Making the Leap to the New Normal: A Place Where Kids Are Happy, Thriving, and Learning

Making the Leap to the New Normal: A Place Where Kids Are Happy, Thriving, and Learning

As I sit down to write about my son’s transition from traditional public school to a hybrid alternative education in hopes of nudging other families to take this magnificent leap, I realize most of what I have to say is about how hard it was to make that leap – the struggles, questions, justifications that happened before we jumped – and that since we made the change, it has been a terrific experience for my son and us as a family and there is not much else to say. He is learning significantly more in a shorter amount of time; he is happy; and he is enjoying his childhood, in the moment, rather than racing forward. Also, I believe to my core that because we made the leap, he is now getting the experience, support and confidence needed to grow into a happy, thoughtful, curious, successful, thriving human being.

So, in this post, I am going to give you my very long laundry list of difficulties we had starting in traditional education in case you can relate. Because if you can, I suggest you try something new sooner than later – because why keep doing something that’s not working if there are better alternatives? Also, before I launch into that list, I’m going to tell you the information I found that helped me make the leap. Because if you’re like me, launching away from the “norm” feels like a big risk. Who are we kidding — we all just want our kids to be happy and function successfully in our society, right? Doing something unique like “alternative” education feels weird and like it could set you and your child on the fringes of the norm. But I’m here to tell you that has not been my experience and that given changes in technology, economics, global markets, new opportunities, mavericks in education and possibly your own individual child with her or his own specific interests, talents and learning styles, leaping away from outdated traditional education could be your kid’s best bet and the most “educated” choice you can make. Plus, you’re not alone – the trend towards alternative education keeps growing. That’s what I found and here are some important items that I needed to know to take the leap and to stay:

  • Grades don’t matter until high school. In high school GPAs count toward college. Middle school grades can be helpful to get into some high schools but are not necessary. Independent charter schools (public homeschool option with The REALM) will track grades if desired. You don’t need to stress about those report cards for your 7 year old. Think about it: Did you ever need to show your elementary school report cards to anyone but your parents?
  • Top universities accept students from homeschool and alternative education programs. In fact, some are very interested in these students because they tend to be more motived, less burned out, know what they want and have the ability to think independently.
  • Businesses today look for creative, individual thinkers, even in professional areas like finance. The cookie-cutter student is not as interesting to them anymore. There are businesses that get involved with schools to encourage a different way of thinking and revolutionize the system to produce students that are more valuable to hire. Watch the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” as an example. Also, creative, individual thinkers are more likely to start their own business!
  • Forward-thinking parents are starting to take their kids out of traditional education and enjoying the results. Take entrepreneur Elon Musk who took his kids out of traditional school because he saw that it was no longer the best option.
  • Independent charter schools are state schools and keep you tethered to the system loosely so the leap isn’t that large. Your child can be enrolled in an independent charter while she or he goes to The REALM (or not). Independent charters do state testing (without pressure) so you can make sure your kid is up to speed with the rest of the schools. From this parent’s perspective, students at independent charters perform well and therefore the schools continue to grow.
  • Kids can cover the same amount of school work in half the time it takes them in traditional school.
  • Kids who learn for the test usually don’t maintain the knowledge.
  • Hours of busywork homework and increases in class time don’t create more academic success. A study from University of Michigan shows that kids 6 to 17 spend 7 1/2 more hours on academics than 20 years ago but overall U.S. academic performance when compared to the rest of the world keeps falling in spite of the increase. Here’s a piece to check out: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-abeles-school-start-time-sb328-20180920-story.html.
  • Parents often choose alternative education, like homeschool, hybrids and independent charters, because they offer a better education – in other words, for secular reasons.
  • The burnout and stress kids experience in traditional schools is often a great detriment to learning and happiness.
  • Your kid can always go back. The other schools will still be there. And kids do go back and forth successfully.

