Learning to Conform

Green Acres School teacher Joni Maylone, left, with some of her second-graders.
Green Acres School teacher Joni Maylone, left, with some of her second-graders. (Aimee Wadeson - )
By Fredrick Kunkle
Sunday, November 4, 2007


The string of vehicles, including a large number of Volvo station wagons, Lexuses and even a Hummer or two, snakes from Danville Drive into the circle at the entrance of the private school. As the cars stop, members of the school's staff step forward, open each vehicle's doors and greet the families. The first greeter in line is Derek Edwards, the school's beloved physical education teacher, who wears a kerchief over his dreadlocks and trades wisecracks with students as they exit their cars. The last greeter in the line is the head of school, Louis Silvano, whom everybody calls by his first name.

"Hi, Samantha. All set?" says Silvano, as he opens the door of a Volvo. The little girl leans over the front seat to kiss her mother goodbye. "All right. I've got your backpack," Silvano says. And then he stops, his voice rising in what sounds like genuine delight: "Oh -- and you've got your pink shoes!"

Three miles away, and a few minutes later, students also begin arriving at Montgomery County's Garrett Park Elementary School. They seem to pour in from all directions, cutting through the parking lot of Holy Cross School on Strathmore Avenue and spilling over the narrow, shaded sidewalk along Oxford Street in Garrett Park. Many students arrive on school buses, streaming forth in a bundle of energy. Others walk, ride bicycles or chug along on scooters.

As the morning rush reaches its peak, the front of the public school becomes a scene of good-natured but occasionally dangerous chaos. Students cut through the parking lot. Parents back up and whip around a small traffic circle in a hurry to drop off their children and go. They zip around the parked school buses. It seems amazing that there are no serious accidents.

These suburban schools outside Washington share an identical mission: teaching children how to live and work in a modern, industrialized society. But, other than that, they might as well be on different planets.

For several years, my family inhabited these two worlds: the costly, exclusive, intellectually stimulating world of private school, and the free, exuberantly democratic but sometimes intellectually stifling world of public education. Neither one was great for our children. We also realize our experience isn't everyone's. We have plenty of friends who have been pleased with the county's schools, and we know that some private schools don't stack up, either. But if we could afford it, our kids would still be in private school.

WHEN WE MOVED FROM THE NEW YORK AREA TO THE WASHINGTON REGION IN 2000, we focused on the suburbs of Montgomery and Fairfax counties because of the excellent reputation of the public schools. We eventually settled in Garrett Park because acquaintances there raved about the schools and the town. Our daughters -- Hannah, then in fifth grade, and Madeleine, then in first -- started classes a short walk from home at Garrett Park Elementary. Our youngest, Olivia, was an infant.

Education has always been important to us. My wife, Julie, has taught in public and private schools for more than 20 years. She earned a master's in education at Bank Street College in New York, and her last job had been as a public school teacher in Scarsdale, N.Y., widely considered the gold standard for excellence in public education. Even I have had a taste of teaching, for a year at a small private school in West Hartford, Conn., and I loved the experience.

Our daughters had adored their teachers in Hastings-on-Hudson, a quaint riverside town in New York City's suburbs. Maddy attended a cooperative preschool that emphasized progressive, open-classroom principles of learning; the teachers were a cross between earth mothers and Dr. Spock, both loving and brainy. At age 4, Maddy had taught herself to read. She loved reading, and she liked to write, too, keeping a journal and scribbling poems that we framed and hung on her bedroom wall. Art was one of her favorite subjects. In New York, she never had to be coaxed to go to school: She disliked being late.

On her first day at Garrett Park, Maddy was scolded for moving her hand into her desk to retrieve her shiny new notebook. Maddy's teacher, who was a rookie and very young, had told the class that whenever she was speaking, their hands were to be folded on their desktops. Maddy and her first-grade peers spent most of their day at their desks listening as their teachers yakked and drew on the chalkboard. When children walked in the halls, they were to stay single file and remain absolutely silent.

It seemed to my wife and me that the school viewed allowing children to be children as a serious threat to learning. What's more, the style of teaching was something straight from the 1950s, when teachers stood in front of a blackboard and lectured. And there were always, always more worksheets. Even creative classes were highly structured. Maddy's now former art teacher directed her pupils where to draw a tree in a painting and why it was not okay to, say, color a tree pink. We might not have believed the stories Maddy told us, except that we heard them from other children and their parents, and the art on display in the school hallways had a look of sameness about it. Maddy soon came to detest art.

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