It is harder to give directed donations to a public school than to a non-profit

This year, we want to give money to DC2’s classes (English and Spanish) to help them purchase items for “differentiation, independent learning, and/or enrichment”.  This is mainly because DC2 needs them, at least on English days.  (“Mommy, I’m in the green group which means that we have the trickiest problems, but they’re still way too easy.  I already know all the sight words from preschool.”)  We want this to be anonymous because it’s just weird giving money to public school when DC2 is a member of the class.  (We know the Spanish teacher already incorporates differentiation, at least in second semester from our class observation last Spring.  The English teacher does a little bit according to DC2, but maybe not enough for DC2 right now.)

When we did this back when DC1 was in Kindergarten in private school, it was super easy, we just wrote a check along with a little note outlining the particulars of the gift.  Since we were already paying tuition to the private school we were also able to talk to the teacher about what her ideas were and make sure the money would be of interest even given the strings attached (that it be for differentiation/independent learning activities).

This time DH called up the front desk and they said they couldn’t take directed donations of money, only general donations for the entire grade, but to contact the PTO president to see if she could help.  After some back and forth with her, the PTO president reiterated that she could only take donations for the entire grade and they would go towards defraying the cost of field trips, but she’d get in contact with the Assistant Principal on our behalf.  After a couple of weeks of not hearing from her, DH emailed the school Principal directly.   A couple days later the school principal emailed back and offered the following options:

  1. Write a check to the school and the teachers would be told they could use that money, but only through the district’s preferred vendors.  The vendors are not actually that great, so their ability to make purchases would be pretty limited.
  2. Provide several gift cards for Amazon/Walmart/Target so they have more options for what to purchase (though this also is limiting, and we might not get the amounts right).
  3. Provide gift cards for cash from Visa/Amex/Mastercard.  This would be the least limiting of the choices.

Oh gentle grumpy nation, I have been trying so hard to get #3 to work.  But we want to get two $500 gift cards (one for each class) and Target/Walmart only carry Visa in $200 or less denominations, and it costs $6-7 to get one.  You can’t order Visa gift cards directly from Visa and we don’t belong to one of their participating banks that waives fees.  AmEx looked really promising with a flat $4 fee per $500 card until I tried to check out and realized there was an additional $8.95 shipping charge on top of that*.  But maybe it’s worth it since to get Visa cards at Target or Walmart we’d be paying $24 just to get $800 in gift cards.  (Mastercard is not an option because they start making the money disappear once there’s inactivity.)

I might be able to waive some fees if I wait for October’s promotion codes to show up somewhere– September’s AmEx promo code got rid of shipping costs but they’ve since expired.

Or we could just write a check and they’d be limited to the list of preferred vendors, none of which I’ve heard of.  (I have to wonder what kind of grift is going on there…)

Anyway, I’m leaning towards paying the exorbitant fees for turning plastic credit money into anonymous plastic gift money so that they can use the money wherever they want (albeit, maybe only places that take AmEx…).  Though with a minimum of $17 in fees, it’s tempting to go with Amazon cards since you can buy most things on Amazon.  Except, you can’t buy everything on Amazon.

We have our first (15 min) parent teacher conference uh… today.

*Looks like they regularly have online discounts for things like shipping fees, but October’s wasn’t up yet when I wrote this post.

What would you do, Grumpeteers?

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A homemade language arts plan for school

One of the irritating things about being in a backwards part of the country is that the Language Arts classes in the public schools are pretty much garbage.*  We thought last year that it was just that DC1 wasn’t in advanced language arts, but no, it’s a thing.  K-4 was at a private school and they used standard texts and read novels and it seemed pretty much like what we had growing up in the midwest.  5th grade we did in Paradise and while it wasn’t as hard-core as 5th grade would have been in the Midwest it wasn’t so bad.  We have no idea what DC1 did in language arts last year, but they didn’t read any books as a class.

This year, in 7th grade, most of their assignments, which are done in class, are just drawing pictures and doing crafts, but it’s not like an art class where they’re getting instruction on arts and crafts, they’re just asked to do them.  At the first open house, the teacher spent her entire time talking about the rules of the course (no talking for the first 10 min when doing the bellwork, then talking with a neighbor for the next 15, etc. etc. etc.) but did not talk about the curriculum at all.  DH asked what books they’d be reading as a class.  She said they wouldn’t be reading anything as a class but they would be picking out books that they could bring from home or check out from the school library to read individually.