Our story

So, now, let me tell you our story. Note that during this time, I was raising my son on my own so that’s why it’s just my opinion here. Also, he doesn’t want his real name mentioned so we’ll call him “Hank,” the number-two on my list of names.  😊

What I knew about education going in and before my son went to kindergarten

Looking out for my kid’s education has been an eye opener on so many levels. I didn’t really think much about it going in. All I had was my own traditional schooling experience – public elementary, private parochial middle and high school, UC undergrad, private grad school. Before my son started preschool, I also engaged in many talks with my good friend and mother to my goddaughter about her schools, also traditional. So, I assumed my son’s education would look something like that — conventional. To be honest, I didn’t even know anything outside of traditional schooling existed except that I’d heard the word “homeschool,” which sounded completely alien, and “reform school.” I knew nothing of independent charter schools, learning centers, hybrid schools or GREs.

As a young adult busy trying to get a career going and done with education, I got my first taste of the pressure there was on parents to create the right education environment for their kids when I worked for a movie director whose wife’s friend had a C-section a month before the due date to make a preschool cut-off. That was a shock. And then sitting in the sandbox with my toddler, I talked to parents preparing their game-plan for getting their 1 year olds into the best schools a few years down the road. That also seemed surprising. I realized I didn’t want to get caught up in the fervor so I decided not to think about it until the time came for Hank to go to preschool. Luckily, a nice little neighborhood co-op fell into place. Easy peasy. The choice not to worry was a good one.

At the preschool co-op, I observed as the 4 year olds prepared to go to kindergarten and got an inkling of different options. One was a new language charter school in LAUSD. I went to an orientation, and it was impressive and exciting. There was so much enthusiasm about learning, which was perfect because my son was curious. He wanted to go to school. He watched his babysitter do homework. He wanted homework. He wanted to read. He loved science. He slept with his Table of Elements placemat like a teddy bear. But when my son’s name didn’t get picked in the language charter lottery, I had to look for other options. We live in a great school district (Santa Monica) so I went to the orientation for our public neighborhood school. The teachers seemed bored. No enthusiasm like at the language charter. I panicked – if they’re bored, imagine the students.

I put Hank’s name in other charter lotteries. He didn’t get picked. Then a friend told us about a new language immersion school in LAUSD that was looking for students for their new program. It was a language I knew nothing about: Chinese. I went to the orientation out of curiosity and because the other options for Hank seemed awful.  And there it was again: that enthusiasm about learning from the principal, the teachers and the parents. At the language immersion orientation, they did inform us – as they did at the other language immersion school – that the students would be behind in English until about 3rd grade, but that was the model and we shouldn’t worry about it. I didn’t. My son was going to learn another language, with enthusiastic teachers, and most importantly, he was going to be challenged.

The laundry list of red flags I swept under the rug for a few years

Kindergarten and 1st grade at the traditional language immersion public school were fair from my perspective and good from my son’s perspective because he liked his friends. Looking back, I can see the experience was less than fair, but at the time, I was optimistic and had no other knowledge on the subject to draw from. Also, Hank was learning a new language and that was a big positive. But let me start my red-flag laundry list in case you can relate:

