Monday, October 11, 2010

Back to school

One of the main reasons we chose to live in Wellesley is because the schools have a reputation for a very high standard of education and I have to admit that they have superseded my expectations.  Elementary School here is what we know as Primary school in Ireland. Then there is Middle and a High school.  Kids spend three and four years in each of these respectively.  I think the thing that has shocked me most is the incredible positivity.  Nothing is a problem.  There are only challenges of varying sizes that we need to take on daily.  This ‘can do’ mentality is weaved into the children’s psyche and they really believe that they can do and make anything of themselves.  It is humbling to witness first hand.
Bates is the elementary that my younger children attend. It was founded by a lady named Catherine Lee Bates who also pencilled the words to the famous ‘America the beautiful’ so - yes I know I’m in pretty rarefied air here.  They have a school nurse on duty all the time, a fitness instructor, a librarian.  There are kids with special needs in almost all the classes.  These kids have the extra attendants that they need and most importantly for me, they get to live as close to a normal life as is possible.  Also the other kids are perfectly happy living and working alongside these kids.  It in no way slows down the learning experience of the ‘regular’ kids but in my view it does enhance their school environment and interpersonal skills as they get to interact with children of varied ability.  It leads to a much healthier, more balanced life outside of school as well as within.  Speaking of health, in one of my daughter’s class the teacher has an indoors trampoline so if any of the kids are feeling frazzled or have too much energy, she just lets them jump for a few minutes… it really works.  She also has several giant gym balls so the kids can sit on them instead of chairs as they read.  It doesn’t stop them reading but they’re using all their core muscles while they work.  Don’t get me wrong, this teacher is street smart and wouldn’t let the children mess but she does recognise their need to burn more calories during the day than we adults do.

In the Middle school, they have a back to school night for the parents.  This is where we get do what our kids do in a typical day.  Instead of having fifty-five minute classes however, we have thirteen minutes and that way, we can get through eight hours of school in two.  We get to see the classrooms and hear a little presentation from each teacher.  We can sit in our child’s seat and see the parents of the kid who sits next to them.  It’s a brilliant idea and one I would suggest trying out in Ireland.  They had a similar night in the High School too.  A new High School is being built at the moment.  In order to make it all work they simply decided to build it in the car park and then when it’s done, they’ll knock down the old school and turn that into a new parking lot.  How simple and clever is that!  The cost?  One hundred and thirty million dollars – they take education very seriously.

All the schools are mixed – boys and girls and there is no uniform.  In Ireland I spent about a thousand euro a child on uniforms each year.  There is no book list at the beginning of the year here.  The school lends them a hard back copy of any books they need which they must take home and take great care of.  On the inside front page there is a list of the previous owners – usually going back four or five years.  It is quite normal to see a friend’s big brother or sister had the book before you!  If the book is damaged during the year there is a fine but so far, we haven’t damaged any books.  In Ireland we buy the books new every year – cost? About the same as the uniforms!   In so many areas, Wellesley has managed to provide a healthy, loving, cheaper, better schooling system by just using common sense.  I know this makes for a better environment both for the students and the teachers.  Did I mention that the class sizes are much smaller here too?

I think my twelve year old daughter put her finger on it when we were talking about the real differences between Irish Schools and American schools. She said in Ireland if she made a smart comment in class, the teacher would turn around and say, “I suppose you think that’s funny, do you? Well it’s not.  Now sit down and work.”  In doing so they would get her back under control but knock her at the same time.  Here the teacher is more likely to say, “Yeah, yeah, very funny now back to work,” thereby getting the nose back to the grindstone but validating the kid at the same time.
Food for thought.

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