Later we found out that the 2#$23ing reading log is back.  We had a lot of trouble with the @#$@3ing reading log back in 5th grade.  It is @#$23ing hard for a reader who loves reading to track every minute read.

This time there are additional wrinkles.  They have to finish one book that they have chosen for this purpose each month.  That book has to be the one that they read in class during their reading time.  But they also have to read this book for at least 20 min per day, and they don’t get a full 20 min in class to read it.  So that means that they need to take the book home and definitely not leave it at home next to the bed where they’ve fallen asleep reading it.  It has to be a book they’ve never read and it has to be one that wasn’t meant for kids in 4th grade or below.  The first month, DC1 picked The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett.

It boggles my mind that they don’t read a Shakespeare play each year starting now.  That their junior year is the first year they start reading books together as a class AND it’s the same @$#@43ing terrible list of whiny male protagonists that we had back 25+ years ago when we were FRESHMEN (I guess at least they’re reading Fahrenheit 451?).  Their senior year is a subset of what our school’s sophomore list changed to being after I complained about the lack of women.  There has been no change in their reading lists in 2+ decades, and they’re two years behind what we had back at our small middle-income midwestern farming towns.

Anyhow, it came to me that although we can’t add to the experience of reading a book as a class and learning way too much about symbolism and foreshadowing and plot and character development and all those other things we spent so long on, maybe we could get DC1 to read some important books that we would probably never have read if they hadn’t been part of the curriculum.

We’re going to start with October and DC1 will be reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which was part of our language arts curriculum in 5th grade, but an important book.  November we’re going to do As You Like It (I’m getting hir the Folger version that comes with explanations on every page) which we read as our first Shakespeare play in 7th grade.  At the very least, DC will have to figure out what’s going on in order to draw illustrations for their class assignments.  I’ll have to decide if we add books that I didn’t personally like but might(?) be important like The Pearl (8th grade) or The Red Badge of Courage (8th grade).

What other recommendations do you have for must-read middle school reading lists that are important but aren’t as fun as what a kid would generally choose on hir own?  Note that it has to be something finishable in a month, so Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t going to make the list even though I spent most of my 6th grade “super sustained silent reading” time on it.  What are kids in blue states reading in school these days?

*#notallbackwards But they certainly do want to minimize parent complaints from crazy racist religious zealots as well as parents who aren’t crazy racist religious zealots.  That’s my best guess of why there’s so little humanities learning.  There’s no problem with the math curriculum!

Another attempt at getting the middle schooler organized

At 7:02am on the second morning of school, DC1 realized that although zie had filled out the bus form and the orchestra forms, and had done the language arts homework (which I’d found on the dining room table the previous night after DC2’s bedtime), zie hadn’t filled out the Spanish forms (which DH had found the previous night after asking if there was any other work that needed to be done and we both told DC1 to complete) or colored in the index card zie was supposed to color in for Algebra.  (DC1’s algebra teacher seems to be less into math than last year’s teacher and a lot more into everybody sharing personal information.  LA’s assignment was also about sharing personal information, but LA is such a joke around here that’s what we expected.  But that’s a rant for another day.)  Zie had also just stuffed the completed work into hir backpack instead of putting it into hir binder folders.  I discovered all of this while going through DC1’s schedule and asking if zie had everything for each class.

Not a great start to the school year.  Especially if there’s going to be homework in more classes than just math.

So I made a checklist and put it on the refrigerator.  (You can’t see it because I am too lazy to figure out how to get wordpress to show the borders, but there’s actually a grid with 5 boxes after each item so DC1 can check-off for each day of the school week.)  Because once the school year gets underway, I sure won’t have time to check through both kids’ work each day.  (DC2’s class is requiring us to look through hirs and sign every night.) We’ll see how well it works.

Pull assignments out of backpack
     LA
     Español: hw and 15 min
     GT
     Science
     Social Studies
     Algebra:  Do, check, and correct
     Orchestra:  Practice, Charms
Put assignments away in folders
Piano practicing
Shower

How do you and yours stay organized?

Help me with DC2’s lunch!

