Christians in Public Schools: Amber

26 September 2023

When conceptualizing this series, I knew I wanted to include a family with older kids. For me, a public elementary school can feel a world apart from a public high school (or, to be fair, actually any high school), and so I was eager to include the perspective of a mom a little farther along.

Thankfully, I knew just the mom to ask. Amber is the kids director at our church, and she is one of the warmest, most welcoming people I know. She and her husband have three terrific kids, all of whom are in high school or college. She’s walked the public school walk for many years, and she graciously agreed to share a bit about the highs and lows with us.

Amber, I’m honored to have you here – take it away!

Just a note: if you haven’t read the intro post yet, start there!

Tell us about yourself and your family.

We have three kids. Our oldest girl is 18 – she just graduated from public high school and is starting her freshman year at NC State University. Our middle girl is 16 and in 11th grade, and our youngest boy is 14 and in 9th. We live in the Triangle of North Carolina. My husband is a creative director in a corporate marketing department and I work part time as the Kids and Families Director for our church.

We stay busy! Our girls have been in the marching band; our oldest is continuing that in college. They have also been involved in many theater productions, as well as chorus and concert band. Our son has run track, played basketball, done debate team, and will join a special technology and engineering academy at school this year.

Why are you choosing public school for your family?

When my oldest was starting kindergarten, we considered all schooling options: private, homeschool, charter, magnet, regular public, and more. While I saw the merit in each type of school, we really felt called to public. I remember specifically thinking: if Jesus were a parent on earth right now, he would be in the midst of the public schools. Not that I am REMOTELY like Jesus – but I want to be! I felt he wouldn’t place himself with his own immediate family or only with other believers – he would be “in the world.” I felt confident and secure that God was guiding our decision to go to public schools.

This is of course personal, but I also did not feel it would be a good use of our money to pay for school tuition for three kids over many years. When we first entered school in 2010, our county had great schools with a good reputation, and I had heard good things about the elementary school that we were zoned for. I felt comfortable sending our oldest there.

What has been your experience with public school so far? Give us an overview.

How much time do you have? Ha! Like anything in life, public school has its plusses and minuses.

I’m grateful that it seems my kids are able to learn everywhere. They do well in school, but they also did well during the COVID months when they were at home. However, I love public school for all the extra experiences it provides. My girls have thrived in marching band, and they could not get that at home or at many private schools. And for my youngest who loves all things STEM, our high school has extensive course options. It would be challenging to teach the subjects he loves and provide the robotics, design, and technology experiences he gets at school at home.

The hard part is likely not surprising: with older kids in the times we live in, it’s hard to feel that the non-educational things that are taught are out of our control. Of course, this depends a lot on the area of the country you live in, but in recent years, I’ve been more and more unhappy with this.

What has been one of your favorite parts about your school experience so far? Has anything been challenging?

I would say my favorite thing is the opportunity for my kids to interact with and become friends with diverse groups of people. Of course, that also has its challenges, as that diversity can be opposite of Christian beliefs. I am a relational person, so I also love the relationships I’ve made over the years.

What do you wish other Christians knew about your life as a faithful family in public school? What might surprise people about your journey in public school so far?

I wish we wouldn’t be so judgmental of each other. (I am convicted of this as well, so I’m also speaking for myself!)

I feel like people assume that public school is the easy, or even lazy, choice. No – for us, public school is hard. We are at the schools a lot – not just pouring into our own kids, but also kids we’ll never know. We take care of teachers and administrators. We give a lot of time and a lot of money to our community schools.

Additionally, I have been a part of prayer groups for all the years that my kids have been in school. Seeing God move through the prayers of public school moms has been such a blessing. Just this past week, we met and did a prayer walk around the high school, praying over specific buildings and gyms and athletic fields and parking lots and bus loops. If teachers or administrators passed by, we reached out and asked them how we could pray for them, and we prayed over those things on the spot.

This past year, we had a teacher email our group leader and ask if we were still meeting to pray because she could see the Lord working at our high school in so many ways. What a blessing to be making a difference in prayer – again, not just for my own kids, but for my community, as well!

What does faith formation look like for your family outside of or alongside school? How are you helping your kids to know and love God and their neighbors?

Now that my kids are older, I am hoping and praying that we are coming to a place of my kids starting to choose their faith because it is, in fact, what they want – that it is their faith, and not just their parent’s faith. And that they want to go to church and don’t just go because we are making them :)

My kids’ faith is tested, for sure, in the public schools. They won’t go to college and hear opposite faiths and beliefs for the first time. They’ve already heard it – daily! The blessing is that, when they hear things that are contrary to what they’ve heard in church and at home, they’re still under our roof and we can have talk through them together, as opposed to hearing opposing views for the first time in college when my husband and I would have much less influence. My kids have questions, and we have conversations constantly – the door is always open for discussion.

