Christians in Public School: Em

17 October 2023

Thank you for coming along for this ride, friends! In this series, I hoped to give voice to committed Christian families who have made the decision to attend public school and who have had a largely-positive experience. I wanted to encourage other Christian public school families, and offer greater understanding to those who’ve chosen a different path. With the help of five generous friends, I believe we’ve done that, and I’m grateful.

Though it feels like there’s little to add at this point, you’ve got me today :) Let’s do it!

Tell us about yourself and your family. 

You know me :) But for those who are new, I work part-time as a writer for a goal-setting company. My husband, John, is a financial planner, and we have three kids – June (7, in second grade), John Shepherd (5, in a Montessori preschool), and Annie (2, in the same preschool). We live in a suburb of Raleigh, NC.

Why are you choosing public school for your family? 

John and I both grew up attending public schools and had positive – even great – experiences. I remember arriving at college and being surprised by the subpar writing skills of some of my classmates who had graduated from prestigious private schools. Our K-12 school experiences weren’t perfect, but the laughably-strange teachers along the way were more than balanced out by the incredible, life-changing teachers we were lucky to spend time with. We made great friends, had wonderful (albeit not particularly glamorous) opportunities, and were well-prepared to succeed academically in college, which in turn set us up for careers we love.

Structurally, school is very different here than it was growing up in Connecticut. We grew up with town-based schools, so pretty much everyone in our town went to one of three elementary schools, then the one middle school and the one high school. There was one magnet school and one Catholic school I can think of, and that was it.

Where we live now, the options are seemingly endless. We’re in a county system, so everyone has the option of a traditional or a year-round school (and rezoning feels like a looming threat). Next, there are tons of themed magnet options that are within the public school system. Beyond that, there are yet more charter, private secular, and private Christian schools to choose from. It is truly dizzying to consider, especially for this Enneagram 5 researcher. Each comes with pros and cons, from cost to technology use to commutes to school population to ideology.

Still, with all of those options (or perhaps because of them), we considered our neighborhood public school our default choice. Something relatively dramatic would have needed to happen to push us to another option, and it didn’t, so we didn’t.

We also believe strongly in the importance of a vibrant and healthy public school system. It’s scary for me to think what our schools – and, ultimately, our society – would look like if all the Christian parents, or all the engaged parents, or all the wealthy parents, or all the parents with social capital, pulled out of public schools.

Speaking of cost, though we theoretically could afford private school, it is mind-numbing to think of the money we are saving by not paying tuition 36 times over. If I consider the actual most likely private schools we’d consider (because you know I’ve done research!), we are realizing a savings of between $242,700 and $461,250 in today’s dollars by sending our kids to public school over their schooling lifetime. That is an INCREDIBLE amount of money that could – and does and/or will – go to improving their current schools, giving generously to our church and other organizations we believe in, starting our own non-profit, funding scholarships at our alma maters, traveling the world with our kids, and helping them launch families or businesses one day, if they should so choose.

Finally – and I have been trying for weeks to figure out exactly how to word this, so bear with me – we believe our children are infinitely precious, but not fragile. We don’t believe we need to coddle them, and in fact believe that they will have a better chance of growing into the people we hope they’ll be, and leading the lives we hope they’ll live, if they do not have every lesson handpicked and fine-tuned for them and their interests, every opportunity presented to them on a silver platter, every environment perfectly suited to their liking, and every obstacle mown from their path. We believe they’ll grow from having to navigate less-than-ideal learning conditions (within reason, of course) as well as different personalities and opinions along the way. In the long term, we don’t think the absolute best is, actually, always the best.

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

Our experience thus far has been pretty much uniformly positive! Our teachers have been fantastic – communicative, capable, warm, and ready to see our daughter as an individual and meet her where she is, with lots of creative ways to make sure she’s being challenged. Our feedback has been warmly received. June truly loves going to school, loves her teachers, and loves to learn. She has also made wonderful friends.

As parents, we are hands-on, and this feels like a calling and (mostly) a pleasure, too. I read every email and handout that’s sent home. I read policies and meeting notes. We go to as many events as we can. I peruse the library books she brings home. I connect with and talk to other parents. We vote in every local election. Her school makes it easy to be involved, and we take them up on it.

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

Let’s do two of each!