  • Unrealistic physical expectations. In kindergarten, my son and many other kids could not force themselves to sit still in the desks or refrain from talking for the hours required. Teachers needed kids to follow this structure so they could teach all the required items, and kids got in trouble when they couldn’t comply for something they were incapable of fixing.
  • Painful-to-watch discipline through reward and punishment. For example, in kindergarten, kids were rewarded for being good students with stars for those who learned the most words of the foreign language. A rocket ship was put on the classroom door with the top word learners at the top and those who only knew a few words at the bottom, with the number of words learned next to each name. This was great for the students at the top, but for those at the bottom, it was devastating. There were tears. Homework completion was also displayed, and at the end of the year, awards were set to be given for those that had completed all homework assignments. This did not sit well with me because truth be told, when it comes to completing assignments at age 5, it’s the parents that should be getting the award. Hats off to the school, however, for hearing the parents and not giving that award and taking down the rocket. Nevertheless, the culture of reward as motivation remained prevalent. Kids knew where they stood in the learning pecking order and teased other kids who were behind them or innocently and proudly stated how good they were doing making the other kids feel less than without intention.
  • No time to question or discuss curriculum expectations. For example, kids were expected to break down words into syllable sounds. I’d read that for most kids this is developmentally impossible until age 7. Most kids at age 5 who can read many words actually memorize the look of the word. My son was great at memorizing and I ignored the request to work with him on breaking down those sounds, but it was a red flag because there was no room for discussion. This was how it was done and no one had time to alter the curriculum to better fit an individual child or to question the approach.
  • My happy, curious boy stopped being curious. Worst of all red flags was that my extremely curious son, who incessantly drove me crazy from toddler-hood to kindergarten with a constant barrage of questions, stopped asking questions. It was so strange. It seemed he was on overload with information and the stress of school, whereas before he had been able to taken in significantly larger amounts of information. He also didn’t want to do the homework that he had been chomping at the bit to do. He only liked school for his friends and playing. The fact that he stopped asking questions should have made me run, not walk, away from traditional education but I didn’t know there was somewhere else to go. And my son was still content.

Then 2nd grade happened and I couldn’t ignore the red flags.

Two parents from the school invited me to a screening of the documentary “Race to Nowhere,” and my eyes began to open to the problems with the education system. I realized that these problems weren’t just mine or my son’s or the educators but rather a systemic problem. The film challenges “current thinking about how we prepare our children for success.” The website describes it as a series of “heartbreaking stories of students across the country pushed to the brink of over-scheduling, over-testing and the relentless pressure to achieve.” You can find out more here: http://www.racetonowhere.com/about-film. The film highlighted the extreme pressure placed on middle and high school students to get into college and the anxiety and depression it causes. It also shows how much work students are doing, how they are not really learning rather just checking boxes, and how once they get to college, they are burned out, uninspired and don’t know who they are or what they want. I could relate to that. That’s what I had done. I had been bored from 7th to 12th grade but just did what was asked of me to get to the next step. It had “worked” for me, but after seeing the film, I had to admit that following orders had not really served me in the long run. I got the undergraduate pre-med science degree in college and the business degree in graduate school but then I was lost and didn’t know what to do next. It wasn’t until after grad school that I gave myself the permission to actually start my life doing what I wanted. It wasn’t until then that I took classes in what really interested me. So in that moment, I decided: Okay, if my kid decides not to go to college at all, I am going to let him do what he wants. I may not love it but that is the better and smarter parenting choice.

So, yeah, 2nd grade. That’s when I started realizing that the education system was broken. And while Hank was still happy at the school, I started to find more and more problems with it. The culprit in hindsight was testing. At that time, state testing started in 2nd grade – English and math. Now it starts in 3rd grade. And although they’d told us our kids weren’t going to be up to speed in English and not to worry, they were worried. They wanted those test scores just like all the other public schools. The teachers. The principal. The district. Good scores meant they were doing a good job. The school looked good to prospective families. At least that’s what I was told. And suddenly, the main focus became getting up to speed in English for the English teacher who only had the kids half the time. Here are three examples of how the problem manifested:

  • Homework. There were days when the 7 year olds had homework that took up to two hours to finish for some, like Hank. Not because he couldn’t do the work, but because he didn’t want to. He didn’t see the point, and it was too hard to sit still and force himself to do something he wasn’t interested in after being in a desk all day. I forced him. We fought. It was miserable. After a few days of this, I asked some of the other parents. A few said their kids did the homework quickly. Many had the same misery we did. I went to the teacher. I was told they were learning study skills that would help them in middle school. (I now know that those hours at the table in 2nd grade had no impact on the study skills of my middle schooler.) I asked if they could reduce the homework. They did. I also asked the purpose for the homework and assumed it was only given if students needed further practice. They said, yes, of course, they gave homework if they thought more practice was needed. But that did not seem to be the case. But again, they reduced the homework.
  • Reward/punishment discipline system. Kids were asked and encouraged to only go to the bathroom during recess so they wouldn’t miss precious class time which was needed to prepare for the tests and keep up with requirements. Students could go to the bathroom during class but it was frowned upon. These were good kids that listened. Also, these were good kids that listened and peed their pants or waited until after school and peed dark urine, a dangerous sign as holding in urine can lead to bladder infection. The school wasn’t doing anything illegal or wrong because students were allowed to go to the bathroom during class, but the pressure on them not to go during class worked for most. My son didn’t listen. He upset the teachers when he needed to go during class. He also didn’t pee his pants. But I couldn’t let it go and was SO angered by this culture of discipline.
  • Enthusiastic kids encouraged to leave if English not up to par. Kids who weren’t up to speed in English were encouraged to leave the program, go back a grade, and, in at least one case, encouraged to go on drugs to help with focus. This broke my heart in the case of one ESL student and made me understand that the public education system aiming to be all-inclusive wasn’t working. English was his second language but in kindergarten, he was the one kid who was enthusiastic about learning this new language. At age 5, he saw how cool it was while all the other students, like Hank, were clearly forced to be there by enthusiastic parents, like me. How do I know? Because I overheard him lean over to his buddy and say: “We get to learn Chinese!” What 5 year old does that? I had been so excited for him. And then in 2nd grade, his parents were encouraged to take him out of the program. I thought: “Who cares if his English is behind? He was the one kid who cared! Who might take this new skill and actually use it in the future to benefit his and our world.” But the test scores were more important than the student and I’m sure that was a blow to the kid’s eager, curious, enthusiastic confidence. It still saddens me to this day.

These are some examples of what led me to start looking at other education options. I had friends with kids in Westside and Valley private schools. I looked at their websites. Read their mission statements. And was in awe. I knew they gave scholarships so I went on tours. My eyes were opened to the possibilities of learning, and I was amazed. Things made sense there. For example, at one school, I asked what they did with kids that had a hard time sitting still during math. The answer: They stand during math, and it works. These educators seemed to understand the needs of the kids and how meeting these needs could positively impact learning. Kids roamed freely between classes; they were trusted. No whistles were blown. Kids looked free and happy. I watched introductory videos and listened to talks that suggested schools needed to move into the 21st century. I was impressed and won over by the logic of the arguments.

I went back to the public school and gushed with excitement to the principal, hoping that we could implement any of these new ideas, like standing during math. There were small, easy solutions that would cost nothing. The principal agreed but it seemed her hands were tied to implement any change at all. I also approached Hank’s English teacher. Inspired by a community volunteering program at one of the private elementary schools, I came to her with an idea for the kids to write a letter to the city to get extra trash cans in front of the school to help with overflowing litter – and learn community service and letter writing. She said they couldn’t do it. What was most upsetting was the reason: They had no time. She didn’t have five minutes extra to implement anything like this let alone time to think about it. And it was clear that she was under so much pressure to cover curriculum and practice for the tests. Kids kept peeing their pants. I heard it was happening in the lower grades too. I told my Hank I was going to apply to other schools for him, try to get a scholarship. He said he was happy where he was and didn’t want to leave. I went with what he wanted; after all, these were my issues and those of other kids, but he was doing fine. Plus, it was easier to stay. And deep down I wanted the language school to work. I was an optimist!

Then 3rd grade happened and my 8 year old became a misbehaving teenager overnight

Yes, my 3rd grader turned into a teenager – going to principal’s office three times a day and becoming a class clown — and something had to give. Here are some examples of what happened and why I became desperate to find other options. Also, it’s important to note that some of Hank’s need for enrichment was a result of being in a language program but I believe this need would have occurred at other schools only more slowly so I’m grateful that the s*&^t hit the fan when it did.