Yes, I know we’ve been making school lunches for one or the other of my kids for the past 9 years.  BUT we have some new challenges this year now that we’re at public elementary school.  Here are the rules for my kindergartener:

  1. No nuts or peanuts (new school is completely nut-free)
  2. No red dye (DC2 gets hives)
  3. No cheese (DC2 hates cheese)  (Also no tomatoes, same reason)
  4. Nothing “spicy” because DC2 has no tolerance for spice (which is bizarre because I lived on Indian food when I was pregnant with hir and everyone else in the family eats plenty of spice, AND so did zie… hir spice tolerance seems to be going down instead of up!).
  5. Things DC2 can open on hir own (this was the big new piece of information for us).  Note that DC2 cannot open any of the individually packaged apple sauces or fruit cups that we bought in great supply in the city the weekend before school started [update: we have successfully pierced foil covered applesauces with a plastic spoon.  Plastic topped and screw topped will have to wait for more hand and arm strength.].
  6. Nothing that needs refrigeration (I am regretting my decision not to purchase the fancy $23 lunchbag we saw at Whole Foods that has a spot for an icepack– I may end up trying to find one at Target, but for now, DC2 really loves hir lunch bag that looks just like DC1’s backpack but doesn’t have any insulation much less space for an ice pack)
  7. Something healthier than just jam sandwiches
  8. Things that take WAY the heck less time to put together at 10pm than what you get when you google “what do I send in my child’s school lunch” or any similar query.  Pinterest is not what we’re looking for.

I do not know if DC2 likes sunflower butter or not.  I will be getting some at the grocery store this weekend.  BUT, even when zie was allowed nut butter zie would only permit one almond butter and jam sandwich per week.  DC2 likes variety.  If I send, say, a mini-salad for too many days in a row, zie refuses salads for weeks.  Generally I can get away with things about once a week.  The one exception is fruit– so I will always be packing fruit, but zie can’t just have fruit.

Extra points for things that we can buy on Saturday but will still be in decent shape by Friday.

We have 3 different kinds of bento boxes (two of which fit in hir lunchbag, one that’s bigger), several small plastic containers, one insulated small metal thermos that sort of fits in the lunch bag (but can’t be heated up), one reusable sandwich bag, one reusable snack-size bag, and all shapes and sizes of ziplocs.  Also I could probably be easily convinced to buy more bento boxes because they’re clever and adorable.  (I also use them for my lunch when I’m not just taking a pyrex of leftovers to reheat.)

Last year, faced with the challenge of making hir own lunches in middle school, DC1 ended up getting hot lunch instead.  That coincided with DC1 getting to be obnoxiously picky about healthy food zie used to eat without complaint at home (something that has subsided a great deal this summer).   Zie has promised us zie won’t eat French fries every single day, although that seems to be an option at the middle school.  Some of the lunch options at the elementary school are healthy, but many are not.  I’m worried about DC2 making unhealthy choices through peer pressure.  If we get too overwhelmed with lunch making and DC2 agrees, we will load up hir lunch account too, but for now we’d like to keep sending healthy food.  If we can just figure out what.

What do your elementary schoolers take?  What did you take as an elementary schooler?  What do you suggest that fits the rules above?

Ask the grumpies: Private vs. Public school, why did #1 switch DC1?

The frugal ecologist asks:

Curious (read nosy) about your kiddo #1 switch to public school. Why did you decide to switch? What do you miss about private? What are you happy about with public (I remember you already mentioned aftercare / extracurriculars being much more extensive).

The main reason we switched DC1 when we did was because we were going to Paradise for a year and private school would be 40K instead of 8K PLUS the public schools are really good in Paradise.  But when we came back, we kept DC1 in public school instead of coming back to private.  The main reason for that is, like you say, our public schools have a lot more options starting in middle school.  (The after-care was more extensive in Paradise, but isn’t so much here unless you’re into sports, which DC1 is not.)

So, we mainly remained switched when we came back so DC1 could take an instrument and advanced-level math and because DC1 is a lot older now and can (mostly) handle the larger classes etc.  Zie has had a good year after some initial growing pains and has friends etc.

I do still miss the smaller class sizes and knowing everything that was going on at school.  DC1 probably wouldn’t have fallen quite as far behind in the second to last grading period before we noticed at private school (I can’t remember if I mentioned hir series of forgetting to bring homework home or to turn completed homework in), but I don’t know.  I also miss Spanish and French (and zie would be starting Latin if zie had remained).  And I miss a bit the college level science they were doing because the science teachers they hired had only taught university courses before.

