunately, my daughter), every single one of the piano students made big mistakes.

 

Actually, that’s putting it kindly: they mostly stunk. And yet, there was applause. Cheers, even. The Sunday afternoon dragged on interminably as sour notes built.  These kids had six months to work on their pieces, polishing them to perfection. This was supposed to be a command performance, of sorts. But instead, we listened to mediocrity.

 

I primarily blame the parenting and teaching culture at large for this. That whole “positive self esteem” movement has really messed with the idea of real achievement. While my daughter was waiting her turn, she muttered to her father that she was nervous. “What if I make a mistake?” she asked him.  Knowing how little she seemed to practice, I figured she’d be lucky to just make one mistake.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

 

“On the other hand, “ I added, “you might want to do a really great job, since everybody’s sitting here on a Sunday.”

 

He glared at me. Obviously, I was not a supportive parent. Then our kid sat down at that grand piano and really stunk the place up. When she finished and came back to her seat (rather sheepishly, I thought), her dad said “Good job.”

 

Good job??? Give me a break. It wasn’t a good job. It was a mediocre job.  And it wasn’t just my daughter doing a crummy job. The majority of the kids screwed up constantly, without any sort of sense of self-consciousness about it. After all, their teacher (a fairly hardcore Russian lady who seems unlikely, at her core, to put up with this nonsense) had even told them that everybody makes mistakes. The kids weren’t competing; there was nothing at stake here. And since all these kids are used to adults arranging their lives around their kid schedules, the fact that we all sacrificed a Sunday for this didn’t impress them, either. What else do we have to do than sit around listening to Mendelssohn being utterly demolished?

 

So I didn’t say anything, one way or the other, about her recital piece. Her stepfather patted her once and said, “Well, at least you showed up.” I thought that was kind.

 

Now, I’m not some crazy Tiger Mom with a musical agenda. I’m no nonsense when it comes to school (where my daughter has no problems with performance whatsoever), and mellower when it comes to extra curricular activities like piano. I’m not going to hang over her, screaming that she practice every day for hours. As a result, she doesn’t practice as much as she should (obviously, since her recital was terrible). But, I also know that I don’t nag her much about schoolwork, either, and she manages to handle her own schedule quite nicely. I’ve heard her practice oral reports in her room for hours (and then score great grades on them).

 

I think it all comes down to environment. Anna goes to Mirman, where top performance is stressed and work is pretty competitive. Mediocrity is never rewarded. Mistakes aren’t punished, but no one up at that school is going to tell her she’s done a good job on something when she most decidedly hasn’t; it would be an insult to her intelligence.

 

But then she goes to piano, where nothing is competitive, she’s told it’s fine to make mistakes, and no one has impressed upon her that there’s anything at stake (including, I suppose, pride) if she screws up. It doesn’t matter what I say about it, since I’m just one voice and she has many telling her something very different. There’s no incentive to work really hard and play a piano piece perfectly if everyone gets a rose and applause, right?

 

This experience of reward for mediocrity extends beyond the piano recital, though. Recently, I’ve seen blog posts from mothers bemoaning the recent school practice (both public and private) of having “graduation” every time the kids switch a grade. What, exactly, makes moving up from 4th to 5th grade an accomplishment? Isn’t that the least we can expect? Matriculation from lower to middle school, or from high school to college, makes perfect sense; one marks a boundary from childhood to early adolescence, the other a switch from home and comfort to a completely different living and educational situation. But, if the kids “graduate” every year, what becomes special about graduation, anyway?

 

I’m planning on switching piano teachers soon. While I have no issue with Anna learning to play and enjoying it, I’m tired of the recital charade twice a year. It’s meaningless, and in fact might be harmful. We do our children no favors rewarding lousy performance. Later in life, just showing up isn’t going to cut it, and kids who have been raised this way will be confused later by the lack of praise directed their way.  Some competition, some pride, and some high expectations are all great things to give our kids; without these things, they’re going to find life in the real world difficult indeed.

 

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. Her daughter started 4th grade at Mirman School this year. She previously attended 3rd St. Elementary School. Jenny has been published recently in the Daily News and on Mamapedia, The Well Mom, Sane Moms, Hybrid Mom, The Culture Mom and A Child Grows In Brooklyn. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad.