  • More reward/punishment and the bored teenager. At 3rd-grade class orientation early in the year, the teacher told us parents about the reward/punishment discipline system: Tables got points for good behavior and could buy prizes. They also got point deductions for bad behavior, like if one students asked to go to the bathroom during class the whole table was deducted a point. I protested. Other parents agreed. The rule changed: No deduction for asking to go to the bathroom. But here’s the thing: I may have been the free-to-use-the-bathroom-whenever parent advocate but my kid was the one taking advantage of the system. Two weeks in, I had an angry parent come up to me. Her kid was getting paired with Hank when Hank had to go to the bathroom, and Hank was leading her kid on escapades around the school rather than just going to the bathroom. Hank was bored in class and looking for escape, and the other kid was missing class time because of him.
  • Class clown. More bad behavior. Hank threw away a bunch of kids’ lunches on the playground. One of the parents called me – I had to control my child. Hank refused to sing in the chorus practice and was being a disturbance when forced to stand on stage; teachers contacted me – I had to make him sing or behave. A news crew came to the school to film this awesome language academy on the same day as prospective new student tours. My kid was crawling on the floor through the class, clowning around to escape the teacher, when the principal luckily ‘avoided a PR snafu’ when she noticed Hank on the floor and redirected the news crew. I felt terrible for the school. I also knew my kid was miserable and that the school didn’t know how to help.
  • Homework. I decided that the school should motivate the homework. Seemed logical, right? Plus, they said 3rd graders should take responsibility for themselves and parents could no longer volunteer in the classroom. So I stopped following the homework assignments. Hank stopped doing them entirely. Teachers and principal let me know that it was my responsibility to get him to do the work.
  • My kid wanted to learn more things — math and science in particular. I asked the principal about enrichment opportunities. She said there was no money or time because of the Chinese but that I could start a club. I did: Science club, once a week after school. A recent high school grad taught it, together with guest parent teachers. Many kids joined. They soaked it up (and to this day, six years later, my son and his friends still talk about it!). It was a big clue that these kids needed, wanted and were eager to learn more than they were getting and that they were capable of focusing if interested.
  • Lessons in reward/punishment and how bad and shaming it felt. Another parent gave me a book about reward/punishment discipline in hopes of getting Hank to get with the program because, as she implied, he needed to do so to succeed as an adult. It felt so wrong in my gut to punish him for acting out because he wanted to learn more and was bored. It also didn’t make sense to reward him for good behavior because then he was being taught to follow orders, not question and not learn for intrinsic reasons. I got called in for a conference with the principal/teacher and was told that it was my responsibility to make Hank do school work and follow orders, even if I wasn’t there in the class. I made suggestions for how to motivate him. They stared blankly. They continued to tell me all the ways he wasn’t following orders. For example, the teacher explained how she would be teaching math and Hank would be really into it but then when she told the class was to stop and go onto the next subject, he refused to stop. He wanted to keep doing math and that was not okay with the teacher because they were under pressure to cover the next topic. I got the picture. I started rewarding Hank with a Matchbox car every day he would “go with the flow” and told him we had to leave the school “now” if he didn’t. It worked. It felt wrong. It bought me time.
  • The stolen pencil case debacle: The moment the light bulb went on. This actually happened before the meeting with the principal but it all feels like a blur at the start of 3rd grade and for the sake of emphasis, I’m putting it last. Here’s what happened: I got a call from yet another parent. Hank had stolen her daughter’s pencil case. I was upset. I sat down with Hank. I made him write her a letter of apology and give her a present. I also asked Hank why he had stolen the pencil case and if he had any suggestions as to how to get him to not do it again. He said: “All I can see when she takes out the pencil case is the pencil case.” I could hear the choir of angels in his head as he thought about that pencil case. He asked if I could get her to just not take out the pencil case because then he wouldn’t have to think about it. I knew from my own experience and from everything that he’d told me that he was too bored. It was impossible for him to not focus on that pencil case. They were only learning one new math item a week. There was no science. There was art one week a semester. And I said to him: “Can’t you just doodle or daydream?” And as those words flew out of my mouth, my own choir of angels started banging the code-red bells: I had just told my child to daydream or doodle for about six hours a day. What kind of an education was that? I knew all about it. From 7th to 12th grade, I spent about 80 percent of my time daydreaming and doodling. It fueled my imagination as a writer but it was a big waste of time. Did I want that for my child? And could he do it? No. Hank was not that kid; he literally could not force himself to sit and doodle or daydream like I had done. So, I knew in that moment that this was not working at all. He had to leave the school. And I had to find an alternative. How did I feel? Ashamed. I felt like I’d failed as a parent and that we weren’t good enough because we couldn’t fit into this normal, traditional mold. I just wanted to fit. And for him to excel. And achieve. He was a really smart kid. Why couldn’t he force himself to do it?

