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Commentary: At graduation, a parent reflects

Elisa Cohen, a North Denver parent, looks back on the long, winding path through a variety of schools and home-schooling to her daughter’s high school graduation.

My baby graduates from high school tonight. What a long strange trip it’s been. From magnet to home-schooling to charter school to online high school to one neighborhood school and finally to this last one – South High – my kid has experienced all the educational opportunities the first decade of the century has to offer.

In 1996 the magnet movement was in full swing. As I understand it, magnets were designed to lure children of all races into integrated programs that would then prove to the federal government that we did not need mandatory and costly busing. My white babies were lured into Denison Montessori by test scores, word of mouth, free ECE tuition and free buses that would take them to and from this school located at Sheridan and Jewell.

Free soon turned into $500 a month for tuition and at one point the school board debated ending the free buses to the magnets. This is the first time I stood up in a public meeting and squawked. Things change, I discovered, and not always in our favor.

After several bad years for my kid (my other kid had a marvelous time in different classrooms in the same school) I pulled my daughter out of school and began homeschooling. We turned to the children’s librarians in the downtown central library. They loaded my daughter up with a new stack of books each week, and she began her years of reading.

We practiced shaking hands while looking into someone’s eyes and offering a respectful and cheerful salutation. I found a remarkable math teacher on Craigslist, a man with a Ph.D. in engineering and a delightful way with children. We discovered a home-school acting cooperative run by Christians. “We’re not the wild-eyed Christians,” said the founder when I asked if our being hippy Jews might be a problem.

For gym my daughter insisted on belly-dancing, and I found a woman from Uzbekistan who taught my daughter how to dance well enough to open a show at the Oriental Theatre where over 300 paying guests hooted and hollered. My sister-in-law disapproved. I bargained with a French professor at Metro: if I signed up and paid for French 101, my daughter could attend as well. Another professor at Metro allowed my daughter to attend his Revolution and Reform class as long as she did the work. The entire family studied Revolution and Reform that semester.

Throughout the homeschooling journey, we tested. Although the state only requires testing every other year for homeschooling, I, and the four superintendents of our homeschooling endeavor – her grandparents – wanted some verification that what we were doing was working. We used the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and each year it confirmed she could read, write, calculate and find a city on a map. We used the Accuplacer to determine her post-secondary readiness in reading and writing and math. Finally her ACT scores showed colleges that she had not been just eating bonbons during her high school years.

As her academic needs outpaced my content knowledge, we enrolled in a part-time home-school charter school in Jefferson County. We became skeptical when they didn’t discuss the age of the planet in geology because it conflicted with the good book. We tried the online approach via a public online school. While this meets the needs of some, sitting in front of a computer all day did not work for my very social kid.

Many homeschoolers just skip high school and go directly to college, but my daughter wanted the high school experience. Part education activist, part Northside loyalist, I enrolled my daughter at North High School knowing that if she got in with the go-getter crowd and attended the classes with the teachers I had met who held high standards, she could get herself a decent education.

Part of that worked out well. She became friends with kids who had their eyes set on postsecondary success. She had some great teachers who helped her succeed. The 4 on her AP History exam is my proof, for you naysayers out there who might question if I know what academic rigor looks like.

But I could see that she was not reading or writing enough in the 10th grade to be ready for college. At her fall parent teacher conference, I asked the English teacher if she was ever going to put a book into my daughter’s hand that year or if she would ever be asked to write an extended essay. “If you want your daughter to read books, you could have her read them at home,” she suggested.

“So you are asking me to home-school after she has been in school all day long?”

This led to an honors literature syllabus being approved for that year. But how in the world did a school with 33 percent of its students at or above in reading not have an honors literature course in the first place?

This exhausting exchange led me to review the Concurrent Enrollment laws. While DPS has created a system to allow 11th and 12th graders the opportunity to attend college classes if they proved academically ready, the law was written to allow 9th through 12th graders if the schools they attended did not have classes that met their academic need.

I walked this rule exception up the chain of command at DPS, and the district allowed her to begin taking college classes in the 10th grade. This patchwork quilt of opportunities seemed to be working, but then my daughter suggested South High School in her junior year as an easier way to the same end result.

For those who only look at data points from CSAP, you might once again think I was a reckless mother for choosing a school that does not hold students to a high level. To these “one-test” data-pointers, I say come to see the next play produced by Jennifer Rinaldi. Attend the International Day when the new immigrants from around the world who attend South High show off their cultures. Visit Mr. Nichols chemistry class and see how he builds up academic discipline. South is not perfect, but it was close to perfect for my kid.

My baby is graduating tonight. Thank you to all of her teachers – the district teachers, counselors, administrators, DPL librarians, the Craigslist tutors, the home school cooperatives, my family and friends. Testing, parental involvement, rigor and relevance, choice – it all mattered on this twisted journey to tonight’s diploma.

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