IT USED TO BE that everyone went to their neighborhood schools. If you lived near friends, they were guaranteed to be your classmates, and remain your classmates all the way through high school. But those days have gone the way of the cassette tape and phone book. Today — between homeschooling, private schools, charter and specialty public schools — we have more choices than ever, adding to the stress of parents who desperately want to do best by their kids.
And when it comes to selecting a school, what is best?
I have an answer, but first I must tell you a story.
I grew up in a small college town in the Pacific Northwest. Our public schools were among the best in the state. The few private schools we had were either religiously affiliated or catchalls for kids who were expelled from public schools. Their enrollment remained in the double digits.
When I moved to Savannah 22 years ago, the narrative I heard seemed to be flipped. It told of “legacy” families whose entire family tree attended Savannah Country Day; whose mother, grandmother and great-grandmother went to St. Vincent’s; whose father, uncle, brother proudly attended Benedictine. I was assured that these, along with a handful of Savannah’s other private schools, were likely your best bet if you wanted your child to have a safe, successful academic career and find themselves magically enrolled in an Ivy League college, because who wouldn’t want that?
A year before my daughter was to enter kindergarten, I had a complete breakdown. I was overwhelmed by the choices, the application process, whether I should throw down a hefty deposit to secure one school in case there wasn’t space or she didn’t test into another. We toured public and private schools like one would for college: me, dragging my 4-year-old kid around, asking her, “Do you like it here? What about here?”
You know what she liked? The school with the ducks.
My daughter vehemently shot down the only private school we could afford — if we were willing to eat Spam out of a soft pouch for the next 12 years — because some taller-than-average 5-year-old was mean to her on the tour. (I was angry at him for far longer than an adult should be.)
Turns out, that little bully did us all a favor.
We — and our pocketbook — decided to give public school a chance, and if that didn’t work out, we’d try to find a way to grow a money tree.
It did work out, though it was not an easy road getting there because unless you’re enrolling in a neighborhood school, you’ve got to game the system. I spent months having my daughter interviewed and tested, I buttered up to the front-office staff, and I provided my citizenship and residency with what felt like more evidence than my passport required. Then, we quite literally won the lottery, and my daughter secured a seat at our first-choice elementary. It was a wonderful experience.
When my daughter wanted to continue on to the nearby middle school where most of her friends would be, I obliged, though with some trepidation because, as we all know, most middle schoolers, are, by nature, feral. But that’s the case across the board, so I figured it would be a wash wherever she attended. I was delightfully surprised by her more-positive-than-mine middle school experience.
My daughter, artistically minded, always had her high school sights set on Savannah Arts Academy, which you have to audition for. If you’ve ever attended your child’s first recital, sports competition or required immunizations, you can understand the anxiety our entire family endured while awaiting the results.
Now 16 and a junior at Savannah Arts, my daughter continues to thrive. Sure, there have been tears, friend breakups and makeups, calls to teachers and principals, miscommunications and a pandemic along the way, but we’ve not only survived, we’ve thrived.
That is not to say that public school is the best option. It was the right one for us — for my child. Good friends, legacy and otherwise, chose different routes for their own reasons and have also been more than happy with the experience.
So, here’s the answer you’ve been waiting for: there is no best school. There is, however, the best fit for your family, child, finances and location. It can take some effort to find it if you’re a new parent or new to Savannah, but luckily our city is blessed (and stressed!) with enough options to allow you to do best by your child.