School choice in Chicago is a family decision

My husband and I had been going the rounds over Catholic school for several years. As a proud public school graduate, my argument had been fiscal and academic. With our oldest son occupying a coveted Selective Enrollment spot and our middle son attending a very good neighborhood school, I thought we were all set.

Yet my husband is a Catholic school graduate. He fondly recalls the time he was blasted by a nun at the chalk board when he got a math problem wrong. Despite the nun’s reaction, Joe tells the story with a twinkle in his eye and states proudly, “And I never, EVER, got that problem wrong again.”

Most of what I know about Catholic school comes from the movies and family lore. As our kids grew older, we noticed they were missing out on the social component of our neighborhood. Then the CPS strike occurred and all the political grandstanding left me tired and disheartened. In a deflated state, I finally agreed to transfer our two oldest.

Because I am the type of mother who values structure, standards, and consistency, there was a part of me that wondered if Catholic school was right up my alley. I decided to place a call to the head of the school:

Marianne: So, Sister Jean. This ruler thing. A big rap on the knuckles if the kids act up, right? Those nuns don’t mess around.

Sister Jean: Well, Mrs. Walsh, we’re not really into whacking kids with rulers. And there aren’t any teaching nuns currently at the school.

Marianne: No nuns, huh? Well then, tell me about your standards. There IS marching, right? Like through the hallways. Two by two? In complete unison and respectful silence?

Sister Jean: Um. No, Mrs. Walsh. We’re not a military school. Our mission is to educate the children but also help guide them towards a life of faith, stewardship, and service…

Marianne (interrupting): So no marching?

Sister Jean: No marching.

Marianne: But there ARE uniforms? I mean, think of all the time I won’t have to fight with the kids over what to wear. I NEED that, Sister Jean. Tell me there are uniforms. For the love of God and all that is holy….

Sister Jean: Yes, Mrs. Walsh. There are indeed uniforms.

On the very first (blistering hot) day of school this past Monday, I dressed my oldest two boys in their Catholic finery and sent them off to find salvation and math. I cannot quite explain it, but it somehow felt right for me and my family. My youngest will still be attending CPS because I was not willing to forgo an awesome kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Sheahan is practically a deity.

I loved how fluid and easy our morning went. For the first time ever, my oldest could sleep in, there were only two schools with which to contend, and getting the boys dressed was a cinch. I congratulated myself on being a certified genius.

And has always been the case in my parenting, pride went right before my fall.

Day #2 Memo from Sister Jean:

Even though everyone looks wonderful in their fresh, clean uniforms, we have decided that the students can be out of uniform for the balance of the week. Cool but appropriate casual wear will be fine but please no flip-flops or open-toed shoes.

With a heat index close to a hundred degrees and not a single air-conditioner to be found, the compassionate decision had been made to not boil the children alive at school.

Oh the irony.

I know that there is no perfect school. In Chicago, many parents have to weigh cost, location, and an exasperating public school application and testing process that often leads to more uncertainty and confusion. I respect the journey all parents take to find what works for them.

But for us, it feels like we’re finally home.

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