Sunday, July 27, 2008

School Choice Story: How a Family School Defied Swiss State Education

by Alphonse Crespo MD

Private schools do not always offer parents a choice. Not when they model their programs on public schools. As was the case in Switzerland thirty years ago when trendy socialist educators were implementing foggy pedagogic reforms both in public and private institutions. These experiments rapidly produced classes of poorly literate primary school kids - in particular within less favored segments of the population where parents were unable to fill the gaps. "Renewed french","new maths" and other revolutionary non-teaching methods are now being abandoned.

In those days I was far from certain that schools (public or private) would teach my four daughters to spell or count. I convinced four other families who shared the same concerns, to withdraw our children from the educational system. We hired a part time teacher and gave him the simple mission to make sure our kids learnt to read write and count as we had when we were at school.

The teacher taught basics in the morning. Other activities (sports, music, religion) were organized by parents in the afternoon. The teacher cost us far less than any private school tuition. The school rotated from one home to another every two months. It took two years for state authority to find out about us. We received a letter signed by the Canton's minister of education ordering us to stop our "unlicenced school" ! .

We made the case that a) our model did not qualify as a school and thus needed no specific licencing b) primary education was mandatory, however no law stated that school was compulsory. All we then had to do was to prove that our kids were receiving primary education. An elderly school inspector was sent to inspect our "family education" facility. The man was so elated by what he saw - a group of kids aged 7-11 who could all read, write, spell and count – that he asked to come back again « not for my report... just for the pleasure »!

Delphine did Russian at University before studying at Moscow's MKHAT Theater Academy, (founded by Stanislavsky): she now teaches drama in high school (and just gave birth to little Antonia my first grand daughter). Melanie her twin sister teaches math at Geneva's Calvin College and co-edits an academic mathematics educational journal. Sophie became an MD (just like me): she works in the frontline of emergency care in a high intensity helicopter medical unit. Pamela graduated in Food Science engineering from Zurich Polytechnic (where Einstein once taught); after  two years of roaming the seas a diving instructor and post graduate work at UCal Davis, she devised a simple method of protecting Swiss post-harvest carrots from disease and now conducts a key federal research project on fruit metabolism.

Had I not taken the liberty to choose where and how my daughters were going learn to read and write, they would probably not be where they are today. Defying the state can sometimes be the only reasonable course left for parents who truly care about the future of their children.

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