What are your hopes for your kids and their education? What’s the best-case scenario?

The best-case scenario is that they finish high school, go on to college or work or whatever is next for them, and find a relationship with Jesus that is their own – that they fall deeply in love with him out of the love he has for them. There’s nothing I desire more. Of course, I’d love for them to do well in school and all that. But ultimately, in my heart, that is secondary.

Do you plan to continue with public school indefinitely, do you plan to change course in the future, or do you hold it with open hands?

We’ll stick it out in public. We’re almost done, ha!

Amber, you are a gift to me and to many! Thank you for taking the time to share your family and your thoughts with us – it truly means so much.

Friends, please feel free to respond to anything Amber mentioned in your usual kind and thoughtful way. Grateful for you!

Series introduction

More movies for family movie night

22 September 2023

Just in time for us all to get back into cozy fall routines, I bring you another round of family movie night reviews! You can read more about how we do family movie night here, but the most important thing to know is that in our house, the parents choose the movies. The kids get to choose their shows during the week, and we relish getting to curate a family canon of our favorite classics and new hits on Friday.

A fun yet unrelated photo from our weekend in Charleston. I matched the decor :)

Onto the movies! Here’s what we watched last school year, when June was 6 and 7 and Shep was 4, as best as I can remember and roughly in order, with commentary along the way as needed.

  • The Little Mermaid
  • Beauty and the Beast (June thought it was scary – a theme continued from last year!)
  • Tangled (June, John, and I all cried at the end – really, really loved this one.)
  • Matilda (This was the 1996 version, a favorite from my childhood, and June absolutely looooved it. “Send Me On My Way” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” were frequent Spotify requests in the weeks after we watched!)
  • Inside Out (June and I cried again, ha!)
  • Paddington (I get that it’s meant to show character development over the course of the story, but I didn’t love how the kids behaved and the family treated each other at the beginning. Otherwise, sweet. I’ve heard the second one is better!)
  • The Princess and the Frog (There are some excellent songs in this one!)
  • Homeward Bound (A complete and total 90’s classic!)
  • The Grinch (original)
  • The Santa Clause (This is one of my very favorite Christmas movies from childhood. Be warned, however: June asked me some pointed questions about Santa in the aftermath and ultimately joined the “parent team,” if you will. I have complicated feelings about Santa as a grown-up and felt our parenting messaging on him was muddy at best, so ultimately this was fine, but rather stressful in the moment.)
  • Elf
  • The Jungle Book (This one was just kind of wonky? It was fine, not my favorite, but fine. I guess it just feels a little more tired than some other classics.)
  • Matilda the Musical (June loved this version even more than the original (though I still prefer the original!) Shep did not particularly enjoy this version; I do think we could have waited another year, because some parts seemed a bit stressful for June.)
  • Sing (This was fun! We laughed out loud :))
  • The Wizard of Oz (A classic for sure, albeit a little wacky.)
  • Sing 2 (Again, lots of laughter all around! The music is fantastic and the parents loved the pop culture references. June was a little scared of Crystal the wolf.)
  • Babe (Both kids definitely enjoyed this one, and particularly thought the singing mice were funny – ha!)
  • Mulan
  • Alice in Wonderland (A little too wacky for my taste, but the kids enjoyed it.)
  • Parent Trap (The original version – I love it so much.)
  • Lilo and Stitch
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (We watched after we read the book, and the kids loved it.)
  • The Parent Trap (The Lindsay Lohan version, an absolute treasure from my childhood. June now claims it as her favorite movie.)

June just happily noted that we’ll have to restart the cycle next year when Annie turns three and can join us for movie night. We’re all looking forward to it :)

I would love to hear: what movies have been hits at your house for movie night lately?

Christians in Public Schools: Claire

19 September 2023

Out of the seven ladies I asked to participate in this series, there was only one I had never met in person – and that’s Claire.

This was not an accident. If I’m going to share this space with someone and ask you to listen to them – whether in this series, Marvelous Mamas, or any other – then I want to be as sure as I possibly can that they’ll respect what we’ve built and value the same things we do: kindness, honesty, thoughtfulness, freedom of thought and inquiry, and generosity of spirit, to start. I want them to be a kindred spirit.

Though I have not met her in person, I feel confident that that’s exactly what Claire is. I’ve read her honest and incisive writing for years (I’m a paid subscriber to her Substack!) and was a podcast listener before that, and we also had the chance to work together briefly when she did some freelancing for Cultivate. She’s honest, she’s passionate, she’s principled, and she’s a little spicy in the best way.

