It’s easy for those of us who opine on education to think about—and talk about—school choice as a policy, a concept, and an issue worth pushing in Washington and state legislatures. But school choice is really about parents, children, and the very personal stories that drive people to look beyond their traditional neighborhood public schools.

From issues of bullying, to weak academics, to the inability—or unwillingness—of a school to teach their child to read, parents are on the front lines. Whether it’s the mom of a son with autism who knows he has been written off by his school, of a daughter with dyslexia whose reading struggles refuse to wane, or of a kid who would simply do better elsewhere, there is pain, guilt, uncertainty, and a mama-bear instinct that drives them to say, “That’s enough. We need to make a change.”

I know this because I am one of these moms, and I want to get more of these stories out there. To that end, I’ll be conducting a series of interviews called “Moms and choice” with other mothers who have dealt with issues like these and, because of them, chosen a different school for their sons and daughters. Their stories are all different, but there is a common thread that runs through them: Their children were not getting what they needed—or deserved—and staying where they were became untenable.

Each interview may be lighted edited for clarity. The first is with a mom from San Antonio, Texas, named Inga Cotton. She took advantage of school choice and subsequently founded a blog call “San Antonio Charter Moms,” where she continues as Executive Director. For privacy reasons, her son will be referred to as F.T. throughout.

How did school choice become an important issue—and cause—for you?

School choice has been important for my family because, of my two kids, my son is such an unusual kid. “Atypical” doesn’t really describe it. My daughter would bloom wherever she is planted, she would adapt to the environment—and I still want the best for her—but my son is really the outlier.

F.T. is now eleven years old. Pretty much from birth we knew he was different. At around three years old, he got the formal diagnosis of autism. Meanwhile, we already knew about all this cool stuff he could do, like reading and writing, and building and thinking in three dimensions. He’s an unusual kid with spiky, uneven talents. He’s happiest working by himself, but he has loving relationships with family members. He hates crowds, loud noises, and unexpected changes of plans. He loves french fries and Minecraft.

Early childhood education—preschool and kindergarten—was challenging for F.T. That period was the most difficult time of motherhood, and one of the hardest times of my life.

What was not working?

Preschool and K–4 were no picnic. But in kindergarten, F.T. had a teacher who just wrote him off intellectually. I know what she really thought of him because later I got a copy of the evaluation she wrote to go with our failed application for him to enter the gifted program in first grade. He didn’t talk much, so perhaps she just assumed he didn’t have much to say. He got upset when it was time to stop doing math and put away the manipulatives (e.g., blocks, beads, counters). He would read her lesson plans off the smartboard when she screenshared them from her PC, and she thought that was disruptive.

In the special education department, there was one teacher who was a champion for F.T. She told me, “Someday, he is going to blossom, and everyone will see what he is capable of.” Nevertheless, she was working within a rigid system. If the classroom teacher wanted my son out of her room, he was removed. But once he was out of the regular classroom, it seemed like he wasn’t learning as much. The belief gap was going to doom him to an inferior education. Now that I am an education nerd, I can look up the district’s report card and see the achievement gap for special education students, and I know that it wasn’t just my son being treated that way.

Why did you decide to make a change?

By halfway through kindergarten, I had a gut feeling that things were not OK. In hindsight, perhaps I should have asked for F.T. to be assigned to another teacher. However, at that point, he already had a label and a thick file that would follow him wherever he went. My strategy was to be watchful, present, and polite, and see what I could do working within the system.

In April, I went to visit a school in Arizona, and I was gone overnight for the first time since F.T. was born. (Other parents of special needs kids will understand what that’s like.) Without me there to talk him into it, F.T. would not get on the school bus, so my family called him in sick. After that, he pretty much stopped attending kindergarten. I tried driving to drop him off and pick him up, but the bus wasn’t the problem; actually, the SPED bus driver was a really cool guy.

His teachers told me that he didn’t want to go home. Around 3 p.m. each day, they texted me cellphone videos of my son in the hallway at school wailing and crying. How was that supposed to make me feel? I still don’t understand the reasoning.

Eventually I just stopped taking F.T. to school. After a few weeks, I agreed to meet with two administrators to talk things over. One, the head of special education for the district, seemed inflexible about what the district could offer my son. The other administrator, an expert on student behavior and discipline, acknowledged that he didn’t know my son or what he needed; he scoffed at my insistence that the teachers were underestimating my son’s potential.

Some of the people in my support network were skeptical of homeschooling, but other friends stepped up with encouragement and guidance.

How much were you aware of school choice before the situation with your son reached a crisis?

In high school, at a large public school, I felt like an outlier, and dreamed about finding an alternative. Instead, I just skipped grades and went to college early. My first college term paper, in 1992, was for a political science class, and the topic was public school choice.

When F.T. was about three years old, I started researching where he should go for kindergarten. We were renting a historic home in an inner-city district with low-rated schools. I had a brief interaction with the district special education program, but it felt so unprofessional that I lost confidence. When F.T. was four years old, we bought a house in a small, well-resourced school district that has a good reputation among families. School choice by real estate—it’s nice if you can afford it, right? Less than two years later, I withdrew my son from kindergarten in that well-regarded district. We still live in that house, and we love our neighborhood, but the school district hasn’t done us any good.