I started looking for education alternatives and the desperation turned to excitement

The first positive thing that happened was that a few weeks into Hank’s 3rd-grade year, when he was getting in trouble at school all the time and I was panicking, a friend gave me a book about how kids learn differently and how traditional school was not the best way to learn for many kids, even the smart ones. It made me feel better. Like the reward/punishment book, this book was also based on scientific research and offered viable solutions. I realized there was nothing wrong with us. And that Hank’s behavior was also “normal” and that there were solutions with good results that felt right, made sense and met needs rather than rewarded and punished. I stopped judging myself as a parent and my child as a student. I also started reading tons of blogs about other ways of education, including homeschool. I found out that other kids who were having the same bad experience as Hank had switched to an alternative, child-focused education and were suddenly happy and learning. There were different extremes – there was unschooling on one end, where the child leads the education choices, and home/class/online study programs like K-12 at the other end, where the child learns exactly what kids are learning at public school but in significantly less time (2 hours a day to complete the same work done at school in 6 hours, leaving much more free time to pursue other interests and get much-needed play time). There was a whole continuum to choose from but the basic philosophy across the board made sense to me – children (and adults) are naturally curious and will learn what they need.

Also, I started inquiring within our community about alternative choices and noticing more options. For example, our babysitter’s mom let her graduate after 10th grade and take classes at the local community college because she had been bored at school and felt lost in the crowd. She was happy and thriving after the switch. She was the one who successfully led our science club. She did her two years of community college and went on to successfully graduate from a UC school. Her close friend at the time was doing independent study at the local high school – another hybrid option that was new to me.

Also, I sucked up my pride and started talking to other parents about the dilemma. My neighbor, an attorney with kids at the local high school, told me about The REALM. She said that an educator friend thought it was an excellent model and that the teachers were incredible. Another neighbor told me about the independent public state charter schools that give you money to help pay for classes at The REALM. So, I made an appointment with one of the founders of The REALM, Vicky Forsman. She was welcoming, encouraging and knowledgeable and showed me the classes they offered. It was like college – kids and parents pick the classes in a full array of subjects. Hank had been asking me since 1st grade when he would get to pick his classes so I knew this would be a huge plus.

While at The REALM that day, I also ran into a friend from Hank’s Cub Scout den and learned that her son took classes at The REALM. Also, she was carrying that helpful book my friend had given me about different learning styles and she was starting a parent group to discuss the philosophy of the book and help parents implement solutions. I literally started to cry. I was so relieved that we weren’t alone and couldn’t believe that there was a place that offered what we might need. Something that made sense. Something that allowed kids to learn in a nurturing, individualized style. Vicky gave me the phone numbers of other parents at The REALM, and I called and asked questions. I only heard great things about this alternative style of education and The REALM in particular. I felt supported but was still crazy nervous about leaving the norm. Nevertheless, I knew I had to take action of some kind.

I decided to just walk through the fear one step at a time.  

First, I had Hank do a shadow day at The REALM. He was most impressed with how he could talk in class and verbalize his ideas without being shut down. He seemed happy. He met at least one kid he thought he could be friends with. But still, he said he’d rather stay at his current school because of his friends.