And, though she might not know it, she was yet another inspiration for this series. When she wrote months ago about choosing public school for her kids with boldness and grace, it made me think that maybe I could, too.

I’m honored to have you here, Claire – take it away!

Tell us about yourself and your family.

My name is Claire and I live in a teensy-tiny town in southeast Wisconsin. I have three kids, ages 7 (2nd grade), 5 (kindergarten), and 2 (part-time daycare and a prayer).

Why are you choosing public school for your family? 

We arrived at our schooling decision after a lot of prayer, research, and touring. We knew right away that homeschooling wasn’t a good fit for us as parents or for our kids, although I do have many happy, intelligent homeschooling friends! (I even tried to convince one of them to just homeschool my kids along hers, but she didn’t quite go for it – maybe because she has six of her own, ha!) 

In our area, there are many school choices available. The main ones within a reasonable distance are our public school; our Catholic school attached to our parish; a free classical, secular, charter school you need to apply for and cross your fingers; and a classical Catholic school that isn’t attached to any particular parish. We toured all of them. 

We had many priorities: budget! Ease of transportation! Extracurriculars! Academics! Cultural fit! We combined all of those in an alchemy of prayer and chose our local public school. 

Although we as a family are very Catholic, we also believe passionately in public schools. Every kid has a right to an education, and Catholic school is very pricey – especially the classical ones that aren’t attached to, and partly subsidized by, parishes. Our parish school actually had some aspects to it that we didn’t feel were aligned with the Catholic faith (we emailed the pastor to let him know, as I’m sure that wasn’t the parish’s intention), and the classical Catholic school felt too small and insulated. We want to be a light in our community and teach our kids to have conversations with all different kinds of people with differing values in order to best love others and spread the truth of the Gospel in a way that honors the dignity of the human person.

We also felt that they weren’t necessarily following modern science when it came to curriculum choices; there’s always new research being done about how kids learn and while there are some traditional values that go out of style, some of this new information can really affect things like phonics and math strategies. The classical charter school simply felt off – it was a gut feeling after much prayer. (And let me just say that a woman’s intuition is often correct; we learned quite a bit of information about the school’s values in the year since we toured it that made us confident in our decision.)

It’s also worth saying that many typical concerns about public schools for Christians aren’t a huge issue in our area. To be frank, we live in a politically conservative town; there aren’t agendas being pushed in picture books or social studies class that worry us. If anything, we’ve had to push back against some very fringe beliefs in our school that aren’t common in most public schools (for example, people wanting to avoid teaching about Plessy vs. Ferguson or the Holocaust because they’re too “controversial”.).

What has been your experience with public school so far? Give us an overview.

Our public school experience has been positive so far. We committed to being involved in school board meetings to make sure we know what’s going on in terms of curriculum and policies, and I’ve faithfully attended every month! While there will always be interpersonal challenges with any school you choose, our kids have been learning and thriving. 

What has been one of your favorite parts about your school experience so far? Has anything been challenging?

Our favorite part has just been feeling like part of a community. All of our neighbors go to our public school; two of them were even in my son’s first grade class. It’s such a blessing to be able to help each other out (“Is the math test tomorrow or the next day?” “Can my son get off the bus at your house tomorrow so I can take my daughter to the dentist?”) and simply to be rooted in a local neighborhood. It makes loving our neighbors much simpler! 

The challenge has probably been having our kids interact with families that have values that differ from ours. Again, this is how the real world is, and we believe we’re all called to be evangelists and Christ’s hands and feet. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to have difficult conversations at such a young age. I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face when she said, aghast, “Some people don’t think God is REAL?!” Part of me wishes I could have protected that innocence a bit longer. But a larger part of me knows that it’s my job as a mother to disciple her in a broken world. 

What do you wish other Christians knew about your life as a faithful family in public school? What might surprise people about your journey in public school so far?

I think people would be surprised that our public school is not actively trying to brainwash our kids. I say this with love – I know that there are schools (of all kinds!) that are attempting to do that very thing. But that doesn’t mean every school is the same! You really need to tour your individual school and ask specific questions. Painting all public schools with a broad brush is a display of ignorance. Small town Wisconsin is not the same as Austin or Boise or Temecula or New York City. All of these places will have unique challenges.

Furthermore, just because a school is Christian doesn’t mean it’s living up to the faith. We asked pointed questions about things within elementary schools that matter to us, and found the public school answers more Christian than the Christian school ones. You can’t see the name of a school and instantly assume its strengths or difficulties. You need to really get in there, see the hallways, meet the teachers, and investigate the curriculum. It’s a lot of work – but so is discipleship! :) 

What does faith formation look like for your family outside of or alongside school? How are you helping your kids to know and love God and their neighbors?