First, we love going to a neighborhood school. Especially since the majority of students walk or bike to school, there is such a sense of community as everyone streams toward the campus in the morning. We love sharing a common experience with our neighbors, where it’s easy to ask for and give advice about school activities, teachers, etc. As Claire noted, this makes it much easier to love our neighbors in tangible ways. And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, biking to school is our favorite. It’s a delightful way to bookend the day, and because our commute is so short, we get more time back to be together as a family and spend in ways that are valuable to us.

Second, it is a great delight to love on the teachers, staff, and administration. While we could do this in any school we attend, my sense is that it’s more needed and valued where we are. Our goal is to make the school noticeably better by our presence. We want our kids’ classmates to be better off than if we had not been there, and to leave teachers grateful that our kids were in their class. None of this is to make our name great, but because it’s what we believe glorifies God.

(There are a lot of specific ways we do this, and I’m happy to share them. However, this post is exceptionally long already, so if there’s interest, I’ll add this topic to the queue for the future!)

Now for the challenges…

First, what has been most challenging personally is dealing with comparison and jealousy. For as confident of a person and parent as I am, school choice is easily the area where I feel the most doubt and experience the most jealousy. Private Christian school, classical school, homeschooling, Acton Academy, Montessori – you name it, I’ve probably researched it and can see the good in it. We love our kids and know that schooling is a huge part of their lives, and so it’s easy to feel a lot of pressure to “get it right” and to want the absolute best (whatever that is!).

Second, I know this is a series particularly about the place where our faith and our kids’ education meet, but the thing I most wish I could change three years in has been technology. In second grade, phones are not a thing, but every kid has a school-issued laptop and they spend time on them within lessons each day, and I just wish they didn’t. This is probably not surprising :) They’re certainly not on them all day, and I trust the balance the teachers are striking, but still, I’d change it if I could, and I’d also give the kids more time outside. We balance these school-day downsides by maintaining our low-tech environment at home and pushing them outside as often as possible!

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?

How much time do you have?! Ha! Knowing that our kids are not being formed in the Christian faith in public school, and in fact may be counter-formed in some ways, we spend an incredible amount of time and energy thinking about this and acting on it.

We worship and serve at church on Sundays. We invest deeply in our small group. We encourage their friendships, and our family’s friendships, with other believers. We continually point to our faith daily in conversation. We pray together. We play worship music on the go and in the house. We talk about the many forms of generosity, and invite our kids to live a generous, abundant life alongside us – and to share that life with others.

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

Honestly, my answer is a mash-up of Ginna’s and Krystal’s – they summed things up so beautifully!

We care deeply about education, but it is not ultimate in our family: loving God and loving their neighbor is. My hope for their education is that they learn from teachers who inspire them and alongside peers who bring them joy. I hope they grow to love reading and learning itself. As parents, I hope we can be involved in connecting what they are learning in school to the amazing God of the universe.

It’s also hard for me to tease out my hopes for their more formal schooling from their upbringing in our home. I could say much more about my hopes for who they are as one-day grown-ups, but that is not something I expect school to accomplish.

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 will take it year by year. We have had a great experience so far with elementary and hope and plan to continue with it for all of our kids. We’ll consider our options anew when it comes to middle and high school.

Anything else to add?

For me, it’s been incredibly important to have close Christian friends who are walking the same public school path as us. Both of the other families in our small group who have elementary-aged kids have chosen public school, and that is an invaluable support, especially when the doubt or jealousy or fear creeps in.

Friends, please feel free to respond to anything I mentioned in your usual kind and thoughtful way. I’m sure this will not be the last time we touch on this subject, but I’m grateful that we could cover as much ground as we did over the last few weeks. Thank you, as always, for being a part!

Series introduction

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October 17, 2023 9:11 am

Longtime reader, first time commenter! I am not Christian but navigating school choice in NYC where most friends will default into incredibly expensive, elite private schools and my husband and I will make a different choice (public or charter). LOVE the framing of “precious not fragile” and that’s the underpinning of our choice – we don’t think “the best” is always actually that. Thank you for sharing!

October 17, 2023 9:19 am

Thank you, Emily! What a fascinating series. I am Christian, but I don’t have children (and generally don’t follow anyone on Instagram that I haven’t met in real life), so the criticism/scrutinization of Christian parents sending their children to public school was not on my radar at all.
I went to a secular K-12 private school with Christian-based traditions and loved it. It is hard for me to imagine a better education and better preparation for college. My husband went to public school and had an extremely different experience – perhaps with less “book” learning and more “life” learning. We are fortunate to live in an area with great public schools, so barring extenuating circumstances, it’s hard for me to imagine sending our future children anywhere other than public school (especially with the cost of private education, as you mention). But, that’s easy to say when you live in an area known for great public schools, so I especially appreciated hearing from Ginna in Durham and her experience in schools others have called “bad schools.” Lots of food for thought, thank you to everyone for sharing their perspectives!