Private Elementary School Buzz…

  • Money Talks. One mom we spoke to is annoyed that whenever she volunteers at her kid’s school, overseeing a big project, there’s barely a mention in the school newsletter if she’s lucky. The family who donated a major gift with a plaque for everyone to see gets a big “thank you” in the newsletter every time they bring muffins. Hummmph. 
  • Random? Over the years, we’ve heard from several sources that the admissions process at The UCLA Lab School (formerly UES) is a random lottery based on geography and ethnicity (the kids are not interviewed or tested), with an asterisk. The * is because certain families who check off income boxes on the application form of $500,000, $750,000/year can expect to receive a call from a board member asking if they will donate generously ($50K +/yr) to the school. This, we hear, happens before admissions letters are mailed. Not surprisingly, UCLA faculty are given priority. Random? You decide. 
  • Her Lips Should Have Been Sealed. A mom we know told us a story about how she wished she’d kept quiet about the schools she was applying to. She’d spent time researching schools, visiting them and figuring out where to apply. She made the mistake of raving about one school to a “friend” who unexpectedly decided to apply there too, using this mom’s research, information and application strategy. Guess whose kid got in? The mom who made the last minute decision to apply to one school! They are no longer friends. 
  • Fear Factor. At one well respected LA school, the pressure is so intense from the head of school to ensure kids from the elementary school continue on to its middle school that parents have begun to refer to the families who gather the courage to leave as “the ones who got out”. 

Guest Blogger Jenny: Forget The Carpool. We Need A Bus.

Anyone who’s ever had any sort of school commute understands the intrinsic value of a carpool. It’s the well-oiled support machine that keeps your schedule running and keeps you from revving up and down L.A.’s heinous freeways all week long (I’ve written about the love I have for my carpool before). But sometimes, circumstances beyond your control render the carpool useless. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cal Trans!

 

Seriously, Cal Trans is about to ruin my life, and the life of every other school commuting parent heading toward the Westside (which is almost all of them). The scheduled widening of the 405 freeway, along with the closure of the Mulholland Bridge, is about to make the east/west commute into one nasty and serious commitment.  Bring water and food, because if you decide to brave that commute come this August, you just might need it.

 

There’s a bunch of schools up on that stretch of Mulholland Drive, just over that soon to be defunct bridge and the 405. Schools with kids aplenty, like Milken, Curtis, Berkeley Hall, Mirman (Anna’s school), and Westland.  The commute was already pretty bad if you came north up the 405, since the Mulholland off ramp has been closed for a while, creating way more traffic on your only other option, Sepulveda.

 

But now, well, it’s going to be virtually impossible to get there. With the bridge closed, traffic will be forced onto some sort of serpentine route through a hapless Valley neighborhood (I tried this route once, just for kicks, and got lost. It does not bode well). Imagine all those cars snaking through some back route to Mulholland, complete with stop signs and Children Playing signs. Those peaceful neighborhood residents will hate us, and we will curse our sorry vehicular existences.

 

So you can imagine my delight when Mirman proposed a bus route convenient to Eastsiders like us.  Possibly shared with Curtis, it would pick our kids up close by and roll through the Westside. Our children will do homework, talk, possibly snooze, and do whatever else bus riding children do until arrival at their respective schools. This means no commute. This means no more sitting on the 101, sweating the time. This means dismantling the coffee IV drip system currently installed in the car. The bus is the answer.

 

If we can get enough parents (and thus, kids) on board.

 

And that’s a big if. Buses, you see, are pretty pricey. You might fork out another couple grand, on top of the tuition, for a twice daily bus route. That’s a lot of money. On the other hand, time is money, and without the bus, time will be lost, never to return. Plus, the gas prices are so insane these days, you could end up spending that much in commuting fuel costs anyway. And let’s not forget that “green” issue, since all those extra cars on the freeway add up to way more emissions than a single bus (I’ve often pondered this while staring at the idling SUVs waiting in the carpool line).

 

So I’ve done my due diligence on the subject, and went even further: I wrote a very persuasive email missive to every relevant parent on our school carpool list. It was a rational plea for bus usage, and I used every bit of my direct response advertising copywriting skill to make the bus as irresistible a transportation option as has ever rolled the L.A. streets.  I charmingly argued and cajoled. All the parents need to do, I wrote, is fill out the online form that merely indicates interest in the bus. It’s not a firm commitment, just an interest. Please. For all that is holy.

 

The due date for this online form was June 10. I still have no idea if our area made the cut for the route. I hope so, because otherwise, it’s going to be one long school year indeed.

 

 

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. Her daughter started 4th grade at Mirman School this year. She previously attended 3rd St. Elementary School. Jenny has been published recently in the Daily News and on Mamapedia, The Well Mom, Sane Moms, Hybrid Mom, The Culture Mom and A Child Grows In Brooklyn. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad.