A BIG Change: From Progressive Elementary School To Traditional Middle School

Potomac, MD, July 2014
A visit to Potomac, MD, July 2014

There is a common narrative that says moving from a progressive to a traditional school could mean your kid might be unprepared or even fall behind. I’ve never believed that sentiment, mainly because successful students come from all kinds of schools. I hope my kids’ experience helps further dispel that notion. Not surprisingly, some parents wonder (and often worry) about what the transition from a developmental/progressive to a traditional school will be like for their kid. I’ll admit, I was concerned too, but I tend to worry about everything, so this isn’t anything new.  Will this change be smooth, with few adjustments needed to deal with different educational philosophies? Or, will the transition between different types of schools require tutoring, lots of hours studying and stress for their kid? Will programs align or will there be a big gap between the schools?


Coming from a progressive/developmental elementary school, my kids entered their new traditional school with valuable skills and strengths. The approach to learning acquired during their early education is intrinsically part of who they are. Yet, crossing over to a new type of school meant they had to quickly learn new skills in areas that were unfamiliar to them.


After seven years at The Willows, we realized it was time for our kids to make a change. By nature they are structured, competitive and self-motivated. This signaled to us that it was time to look at traditional schools.


Below, I’ve listed some of the most/least challenging aspects of the progressive-to-traditional school transition for my kids.



Here’s what has been the MOST challenging for my kids:


1. Standardized tests. Generally speaking, progressive schools place less emphasis on the value of standardized tests than their traditional counterparts. Therefore, very little time is spent preparing kids for these tests. In progressive schools, classroom work isn’t geared to generating high standardized test scores and the way material is taught differs from the way it appears on standardized tests. During the 4th grade ERBs (mandated for all Independent Schools) at Willows, my daughter got strep throat and missed 4 out of the 5 test days. We asked for a make-up test date and were told there wasn’t going to be an opportunity to make up the test. Let’s just say that response didn’t go over well with my husband who pushed for a make-up test, which was administered for my daughter (it was optional for other kids). The concept, Teach To The Test isn’t found in progressive schools, while there are some traditional L.A. private elementary schools that spend substantial time getting kids ready for standardized tests. Test-preparation was money well spent to prepare my daughter for the ISEE (middle school entrance exam).


2.  Learning how to take a traditional test. Traditional schools give tests using multiple- choice questions. Sometimes, there are essay and multiple choice portions, but rarely are there tests that only have an essay question.  The way progressive and traditional schools test similar material (a book, for example) will be very different. For my kids, this required learning a new study skill. Multiple choice tests with answer choices that are very similar are common at traditional schools. This requires reading and studying with a focus on small details of a story, a poem or a chapter. Scantron tests were also new to my kids.


3. An increase in the amount of homework, tests and quizzes.  At a developmental/progressive school, students are given more project-oriented work that requires research, collaboration, planning and writing. In a traditional school, especially in middle school, there is homework in every class and several tests and/or quizzes each week. Tests and quizzes were less frequent at our developmental/progressive school and the homework was much lighter. The first time my son heard the term “pop test” was this year. My daughter had to adjust to a heavy volume of tests and homework, a big jump from the previous year.



Here’s what has been the LEAST challenging for my kids:


1. Organizational skills. My kids benefitted tremendously from their developmental/progressive school’s big, bold projects, which required extensive planning, organization and attention to a timeline/schedule. Staying organized, knowing what comes next and turning in assignments on time has been seamless for both my kids.


2. Working in groups. At the core of a developmental/progressive school is the belief that the sharing of ideas and working with each other is essential to learning.  Collaborating with other kids, sharing and expressing thoughts, listening to others’ opinions respectfully are concepts my kids understand. There is a lot less group work at a traditional school, but my kids have leadership skills that have been recognized—and called upon—by their peers.


3. Critical thinking. My kids both developed excellent critical thinking skills at their former school. The ability to ask thoughtful questions both in class–and after class– is also something they learned because it was encouraged. Asking questions and questioning the teacher (appropriately…think debate style) are essential skills progressive schools can teach kids.


Ultimately, your kid’s personality and other factors, along with your own preferences, will help determine the type of school that’s right for him/her. For my kids, a progressive elementary school worked well, but as the kids got older we knew we wanted a more traditional secondary school, one that aligned more closely with their interests and goals. I’m grateful my kids will have the benefit of both progressive and traditional private schools.


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Parent-Teacher Conferences: When To Speak and When To Shut Up

Listen and learn

During the past school year, my husband and I attended our son’s 3rd grade parent/teacher conference and our daughter’s 5th grade conference at The Willows School. The second of three conferences, this was a time for teachers to show parents the kids’ work, comment on their progress and answer any questions. At our school, only the first and third conferences are accompanied by a detailed written report.


I can’t tell you how tempting it can be to go into these meetings with your own agenda. Of course, that list of things you want to discuss may have little or nothing to do with the actual classroom work. That’s when, I’ve learned, it’s best to shut up and listen.


For me, mean girl drama is always at the forefront. This year, we’ve haven’t had nearly the array of mean girl complaints that I heard from my daughter in 3rd grade. Nothing rivals our rocky kindergarten year. Still, there are always small slights, hurt feelings, and minor incidents with many of the girls in my daughter’s grade. Heading into parent conferences, these are always the issues I’d prefer to discuss. But, I don’t. I listen to my kids’ outstanding teachers talk about the incredible ways they teach what could be pretty dull stuff like the American Revolution. Or the Salem Witch Trials. Listening to the teachers talk about 5th grade’s unit on these subjects, I was captivated.


My husband is a math aficionado. It’s safe to assume he’ll ask a question or two about the math program. A major overhaul in the school’s math program at the start of the year had him peppering the teachers with a list of questions about how it would all work. Fast forward several months later and those concerns have been alleviated. My kids really enjoy the new math program.  What did I learn from this? If your child is at a great school, trust that the administrators and teachers know what they’re doing, even if it’s a bumpy transition at first.


That’s not to say I haven’t raised issues of concern when it’s necessary. Of course, I’ve asked questions about what the teachers observe with the girls’ social scene. With my son, the boy drama tends to play out on the yard, with boys arguing over sports. Occasionally, the grade will be banned from playing a sport until things settle down.


I’ve learned over the years my kids have been in elementary school to listen first, talk later (if at all) during parent/teacher conferences. I get more information that way because my kids’ teachers really know my kids. They get them. And, they like them. I can’t ask for anything more. My husband and I leave our kids’ conferences incredibly proud of them.


What DO I say? I tell the teachers what a fabulous job they’re doing educating my kids and how grateful I am that we have them as teachers.


Enough said!


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Wordless Weekend

L to R: Gloria Mitchell and Dale Cochran (Cedars Sinai Brain Trust), Dr. Keith Black, chairman and professor, Dept. of Neurosurgery, Cedars Sinai, Marylou Ferry, Avis Ridley-Thomas, Christina Simon and Barry Perlstein. It was my close friend Marylou's birthday. Barry and I were honored to welcome Dr. Black and guests to our home to recognize his amazing work. He operated on Marylou 13 years ago, removing a large brain tumor, saving her life. What an incredible event!
Willows 5th grade studied the American Revolution, went to Boston for 5 days and created a project that had revolutionary leaders Tweeting!
If they could have Tweeted during the American Revolution...
It was "clone" day at The Willows for the kids, but me and my friend D. showed up wearing chambray, totally unplanned!
At The Willows culmination. Third grade studied L.A.. My son shows us his project.
Blogging takes work! So serious:)

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.