Next, I looked up the independent charter schools. I found two that covered the L.A. area. Today, there are more because the model is a success and growing fast.  One was Sky Mountain Charter. I liked the structure and clarity of their website. I read the website. I learned about independent charters. It works like this: You get an assigned ‘education specialist’ (ES) who is your teacher/touchpoint who makes sure your child is complying with the state requirements. You as parent make sure your kid is learning in the four main subjects — math, English, history, science – whether that be at home or in classes like at The REALM. Students can learn at their own pace as long as they are learning. Parents/students meet with the ES (once a month at Sky Mountain) and provide samples of work in the four areas. The charter gives you funds to pay “vendors” for either classes or study materials – everything from classes at The REALM and other learning centers to workbooks and textbooks. (Note: We are now with Inspire Charter because they have a “specialty program” at The REALM, whereby all education funds are spent at The REALM and our “teacher” is at The REALM so she can easily monitor progress. Another great independent charter is Sage Oak. They have a great website. Even though I recommend Inspire for The REALM because of the specialty program, the Sage Oak website explains independent charter options in a very clear manner. Hank went to Sage Oak for a year too before the Inspire specialty program came about.)

Back to our story. After I learned about independent charters, I decided to go for it. I signed Hank up online. It was easy. But there was a waitlist. I was also nervous still and unsure. I decided that when and if we got into the charter, he’d go. This was when I started bribing him with the Matchbox cars in hopes of keeping him at his school until a spot opened up.

We got into the independent charter and I panicked

Hank had been behaving beautifully for weeks thanks to the Matchbox cars and then it happened. Three days before winter break of 3rd grade, I got the call from the ES: A spot was open for Hank at the independent charter school and I had to let them know right away. I panicked. What if this was the wrong choice? I said to the ether: I need a sign. I walked onto the playground that morning at drop-off and ran into Hank’s friend’s mom. I told her we got into the charter and I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t decide if we should really leave – his friends were there and maybe I could force him to comply. She looked at me and said: “This isn’t working for your son; you have to go.” I was so embarrassed that we weren’t fitting in but knew she was right. And she was my sign. So we left the traditional public school, enrolled in the independent charter and signed up for classes at The REALM.

Sheer joy and learning in the new program

And so, Hank started at The REALM. For him, the hardest thing was leaving his friends but we did see them once a week at the science club and – spoiler alert – one of them joined him at The REALM later. From 3rd grade through 5th, Hank went to The REALM most days but not full-time. He quickly turned back into that curious, happy kid. He was also suddenly learning so much more than he had been. He especially was drawn to Joe Stanford’s classes and Joe himself. Joe has so much knowledge and is willing to share it. Also, his curriculum incorporates games so Hank was quite motivated to learn. Hank was a fan of Joe. He also liked the friends he made at The REALM, and he was learning and thriving at school and out.

From my perspective, another plus was that if a socially difficult situation arose in class at The REALM, students received individual attention to work out the problem together and without punishment. Boundaries and expectations were set but there was intrinsic motivation rather than motivation based on fear or reward. In addition, there was a culture of acceptance which built courage and confidence in the kids. I immediately found that whenever I walked into The REALM I felt a sense of relief and joy. I still do. So it’s great for parents too!

We started meeting with our charter school ES once a month. We had to present a few work samples in each subject, which was so easy compared with the homework and pressure at the other school. We also were asked to do the state testing once a year and a few school assessment tests from home. For grades, I opted out until middle school since I wanted to take the pressure off completely (mostly for myself). I knew Hank was learning so much more than he was at the public school – because he told me what he was learning. It was like college! He could work ahead and also be in classes where his opinion mattered and kids were asked to think independently and creatively.

Another great thing happened a half year in: The son of that mom friend that gave me the “you have to go” sign on the playground, left the traditional school too and came to The REALM. Hank’s friend had been easily going with the flow at the other school, unlike Hank, but he too was not engaged or learning. He also wanted to discuss new ideas and learn more than just language and his parents noticed. At The REALM, Hank’s friend blossomed. He was happy all the time and talked freely about how much he was learning. He seemed like a new kid to me. I was amazed and have to say that I have only seen kids flourish at The REALM. So, with his friend back at school with him, my son was happier than ever because he had someone to discuss his favorite topic with, namely geo-politics. I say this because a great perk at The REALM is the community – both for parents and kids. My son has friends and classes that challenge him to express his ideas and question them too. As a parent, I feel at home and connected because I’m among like-minded parents — parents who are willing to think outside the box and take a risk to give their child a better education. I know these are independent thinkers and nice people. On this note, The REALM organizes a big camping trip for families every fall. We’ve enjoyed it every year and it’s such a great way to build community and make friends with all the families.