October 17, 2023 1:26 pm

Gosh, I think this might be one of my favorite posts of yours EVER. Your paragraph on the ‘precious, not fragile’ theology put to words something that I’ve felt so deeply in my motherhood journey so far. So grateful for this whole series and I know I will be coming back to it for years to come!
P.S. – loved the insight into where the ‘private school funds’ are going to be spent instead. Maybe a future Marvelous Money post on how your family decided on these avenues?

October 17, 2023 1:43 pm

I have often heard your “precious but not fragile” idea worded as “prepare your child for the path, not the path for your child,” and it’s something I think about ALL the time. Motherhood so far has both alleviated a lot of the anxiety I’ve had my whole life — Foster did NOT spontaneously combust the first time he fell down, ha! — and made me very conscious of how my anxious hangups will affect my kid. I believe God is continually reminding me that Foster is his kid and I’m just taking care of him here on earth. (Also, would love to see the post about the tangible ways you all help out/give to the kids’ schools!)

October 17, 2023 3:06 pm

This series has been so wonderful to read. We are Christian parents who always intended to put our children in public schools, as we experienced great public education growing up. I would also add that, in addition to the question of money, which always comes up in a public/private school discussion (for good reason), it’s also a question of ability. In our case, our oldest child needs a lot of special education support, which he simply can’t get at a private school. We are very very thankful that we have a good public school system and that, so far, we have gotten a lot of support for his needs. He simply would not be able to attend school otherwise. Having him feel like he is a part of his community, in addition to getting a good education, is paramount for us.
One of the things I loved about this series was your guests sharing how they would talk with their kids about anything they encountered that they didn’t understand or that confused them. My husband and I have worked through our church with teenagers for over a decade, and it is striking how many of them, given the opportunity, will ask hard questions when they have an adult they feel they can trust to give them a straight answer and have an actual discussion with them. We’ve encountered so many kids who feel lost and confused about every imaginable topic (politics, theology, relationships, etc.), and their parents either gave them rote answers (here’s what’s in the Bible and that’s what you should believe, with no further discussion) or just put them off (that’s too mature/confusing/difficult for you, we’ll talk about it when you’re older – with little to no follow up).
It’s hard for me to emphasize how important it is for teenagers (and all kids) to feel like they can talk to the adults in their lives about topics/questions that are confusing, hard, nuanced, etc. In my experience, it’s less about telling them exactly what you want them to believe about any of these given topics, and more about modeling how you came to the conclusion through your worldview. It’s being willing to confront the topic and handle it in a thoughtful and straightforward manner that has the biggest impact on them, and equips them to make their way in the world. I loved seeing this perspective from your guests because, wow, what a way to enrich your child’s life and equip them for the future!

October 17, 2023 5:56 pm

Great post! Long time reader. I also love the thought of “precious but not fragile.” My oldest is autistic (what was previously known as aspbergers) and I was completely suprised when I sent him to public school for kindergarten post Covid and found him to be more “fragile” than I previously expected. (he is weeks older than June). Kindergarten in public school caused my happy 5 yo to become very depressed. As the child of a public school teacher I didn’t realize how often schools are incredibly difficult for autistic kids, even great school districts that are highly ranked in the country. We ended up pulling him out mid year to focus on his mental health and asking the school system to pay for a speciality school. Thankfully we live in an affluent area and they agreed immediately. Our son is now at a combination public / private school called a “day school.” The majority of students there have the school system paying tuition and a few are private pay. The tuition is about $90,000 a year (!) and we are forever grateful he is able to attend. He is now back to being our happy kid and hopefully learning strategies that make him a little less “fragile” in the years to come. Eventually we hope he can attend a private school with less specialized support, but I doubt he’ll ever go back to public school since by the time he’d be close to ready he’d be a teenager. (Autistic teenager + first time back in public school seems like a potential recipe for disaster). Our youngest is at our public schools prek and it’s been great for him.

I’d love to hear more about how you show love to your school. I am on the PTA board for my oldest’ speciality school and find myself regularly writing love letters to his teachers thanking them for turning his life and our families life around.

