Opinion: I opposed school choice until I had a child who needed it

Attorney Nina Hickson is the former ethics officer for the city of Atlanta. Hickson had a challenging experience finding a school that could meet the needs of her daughter who is dyslexic. In this piece, Hickson explains her conversion from opponent of choice to supporter.

By Nina Hickson

While it is generally accepted that education is key to upward mobility and the American dream, my experience as a parent is that when it comes to providing a good education, “One size does not fit all.”  While education may be an equalizer, if  students don't receive education in a manner that meets their needs, education not only fails to equalize, it can also do a lot of harm.

It is for this reason that school choice is critical.

Prior to becoming a parent, I opposed school choice. I viewed it as a strategy for taking resources away from the public education system to the disadvantage of public school students. However, my short-sightedness became apparent after my dear daughter was retained in kindergarten, and I was told that she was just “immature.”  I sensed there was a problem, but I followed the recommendation of my daughter’s teacher to have my daughter repeat kindergarten with the hope my daughter would mature and be able to learn how to read.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

By the time my daughter completed the first grade, she had pulled out patches of her hair, was convinced she could not read and had seen her English grade drop from an A to an F. Yet, she had straight As in her other classes.

I was determined to find out what was going on. I was blessed to have the resources to have my daughter evaluated and was relieved to discover she had a learning difference: dyslexia. While I knew what we were dealing with, my challenge became how best to address it.

Our educational journey has involved public schools, private schools, parochial schools, charter schools and now virtual school. Had I not been able to consider options for my daughter, I fear that she would have fallen through the cracks because she would have become further discouraged and convinced she could not learn, when, in fact, what she needed was an education informed by the strategies and methods geared toward her learning difference.

Because my daughter had the choice of attending an institution where she received instruction from educators trained to teach learners with differences, she gained confidence in her abilities, was able to focus on her strengths and find success in school.

Nevertheless, we reached another point in her journey when her well-being required another “choice.”  Because my daughter learned to advocate for what she needed in education,  it became apparent that she was not receiving it in a traditional “brick and mortar” setting. So, I began to seek out alternatives. Again, the opportunity to make a choice was critical to my daughter’s educational success.

We opted for virtual school after much trepidation and found a place that worked for my daughter. Virtual school is not for everyone, but it works for her.  It has afforded her the opportunity to work independently and at her own pace; she is not distracted by classmates who are not interested in learning and she has had to develop organizational skills which are serving her well.

Having this choice has resulted in my daughter again finding success in school and nurturing her talents. Her experience before choosing online schooling included frequent absences, illnesses and general frustration that again resulted in her being discouraged and doubting her abilities.

It is one thing to operate based on theories and principles, it is quite another to have to meet the needs of a living and breathing human being. Dealing with one’s child is where the rubber meets the road and one has to make choices in the best interest of that child.

The success of our society is going to depend in large part on the education of our children. Providing a quality education requires the concerted efforts of many.  Parents cannot do it alone. Teachers can’t do it by themselves, either.

In my journey, I've become involved with the school choice advocacy organization Better Outcomes for Our Kids or BOOK, which believes parents should have options for their children's education. Begun last year, the Atlanta-based organization is in the midst of a campaign to improve schools in the African-American community by informing parents about school choice. Because of my experience choosing a school for my daughter, I understand the value of school choice and support BOOK's efforts.

Regardless of what school system or methodology is used, community support, parental involvement and advocacy are required.