With public we’re happy about… orchestra and math.  We’re unhappy with writing and science.  We’re meh on social studies, PE, and study hall.  Next year zie will have Spanish and fortunately the teacher that everybody said was terrible has moved on, so there will be a new person teaching that course.  Zie will also have Robotics, but the class is supposed to be pretty bad since the person teaching it doesn’t understand programming.  DH may step in there.  We also really like that there is a bus (DC1’s stop is literally on our house corner, DC2’s will be across the street).  In paradise we liked that DC1 could walk/bike to and from school.

DC2 is also starting in public next year instead of private because zie got into the Dual-Language program.  The reason we’re doing dual-language for DC2 but didn’t for DC1 is that, unlike DC1, DC2 didn’t need to start K early, partly because zie is 6 months offset from DC1 (hir birthday is right before the cutoff) and partly because hir Montessori has higher-level materials than DC1’s did at this age so zie hasn’t run out.  If zie hadn’t gotten into dual-language we would have gone straight to 1st with DC2 and skipped K entirely.  (That’s not an option in the dual-language program.  But zie will be able to test out of a grade in the future if need be.)  I’m concerned about class size, lack of attention from the teachers, lack of differentiation, bullying, etc. etc. etc.  But we take things one year at a time.

Moving forward, I will also be concerned about the required state legislature disinformation.   DC1 doesn’t bring textbooks home, but I know that the state uses TX-standard textbooks, which means they are full of information that is biased in ways that do not fit with our family values.  (Unlike the CA-standard textbooks we grew up with!  Those are biased in ways that do fit with our family values.)  So we’ll have to provide information on evolution and the Holocaust etc.  DC1’s social studies teacher this year was a bit of a hippie and probably skirted the line closer to love and understanding of different cultures and religions than what our state legislature wants and hopefully did not get in trouble for it.  Sadly, the class was mostly crafts and not a whole lot of actual academics.  The science teacher was not that great, but not biased about it.  So maybe this worry is overblown in our blue-dot college town.  It would be easier if the school’s indoctrination matched our values rather than being in opposition to them, but there may be benefits there to critical thinking and not kow-towing to authority, even though authority is so highly stressed in this hierarchical former plantation state.

I will give them a lot of books and force critical thinking skills at home!

Ask the grumpies: How to save for multiple kids’ 529s?

First Gen American asks:

Once our mortgage is done again, we’ll swap that out with a 529 auto deposit option that comes out of both paychecks….which brings me to another question…Should we funnel a ton now into older kid and worry about younger kid later (he’s 4 years younger) or should we fund both at the same time now? I’m assuming we can roll over older kid’s excess into younger kid if we over deposit but then if we die before kids do, an uneven distribution would screw things up for kid 2. Not sure what to do yet.

I have also spent some time thinking about this.  I am not sure it actually matters that much.

Yes, if you have too much money for kid #1, you can easily transfer the leftover amount to the second child.  (An added wrinkle–if you undersave for DC1, will you take from DC2’s account?  You can, but would you be willing to?)

A quick check on the internet suggests that the 529 does not automatically go to the child who is named on its behalf– you can name a beneficiary.  It is also something that you can talk about with an attorney for a trust if you do not have a successor that you trust not to just liquidate it at a loss.

We have target-date accounts for our children in their 529s, so it makes sense in terms of risk to fund them separately.  That means DC1’s account has less risk in it right now (a larger bond to stock ratio) than DC2’s does because DC1 is closer to college.  But I’m thinking of them as separate buckets and we’re aiming to fully fund 4 years at a private school given that we’re not expecting much financial aid.

If you’re not thinking of them as separate buckets, then you might want to think of it as if you are going to “retire” and you know you’re going to be alive for 8 years after “retirement” and then suddenly “die” (if you’re planning on funding post-college education, or your DCs might take more than 4 years to graduate, then you might want to add some years to that).  What kind of investment portfolio would be optimal in that scenario?  It’s going to depend on your risk aversion, but you probably could pick a single fund that would fit your risk preferences given that scenario.

