When it comes to school choice, you can do weeks or even years of research, whittle your choice down to one ideal school, and believe your child’s education is on a planned trajectory. That is, until pandemonium strikes in a once-in-a-century pandemic.
What can I say about Covid? One moment our six-year-old was on spring break from Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, an SAISD choice school our family had carefully and thoughtfully chosen—after being accepted to about a dozen schools and touring many of them. The next moment, schools and offices had shuttered across the nation, and we were scrambling to find masks and hand sanitizer, install Zoom, and boost our wifi.
To add to our stress, our family isn’t bilingual, so seeing my daughter’s virtual school assignments in Spanish threw me into a mild panic. I downloaded language apps, trying desperately to understand her lessons while also tutoring her and learning Spanish on the side. Although she didn’t mind writing in Spanish, when our daughter attended Zoom classes, she refused to speak in Spanish and only wanted to nod or answer in English. She disliked being called on and even began crying when asked to participate. Although we put on television shows for her in Spanish with captions, hoping to create an immersive Spanish experience like her school, there was no way we could create a 70% Spanish, 30% English environment. If anything, our home was more like 5% Spanish and 95% English.
Worrying about my daughter’s potential learning loss and how I was doing as her substitute/illiterate Spanish teacher, all while trying to balance a full-time job during the busiest time of my year, weighed heavily on me. No one knew how long the pandemic would last, how long schools would be closed, or how long companies would let employees work from home. The uncertainty compounded the stress. I wasn’t sure if her school district would cap attendance to 25%, who determined those in-person offers, and if we would face an extra $500–$1,000 per month in daycare costs. Our job stability wasn’t a given; we had seen coworkers laid off. The prospect of financial burdens loomed.
As the 2019–20 school year ended and summer glided by, I’d get flashbacks to the spring and break out in a light sweat. I had some trauma from my substitute Spanish teaching. Whenever I thought about returning to this role, my stomach churned and a sense of dread set in.
Making the Most of Virtual Learning
Which brings me back to school choice and how a pandemic can instigate change. Another school I’d been following for years during its development, The Gathering Place (TGP), was finally opening for 2020–21. On a whim, and because I’m the type of person who makes backup plans for my backup plans, I had decided to apply to TGP. Our daughter got in! I was thrilled at the possibility of our daughter attending, but I also realized my husband would likely disagree. After all, I’d sold him on the idea of a dual language school, and he absolutely loved Mark Twain. But he wasn’t doing the majority of schooling for our daughter, so that was also a consideration.
As summer dwindled down to a couple days before the fall semester, our family kept discussing a possible switch, weighing the pros and cons, and praying hard. Finally, we left it up to our daughter: Did she want to leave Twain and her friends there and try a new school? The decision affected her the most, so we gave her the power to decide. Ultimately, she chose to try TGP.
TGP, a project- and play-based school focusing on art and social justice, couldn’t open physically due to COVID, so the new school year started virtually. The flexibility of TGP’s remote learning instantly took away my stress. Not only could I avoid pretending to know Spanish, but the school leaders let us create our own schedule so long as we completed three hours of learning a day.
TGP was like home school with optional Zooms and optional teacher-guided lessons. I purchased multiple second grade workbooks and Outschool.com classes, and I also enlisted my parents John and Marilyn, my mother-in-law Carolyn, and my sister Sharon to tutor my daughter on the side. She grew closer to her extended family this way while also benefiting from their years of experience. Both our family and virtual learning community grew stronger.
We settled into a comfortable daily school routine that wasn’t stressful at all, including swimming in the backyard pool while listening to Harry Styles for PE class, making meals for math/cooking class, and planting seeds for gardening class. We felt gratitude for this extra family time and the chance to create memories together.
However, this lifestyle also introduced unhealthy habits for us all, including way too much screen time, snacking, and being sedentary as our daughter played computer games in between learning. She also didn’t have any children to play with in person except for a few rare get-togethers, all carefully monitored with plenty of masks and hand sanitizer. This prompted us to attend TGP in person when given the opportunity. Although COVID was still active, we felt the tradeoff would be healthier physically, mentally and emotionally for our daughter.
Return to On-Campus Learning at Brooks Lone Star Academy
During the spring semester, our family gave in-person learning at TGP several weeks, but we concluded this situation wasn’t ideal for our family either. While some families thrived at the new school, our gut feeling told us this wasn’t the right fit for our daughter. As I researched other schools, and got on Twain’s waiting list for the next school year, I stumbled across a school I’d heard of before on Facebook—Brooks Lone Star Academy, a charter school in the Brooks Academies of Texas network with both a dual language program and Spanish language program. Wanting to explore all options, I signed up for a virtual tour, not intending for my husband to attend because I knew Twain was the only school he wanted.
When I finally Zoomed with the principal, Señor Barry LeMaitre, my husband happened to overhear and came into my office. He drew up a chair, and before I knew it, he was asking the principal questions and even wanted an in-person tour. I couldn’t have been more surprised at his sudden interest.
The next week my family and I toured Brooks Lone Star Academy in person, and what struck us first was the friendliness of the staff and the families we saw. Not only did they greet us warmly and take the time to chat with us and answer questions, but the school was small, quiet, and seemed to function so smoothly and efficiently. The campus featured a huge grassy field in the back for playing, a cafeteria, and a large gym with bleachers and a basketball court. We learned our daughter’s class would be under 10 children, so she would receive a lot of individual attention to help her progress even further with reading and Spanish.
Because the dual language ratio was 50% Spanish and 50% English, it wasn’t as intense as her previous experience, and it would be an easier transition. This took me back from the cliff edge of wondering about language loss, remediation, or even needing to repeat the second grade due to Spanish loss. We could even choose the Spanish language program and receive less Spanish instruction if we felt overwhelmed.
With Brooks, I felt hope, and my mother’s angst started to quiet down and slip away.
During the tour, we asked if Brooks had openings for the current school year. When the principal said yes, a sense of excitement grew. We talked to our daughter that weekend to gauge her feelings, and she said she was fine with the switch. She too was ready for a different environment, and hopefully, she would make friends she could stay in contact with over the summer.
Finding Community at Brooks Lone Star Academy
So for this final six-week period of the 2020–21 school year, our daughter has been attending Brooks Lone Star Academy, and it’s the best blend of what we’ve been seeking in a school. It offers Spanish dual language and promotes cultural pride with many community and diversity events. The small, caring family environment lets kids be kids, yet also challenges them to keep improving their academic skills and grow their literacy.
The principal and teachers communicate with us almost daily through ParentSquare, and they are always responsive. The Ascender ParentPortal lets us see exactly what our daughter is working on, and her teachers also send home her completed work so we are always aware of the curriculum. Watching Señor Richard Salas, the full-time nurse at Brooks, take our daughter’s temperature each morning is especially reassuring during a pandemic. We know if she feels unwell or gets injured, he is there all day and can administer her personal medication if needed.
Finally, when we see Brooks’ extremely short drop-off and pick-up lines, we know we’ve made the perfect choice for us—ha ha! All kidding aside, sometimes it’s the quiet schools that may not attract the most buzz that turn out to be the best family fit. This hidden pearl of a school reminds me of a private school without any tuition fees, yet all the caring and personalized learning.
Like many families, COVID disrupted our school choice journey, throwing us off course, diverting us, and then putting us on a new course. We’re grateful to have landed at Brooks Lone Star Academy, a school we may have normally overlooked. We look forward to staying and growing with this school and being part of the Brooks family.