As Catholics, our children start a formal religious education at a young age. Our oldest two currently go to a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd class at our parish every other week, which is basically a Catholic Montessori program (multiple kids from their public school go there, which is great)! We also drench our lives in prayer, read scripture together every night, and pore over beautiful children’s books about Jesus. We’ve always believed that the best way to pass on the faith is to pray, model, and trust in the Lord, so that’s what we’re doing.

This year, I’m going to have them start listening to the Saint Stories for Kids podcast every morning while they eat breakfast, as well. I know in Catholic school they would have different things like a saint of the week or a history of church leaders, so I’d love to incorporate that at home somehow. 

What are your hopes for your kids and their education? What’s the best-case scenario?

Sainthood! I want my kids to discern God’s plan for their lives. That might mean a traditional university. It also might mean the seminary, a vocational school, an apprenticeship program… we’re not at all married to the idea of the Ivy League (although that’s great, too!) I have many issues with our American university system and hope that by the time my kids are eighteen, there are more options available in terms of workforce preparation. 

Mainly, I want my kids to be readers, love their neighbors, have interests, be good citizens, and follow Christ. No pressure – ha!

Do you plan to continue with public school indefinitely, do you plan to change course in the future, or do you hold it with open hands?

We are keeping things very, very loose. Our motto is “year by year”! There are so many new schools being created in our area; who knows when we’ll find one we like better than our public school? We’re also a little nervous about high school, but as my spiritual director says, don’t borrow worry from the future. We have quite a while to discern that. 

Anything else to add?

I would ask people of goodwill to remember that cost is a real factor in these decisions for many families. Could my family have technically afforded a Christian school? Yes. But many, many families can’t. It makes my skin crawl to hear people asking why any Christian would ever choose public school, when many families don’t have a choice. (Even if a school is “free” or partly subsidized, do they have things like a free lunch program? Or a school bus? Or uniforms? All of these can be barriers to families living in poverty.) Also, many Christian schools aren’t properly equipped to educate and honor kids with special needs. There are many reasons a family might choose public school; we all need to cool it on the judging just a tad. 

Claire, you are a gift to me and to many! Thank you for taking the time to share your family and your thoughts with us – it truly means so much.

Friends, you can read Claire’s writing on The Catholic Feminist Substack, follow her on Instagram, or pick up one of her books! (I’ve already preordered her newest, The Funeral Ladies of Ellerie County – it looks so good!) And please feel free to respond to anything she mentioned in your usual kind and thoughtful way. Grateful for you!

Series introduction

A few things on my “decide once” list

15 September 2023

“Decide once” is one of the 13 Lazy Genius principles – it’s actually the first one. Though Kendra didn’t originate the idea, she’s certainly popularized it, and rightfully so. The idea is simple: you make a one-time decision about an aspect of your life, and you stick by it until it no longer serves you. Whenever you come to that decision point, you don’t have to expend any brain cells on making a fresh choice; you can simply move forward with the decision you’ve already made and deemed good.

You get the appeal, yes? I certainly do, and have used it to simplify many different areas of my life. I thought it could be fun to round up a few today, and of course would love to hear a few things you’ve decided once about in the comments!

— I sign up for every Meal Train that crosses my path, and I bring a prepared meal from a local shop. In this season of young kids, trying to prepare and deliver two meals in one day (for my family and the other family) was causing enough stress that it had begun to dissaude me from signing up in the first place. I love that I can choose a meal that matches the family’s needs with ease (gluten- or dairy-free, vegetarian, etc.) and support a local small business, too.

— If June is invited to a friend’s birthday party, the friend is getting a gift card to the local paint-your-own pottery place.

— All coats we outgrow get donated to coat drives. Though we consign lots of clothes, coats get donated.

— I (almost) only buy my jeans from Madewell. I know what style I like, I know what size I take; it’s just easy.

— I only buy two pairs of shoes for each child.

— I meal plan on Thursdays and grocery shop on Fridays at Publix.

— Every Friday we’re home is family movie night with takeout. And the parents always choose the movie.

— I decide who I’m going to listen to on Instagram by following them, and thus I try to avoid the Explore tab at all costs.

— Suitcases get unpacked immediately when we arrive home. There’s no hemming and hawing over whether we’ll do it later that night or the next day; we just get it done immediately.

— If underwear gets pooped in (like, actual poop), it gets thrown out. I decided a long time ago that we can afford to pay $10 every so often to buy a few more new packs of underwear than we might otherwise have used :)

Isn’t that wonderful? And the best part is that you still get to change your mind whenever you want – if a decision is no longer serving you, you get to make a new one.

I’d love to hear: what are some of your favorite “decide once” decisions?

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