I believe in public schools, but they just weren’t working for my son

Editor’s note: This essay from Los Angeles mother, law professor and essayist LaToya Baldwin Clark first appeared on Education Post.

“The wolf took one last look at his mother and father…”

My son is reading aloud in the other room. I hear his little voice recounting the story of a wolf who became the first wild wolf in California in a very long time. He reads with expression – exclamation points invoke excitement in his voice, question marks prompt a raised intonation as he nears the end of the sentence.

And he’s reading with fluency, one word smoothly flowing into the next word.

My tears came quickly. I go to him and hold his little face in my hands. What? He asks quizzically. Did I do something wrong? No. “I am so proud of you. Your reading is outstanding.”

My son is a bit of an attention hog. Seeing me so happy made him want to make me even happier.

“Now I’m going to get a notebook and write down what I read.”

And later: “I think I’m going to stop playing video games for a while. There are better things to do with my brain.” (The next day, he reconsidered.)

These new tears are very different from the tears I’ve cried over this child the last two years of his short life. As was the case for many parents, in sad defeat, I watched him learn nothing in Zoom school. In fourth grade now, the last “normal” year of school for him was first grade. While he wasn’t reading fluently then, I did not worry: it would be ok as long as he was doing so by third grade. He loved school, his teachers, and his friends. I was happy.

He was and still is a funny and popular child. I had another child the other day tell me that he was A’s best friend. When I mentioned this to A, he hesitated. “Well, I guess I can be many people’s best friend.” His funniness is not always welcome, but he never maliciously misbehaved or overtly or intentionally disrespected his teachers or peers. But he has a knack for the moment, like a natural comedian.

And he can never pass up the opportunity. Teachers would tell me that they often needed to turn their back to him before meting out a consequence for his disruption because whatever he did was so funny. We get this at home, too; it’s hard not to laugh even when he is not doing the thing he’s supposed to be doing.

But perhaps because of his charisma, he fell under the radar academically. Before COVID’s closure in March 2020, he got extra reading help at school. I knew he was behind, but after six months or so, the intervention teacher said he was doing better, and she needed to accommodate other children who were more behind than my child. She was playing triage with her time.

But he wasn’t doing good enough. When third grade Zoom school started, I realized that he thoroughly checked out.

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