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!