In terms of how we’re funding, I don’t actually think that our method of putting in $X/month to each child’s fund is necessarily optimal.  It would make better sense while we have excess cash to put in lump sums right now and stop contributing later (allowing for more tax preferred earnings).  But $X/month/kid is predictable and is easy to fiddle with should our situation change.

The important thing that gets brought up in the comments when we talk about this kind of situation is the perceived fairness of the situation by the kids.  Pick some rule that seems fair for both kids and stick to it.  If you have to make adjustments, make sure that you adjust for the other kid as well.  For us, we’ve decided that fully funding tuition without loans is what we consider fair, so we will be ignoring the actual costs and financial aid for the schools.  Our kids will get college paid for by us no matter what college they choose.  Other people choose a specific dollar amount (though I hope they adjust it for inflation!), or may have a rule like, “we will pay up to the cost of state school X”.  What you don’t want to do is pay full freight for one kid and force the other to take out loans for the full amount because that can lead to them writing about how you don’t love them on money forums, and nobody wants that.

Grumpeteers– How do you think First Gen should save for two kids’ college?

Minor schooling freakout

We got DC1’s standardized test scores and zie had only gotten an 83% in 7th grade math (DC1 is currently in 6th grade, but because zie is in 7th grade math, zie took the 7th grade standardized math test).  This wouldn’t be a big deal, except one of their online pieces of material says that kids need at least 90% on the 7th grade standardized test to get into Algebra Honors (along with some other requirements that DC1 has), and if they don’t have that then they go into regular Algebra.  Also, Algebra will show up on their high school transcript and be included in their high school GPA no matter when they take it.

On top of that, we just found out that there was an advanced 6th grade Language Arts class that we’d had no idea about when we moved back from paradise.  DC1 has been in regular Language Arts which might partly explain why zie has been learning so little and never had homework.  Plus the last two grading periods (out of 10 grading periods), DC1’s Language Arts grades dropped just below 90 because zie had a brief period of time where zie was completely disorganized and had been having trouble getting things to the places they needed to be (this also showed up for one grading period in math and would have shown up in Orchestra except the teachers emailed us before it became a big enough problem to affect hir grade).   The problem here is that the online sheet talking about tracking into 7th grade basically said if you were in 6th grade advanced, then you’d be in 7th and if you were in 7th, then you would be in 8th.

So I freaked out and started worrying about the perils of acceleration potentially keeping my child from excelling later on (something I have never worried about before with DC1 because we’ve never had cause to worry– and in hir defense, at 10 zie is no more disorganized than most 12 year olds).  DH contacted the counselor to set up an appointment and he called back while we were out for a walk.

It turns out that all 6th graders in 7th grade advanced math get moved up to Algebra Honors regardless of their standardized test scores.  The requirement list is only for students going to Algebra in 8th grade or later.  Whew.

And the counselor looked at DC1’s transcript and said if those last two grading periods had been higher DC1 would have automatically been moved up to advanced 7th grade Language Arts, but since they were below 90, the automatic move wasn’t tripped.  (Though if zie had had those grades in advanced 6th grade Language Arts, then zie would have stayed in the advanced Language Arts track.)  He asked why DC1 wasn’t in 6th grade advanced Language Arts and DH said we’d moved back from out of state and we didn’t know to ask about it.  So the counselor said that because DC1 is in the G/T program and has high grades in advanced 7th grade math and has As in all of hir other classes for all of the grading periods and had high standardized test scores for reading that putting hir in advanced 7th grade Language Arts should not be a problem at all, scheduling conflicts permitting. (Since DC1’s requested schedule probably looks identical to a bunch of other students with academically-minded parents, it probably won’t be a problem.)

So… no reason to freak out at all.

Still, I was not thinking that things DC1 did at age 10 could end up on hir permanent transcript!  I hope Algebra goes well!  The math teacher for the honors classes is supposed to be awesome, so that’s hopeful.  Keyboarding and Spanish will also show up on the high school transcript.  It’s a strange new world we live in.

What’s the moral?  When you’re concerned about something, talk to the school!  They’re there to help (usually).  The other moral is that sometimes you have to ask about things you didn’t know you needed to ask about (like advanced classes… or the fact that there’s an online website where you can track your kids’ turned in home works that everyone else knew about because they were told in 5th grade).

And yes, I still think we made the right decision letting DC1 skip two grades.  But we’re also taking it a year at a time.