October 18, 2023 1:56 pm
Reply to  Jill

I really appreciated you sharing your story Jill. It’s easy to say things like “we take it year by year” or “we’ll do what’s best for each child” but it’s seems like you’re really having to live it out and courageously change course. I think Covid really changed how people approach schooling. My son started kindergarten in 2020. It was wild.

I think Jill’s story also points to something important. There are really not many qualities that all public schools have or all private schools have. Even less between homeschooling environments! You would think that public schools do a better job accommodating special needs. Not always true. You would think private schools are for rich people only. Not always true. You can fill in the blank with whatever stereotype or assumption you have and someone is always going to have an example where that’s not the case. Everyone has different options on the table and has different family histories and kid personalities to consider. That’s why it’s a problem to say all Christians should do private school or homeschool. I also think it’s a problem to say that Jesus would have his kids in public school. Those are just arguments for and against things that have no qualitative data. I think we are always going to hear the loudest the people criticizing the choice we made. It takes a lot of work to trust Gods leading without mandating that it’s the best way for everyone. I’m a bossy older sister so it’s especially hard for me.

October 18, 2023 2:30 pm
Reply to  Heather

I want to add to my comment, is that one way I have found to combat the judgements and stereotypes is to not categorize things by public or private school. I think of my self not as a private school mom or is as a private school family but as a family that goes to our unique school. I try to think of my friends in the same way, not as public school families or homeschool families, but by their particular school by name. Because that’s often what we chose or were called to, that particular place at this particular time. Not to a whole system or category.

October 18, 2023 8:17 am

I read this series with huge interest, even though I don’t experience the jealousy or doubt that you mentioned in my day-to-day. (And even online, I wasn’t aware that this was such a hot topic!) We never truly considered not sending our kids to public school, and homeschooling is not for us either. I think that’s partially because we live in a sought-after school district (a lot of families move here because of the schools), and partially because almost all of our friends – from church or elsewhere – send their kids to public school and/or are teachers there.
Though the biggest reason for sending our kids to public school is that both my husband and I had good (if not great) public school experiences ourselves. As I mentioned before, in Germany there aren’t really any other options, so the concept of homeschooling or choosing the „perfect“ school for your child was very new (and honestly somewhat strange) to me. But ultimately I wholeheartedly agree with your „precious but not fragile“ perspective and I hope (and am fairly certain) that our kids can and will thrive in public school.
That said, there are a few things I wish the schools did differently. But I‘m sure that would be the case with every other school I‘d send them to.
Lastly, I‘d love to hear more about specific ways you engage in your public school. We try to do the things you already mentioned, but I‘m always eager to learn of ways that I might have not thought of myself.
As always, thanks for sharing so freely!

October 18, 2023 10:10 am

I lived in Raleigh for a year, attending middle school, and it was strange/not my favorite place for certain reasons. But your post reminded me that there were and still are so many people there doing school so many different ways! I’ve still never lived in a place like Raleigh with THAT MANY different school options LOL Goodness! I can totally see how one could be confused, jealous, and led to compare when trying to pick a school in that area, and why there’s probably so much conversation and debate surrounding the topic where you live.
So many decisions in parenting, right? Sometimes it’s like, can’t we just be those birds that push their babies off a cliff and pray that they fly? I guess that is what we are sort of doing with our kids every day, but the consequences aren’t so fatal, which is a great thing! We can change our minds. We can change teachers/classes/schools. We can try anything without fear that it is a “fly or die” situation. How lucky we are as parents these days to have many options and opportunities to fail horribly, succeed amazingly, or even just have a mediocre experience :) Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Kelly Strawberry
October 18, 2023 10:12 am

Love this post and always grateful for your wisdom! “Make a decision, and then make it the right one.” ;)

October 24, 2023 2:15 pm

This was such a great series and I really enjoyed reading along! I have a 1st & 3rd grader who attend a public charter school in GA and I agonize over our school choices regularly (and middle school suddenly feels on the horizon which has added to this stress!). I really appreciated the multiple interviewees who spoke about public school being a Christian choice and I firmly believe that public school is a right that I want to invest in. We’ve had some harder days lately and it’s taken more effort to keep the “precious but not fragile” mindset front and center but resilience is an incredibly important value for our family. We will continue taking it year by year as well and work toward helping our schools however we can! Thanks for sharing this series!