Around the time we bought our house, my kids and I were going on playdates at a friend’s house. She had joined a philanthropic board after her aunt stepped down. I saw in the news about a big grant they made to help KIPP San Antonio build an elementary school campus. I mentioned it at our next playdate, and she filled me in on the big strategy the foundation was working on. The missing piece was communicating with parents about the new charter schools that would be coming to San Antonio. I offered to start a blog to help spread the word, and that turned into “San Antonio Charter Moms.”

One of the charter schools that her foundation helped bring to San Antonio was Great Hearts, a classical-education school. Great-books education is near to my heart; when I was researching colleges, I only looked at places that offered a liberal arts education. I felt immediately that it was essential to have Great Hearts schools in San Antonio. Since we were in the process of buying a house in a well-rated district, I wasn’t sure if my own kids would go to Great Hearts. Little did I know how badly I would need it.

The first time I was away from my kids overnight, it was to visit Veritas Prep and Archway Veritas, two Great Hearts schools on the same campus in Phoenix, Arizona. Between meetings, I talked to my parents on the phone, and they told me about how F.T. wouldn’t get on the bus and how much he hated school. I went to a quiet corner and cried. Then I cleaned up my mascara, blew my nose, and went to the next meeting, but resolved that I would change things for my son and for kids like him.

How has your family benefitted from school choice?

The homeschool year—which would have been first grade for F.T.—was amazing in many ways. We got to know our city. Many local nonprofits—museums, the zoo, the botanical garden—offer activities for preschoolers, but those are fun for six-year-old boys, too. I brought him into situations that were stressful for him, like busy city streets and crowded festivals, and helped him learn to be safe. I coached him about how to communicate with people, letting him try things out, modeling things to say and how to respond. It was the kind of help he needed at that time. As a homeschool teacher, I had weaknesses. He got behind on math, and I gave up trying to teach him handwriting.

Great Hearts got approved for a charter in Texas and announced when the they would open. We applied for F.T. to enter at second grade at Great Hearts Monte Vista. He got waitlisted; I guess I had done too good of a job spreading the word. After more than four months, in June, he got an offer to enroll. I remember we were sitting in our minivan, parked at the art museum, and I checked my email on my phone. I saw the subject line and started crying. It was going to be OK. I was going to get some help so that F.T. could live up to his potential. It’s a running joke that Great Hearts is where homeschool moms go to retire.

Now F.T. is with teachers who have high expectations for him. He is classified as a special education student, but he gets the same work as the other students. When he was first adjusting to being in school, it was hard because he would get anxious and then throw a fit just to get out of the classroom. He had an amazing teacher who treated him with endless patience and grace. She never gave up on him or lowered her expectations. She would get help from someone on the special ed team, they would come up with a new plan, and then F.T. would get back to work. He respected her intellect and trusted that she cared about him. He would do anything for her—even cursive handwriting.

He made so much progress in that year and has made even more progress in the years since. Now he is in sixth grade, adjusting to middle school. It’s not perfect, but I can see a path to his adult life of being an independent person who goes to college, has a career, and maybe starts his own family someday. He doesn’t remember kindergarten or the people who doubted that he would ever function independently or shine intellectually.

Thanks to sibling preference, little sister G.N. is at Great Hearts now, too. She is a well-rounded learner and a good student. What I appreciate most about Great Hearts for her is the character education and values. When they are on campus, the students are wearing the same uniforms and reading the same books. The students focus on what they have in common, and on how to be good, caring people.

What are your takeaways and advice for parents?

There are a lot things I know now that I wish I had known when F.T. was three years old.

  • Special education. In some settings, the label is a curse that will cause people to have low expectations for your child. But it’s essential to get the diagnosis so you know what’s going on and can get your child the help they need. Always trust your gut about whether a treatment, a provider, or a setting is a good fit.
  • Leave sooner. I kept my son in the wrong classroom for too long because I was so invested in the process that got us there. I should have trusted my instincts that something was wrong. It was hard to do something so unplanned and unexpected. It made waves, but some of the families who were the most skeptical about my decision to withdraw my son from kindergarten have since come around and used school choice for their own children. 
  • Use data. The tools for parents to research school quality are much better now than they were eight years ago, when I started searching. The Texas Education Agency provides easy-to-read school report cards for each campus. Earlier this year, when they released school district letter grades, I found out that the district we live in got a B, and my kids’ charter school got an A, and I felt vindicated. Letter grades for individual campuses are coming next year.
  • Fight the red tape. The district where we live has good schools, and they work for most of the kids who live here, but my son is such an atypical kid. It was a failure on their part that they were so rigid and would not provide him what he needed. School choice is important so that kids like my son can get a good public education. Working and homeschooling was hard, and I struggled to help my son build independence, or provide the group of positive role models that his teachers represent for him. Having good charter schools nearby turns up the heat on the traditional public schools and helps all students to get a higher quality education.

Erika Sanzi spent a decade as a teacher and school dean before becoming a full-time education advocate. She also served a term as an elected school committee member. Her love for writing coupled with her willingness to take on people in power has led her to spend much of her time responding to status-quo protectors inclined to put adult interests ahead of kids. She is particularly focused on inequities in the system,…

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