We are mothers, neighbors and friends. Each of us values faith, family and education. Yet each of us made different school choices for our children.
When I was pregnant with our first-born triplet sons, my husband and I bought a house across the street from one of the top public elementary schools in our district. We envisioned our children walking across the street to their neighborhood school, and that is precisely what they did.
What we hadn’t realized was that many of our children’s friends would take different paths. Their parents chose to drive their children out of the neighborhood to attend schools around the Valley.
Seeing other parents who shared our values and ZIP code making different educational choices for their children sometimes made my husband and I wonder if we had made the right decision for ours. But our choice felt consistent with our family’s overall goals, and we have kept our five children in the public school system. My children are thriving, and at 7 a.m. I can still be home in my pajamas while my neighbor drives 20 minutes to drop her children at school.
It’s intriguing to see how families with similar backgrounds, interests and situations can make such different education choices. I applaud my friends’ differing choices when it comes to preferences like school uniforms, stricter guidelines on cellphone use or higher academic expectations. There are pros and cons to every educational decision parents will make for their children. We all have to figure out what is most important and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of our options. Here’s a look at six neighboring families who chose six unique educational paths.
THE SNYDER FAMILY
• Scottsdale Christian Academy • Scottsdale Preparatory Academy • Scottsdale Unified School District
Mark and Robin Snyder are Arizona natives with a family legacy at Scottsdale Christian Academy. The Snyders’ three children began their educational journey at SCA, where they enjoyed going to school with their cousins. The Christian curriculum at this K-12 non-denominational private school – and its school uniforms policy – were big draws. But the inconvenience of a long commute caused Mark and Robin to move the kids to their local public elementary school.
Back in the neighborhood, the Snyder family enjoyed biking to school for a couple of years before deciding to try Scottsdale Preparatory Academy, a member of the Great Hearts Academies network of charter schools. Other Great Hearts families raved about the school, which offers an honors-level liberal arts curriculum for grades 5-12. But the Snyders found the curriculum a bit too rigorous for their kids, and the drive was once again taxing. So their sons and daughter headed back into public school, where they remain today.
What advice does Robin have for other parents? “I wish someone had told me ‘just stay local’ and go to school in your neighborhood,” she says. “Don’t always listen to what you hear in the media, either. There are incredible teachers and families in our public schools.”
THE EHMANN FAMILY
• St. Francis Xavier • Brophy College Preparatory • Xavier College Preparatory • Rancho Solano Preparatory School
John and Lain Ehmann both grew up in northern California’s public school system and believed they would raise their three children in public schools as well. They started out that direction while living in California and in Boston, Massachusetts.
When they moved to Arizona four years ago, they toured many local schools before deciding on private, faith-based education in downtown Phoenix for all of their children. (The Ehmann’s youngest daughter recently made the switch to northeast Scottsdale’s Rancho Solano Preparatory for middle school and finds its smaller class sizes and more rigorous academics to be a better fit for her.)
“Each kid is so different in what they need. Academics are most important to us, as well as their safety,” says Lain. “The good thing is we don’t have any bad options here. Each of our kids has gotten what they needed, and we’ve made changes when we’ve needed to along the way.”
Lain says the downsides of going to a private school outside of the neighborhood include the cost of tuition and the fact that classmates do not live close by. The upside is smaller classes and the customized learning her children receive.
THE BARTOLINO FAMILY
• Scottsdale Unified School District • Great Hearts Academies • Phoenix Country Day School
Debbie Bartolino and her husband, Peter, chose schools for their children based on what would best meet their family’s needs at particular times. When they moved from New York to Arizona, they wanted a local public school so they could make neighborhood friends and have the luxury of riding bikes to school.
“This choice worked out well, as some of the friends we made then remain some our closest friends in Arizona today,” says Debbie.
They moved their three daughters to Great Hearts Academies charter schools because the academic curriculum and extracurricular activities lined up well with what the Bartolinos wanted for their children at the next stage. For high school, their oldest daughter chose to attend Phoenix Country Day School. She has thrived in an innovative, rigorous learning environment and the positive vibe of the campus community.
“Children are individuals and might have such different learning styles that they need to go to different schools,” says Debbie. “Though it can be stressful for parents and children to think about changing schools, the transitions were easier than I thought they would be. We are very grateful to have had these different experiences and choices to meet the needs of our family at different times.”
THE WOUDENBERG FAMILY
• Our Lady of Perpetual Hope • Xavier College Preparatory
As a Phoenix native, Monica Woudenberg grew up wearing a plaid skirt to school as she attended Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, then Xavier College Preparatory, before she went off to college. Monica sends her two daughters to the same schools for the same Catholic education she received because it’s familiar, instills basic morals and values within a balanced educational environment and has a strong community of parents who are involved with their children and the school.
“I respected families who made the financial sacrifice to send their kids to parochial schools; I figured those families would be grounded and practical,” says Monica. “A diverse socio-economic group of families was important to me, and overall I believe my daughters are receiving a good education and a strong moral foundation for life.”
At times, she says, the girls struggled with the limitations of attending the same small elementary school for nine years (K-8). Monica’s oldest daughter especially craved a broader social group and could not wait to move on to the larger high school environment at Xavier College Preparatory.
THE SCHILLINGER FAMILY
• Scottsdale Unified School District • Veritas Preparatory Academy
While growing up on the East Coast, Jim and Jennifer Schillinger had positive experiences in the public school system. They intended to educate their three children the same way. Just before their oldest daughter entered kindergarten, they moved to Paradise Valley, expecting their children to attend schools in the Scottsdale Unified School District.
After several years at the public elementary school, the Schillingers’ grew concerned about increasing class sizes and limited honor classes and electives at their district middle school. They moved their children to Veritas Preparatory Academy, a Great Hearts charter school for grades 6-12 located in northeast Phoenix, where they remain today.
“At Veritas, we see the kids being challenged academically, and we like the fact that all the students there are expected to meet high standards,” says Jennifer. The kids enjoy playing multiple sports at Veritas, and its school uniforms policy makes life easier, she says.
Jennifer advises parents to try to remember that there is no one “perfect” school. She recommended embracing the strengths in your kids’ schools and working toward improving any weaknesses.
All Schools Consulting founder and adviser Elie Gaines agrees that perfection is not the goal. “Pull back from the academics and start with your child. Identify who they are as a person and student first, then consider academic factors. And then find a school culture that fits who your child is,” she says.
So look around at the schools your neighbors, family members and friends are choosing for their children’s education, but don’t hesitate to make the decision that is best for your own family. Real friends will support whatever choices you make.
Amy Carney is a Paradise Valley writer, speaker, founder of Parent on Purpose and the author of a new book by the same name. The mother of five children ages 12 to 17, she is married to retired pro hockey defenseman Keith Carney of the Phoenix Coyotes.
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