What it’s like now and onto high school

Beginning in 6th grade, my son starting attending The REALM full-time. He wanted to be around his friends all day. I had to get creative to come up with that extra funding but it worked for two years. This year, 8th grade, my son’s friends have gone on to high school, and he’s okay being there part-time again. He takes classes in the main subjects – English, math, science and history – and gets a few electives, like chess, which he LOVES! And shout out to the chess class for winning an L.A.-county wide tournament at the start of last summer!

At The REALM, Hank has had the opportunity to take some amazing classes. Here are a few of his favorites:

  • Excursions. He took it last year, in 7th grade. Students must be 12. They pick a destination and travel there – his class picked New Zealand. The class raised the money for the trip on their own; planned it on their own; and traveled to New Zealand on their own (with two teachers). To earn money for the trip, my son made calendars with photos of cats that he photographed himself. He had them printed and sold them door to door and at school functions. He walked dogs and fed cats. He raised $3000! Other students did bake sales. Some babysat, washed cars, tutored. These kids did it! I was so proud of Hank and grateful that he had this opportunity. It was a real coming-of-age adventure and celebration – the modern day version of tribal youth being sent out into the woods to survive. These kids had to earn money, plan travel, and venture bravely afar. They gained confidence, friendships and experiences on an unforgettable adventure.
  • Quest. For this class, students do deep research into a topic and give in-depth presentations at the end of the session, teaching them to relate the topic to themselves, their families and the community at large while learning important presentation skills. Last year the topic was ancestry. My son researched our family tree, learned family stories and traditions and retold them at two presentations.
  • Hikers Club. Every week for four hours, teacher Nate takes the kids hiking or to museums around Los Angeles.
  • Joe’s games. Hank has loved Joe’s classes since day one because for many of them, Joe has created card trivia games on the topics. Kids are naturally motivated to learn because they want to win the game. Joe has also been like a mentor to my son. I could write pages on Joe! I’ll let you see how amazing he is for yourself.
  • Learning through building and art. Both Linda and Kimber’s classes have been a joy for Hank because they use art projects and building as a way for kids to learn science, history, politics, social studies. One of Hank’s favorites has been Linda’s Engineering and Architecture classes, particularly when there is a challenge involved, like building a bridge that can hold the most weight.

Right now, we’re in the midst of exploring high school options. Since we left public school in 3rd grade, I haven’t worried at all about Hank’s education. He’s learning and he’s happy. Also, since there is little homework at The REALM, he has plenty of free time and is able to do a significant amount of learning on his own, based solely on his interests and self-motivation. For example, he uses his free time to follow politics, code mods for a game he plays and learn about world history, including politics, leaders and economics of all countries dating back to the start of the 20th century, through a video game.

Since last spring, we’ve watched Hank’s friends go from The REALM to various high schools – going back to public school, local private schools, alternative private schools, and hybrid public schools while some are continuing with the independent charter school. All of these kids seem to be happy and thriving, and that makes me feel great, like once again, there are so many options and we just need to find the right fit. I’m excited to see what’s next and appreciate the support we’re getting from The REALM teachers in helping us find the right next step for Hank.

Just today, wise teacher Joe suggested this: Ask him what he wants out of high school. I think this is a good choice for making all education choices. What do you want for your child’s education? I think the answer for me has become: I want Hank to learn more on the subjects he loves, do activities that use his skills in the areas he loves and then find a path/education that supports this. We’ll see what Hank says!

By “Hank’s” Mom