Forging a New Path

by Ellyssa Jeong and Anya Lefkowitz, Centerfold Editors
graphics by Kaila Hanna

Moving across the world to complete the last year of high school might sound like an idea pulled straight out of a movie. But for would-be senior Claire Caldicott, it’s her new reality.

Caldicott attended Newton Public Schools (NPS) for the past 12 years and never expected to leave the community prior to graduation — until school shut down mid-March and she struggled to motivate herself to complete her online coursework.

Caldicott’s mom, Heather Friedman, couldn’t imagine another year of online schooling as anything but detrimental to her daughter’s well-being. In July, Friedman began researching any and all possible options for in-person schooling, a search that led her 10,000 miles across the world. Knowing her daughter’s aspirations to attend college in Australia, Friedman proposed that Caldicott complete her last year of high school in New South Wales, Australia, living with her aunt and uncle. Caldicott was thrilled.

Driving to and from Manhattan in one day to get Caldicott’s Australian passport renewed was just the beginning of a longer road of obstacles to make this ambitious plan work. In the following weeks, Caldicott and family scoured the internet in search of backup plane tickets in case her original flight got canceled. Finding a seat on a flight to an airport only letting in 250 people a day proved a logistical nightmare.

For Caldicott, imperfections at her new school — such as a lack of course and level variety — are sacrifices worth making. 

“South has a lot more course options, and this school is much smaller, and it’s in a much more rural area,” she said. “I feel like it’s a fair thing to give up because, as I see it, I’m not going to be able to have the full experience for the classes I would’ve taken.”

Caldicott is not alone in forgoing an NPS education this year, but most families leaving the district have found an alternative education closer to home. Decisions to join a learning pod, transfer schools or hire a private homeschool tutor have become increasingly mainstream.

1,960 students enrolled at South for the 2019-20 school year; according to registrar Marguerite Monhan, only 1,879 students enrolled this year. NPS projected a decline in enrollment of 0.5% this year, but the student body size will decrease by 4.1% instead. 

At the elementary level, Mason Rice expected a 4.7% decrease in enrollment and witnessed a drastic drop of 16% in student enrollment levels. Similarly, Countryside expected a 4.8% decrease, yet the school body will decline by 10.4%. 

Nonetheless, NPS has continued to support its entire student population, even those opting to leave the district this fall. Friedman said that Caldicott’s guidance counselor, Hae-Kyung Choi, has worked with the family throughout their planning process. 

“The school has been super helpful as we have been trying to figure things out and figure out how all of these logistical pieces will work out for her,” she said.

Google searches for the term “homeschooling” have increased tenfold from last December to this August, and Newton parent Emily Hurstack is one of many choosing to educate her children at home. 

This summer, the Hurstack family moved from San Francisco to Newton for the City’s strong public schools. But for Hurstack, the elementary school split-hybrid plan proved to be disappointing with a mere eight hours of weekly in-person learning. Hurstack said that her oldest, 7-year-old Penelope, who struggled with online learning in San Francisco this spring, needs more in-person instruction than what the split-hybrid plan offers. 

“I am very empathetic to the challenging situation the pandemic poses to educators, particularly public school educators,” Hurstack wrote in an Aug. 31 email. “Ultimately, we felt the hybrid plan which was proposed didn’t offer enough in-person time for our 7-year-old, and we didn’t feel we had adequate information about the approach to safety to protect educators and students.”

The privilege of having a routine for her family, which the hybrid plan seemed to lack, is essential for Hurstack’s two-working-parent household. And given that the virus presents additional risks for the Hurstacks, who live in an intergenerational home, the family hired Victoria Kane, a private tutor, to homeschool their two young children this year. 

Kane, who mainly teaches elementary students between second and fifth grade, wrote in a Sept. 14 email that she received many more inquiries about homeschooling this year. She said her syllabus closely follows the academic curricula enforced by NPS and other public schools in Massachusetts. While homeschooling isn’t the most ideal form of education for most families, Kane said that she’s hopeful that it will effectively allow for safer learning.

Private schools in Massachusetts have seen greater interest over the past few months. The Boston Globe reported that the number of applicants for St. Mary’s High School in Lynn quadrupled over the summer. In Concord, the Tremont School’s student body has grown 20%. 

Senior Maya Zeldin said her parents urged her to consider transferring from South to Meridian Academy, a private school in Jamaica Plain that she previously attended for middle school. Zeldin said she spent four long weeks comparing the benefits and drawbacks of each school and was drawn to Meridian Academy’s clear schedule and safety procedures. For a while, Zeldin said that she was leaning towards transferring schools, as the small, 70-person student body felt promising for a safe in-person experience. 

Ultimately, Zeldin declined her Meridian admissions offer, opting to wait out an untraditional senior year. “I don’t want to complicate the college process even more,” she said. “If I were a freshman or a sophomore, then I might have switched.”

In a school year filled with uncertainty, history teacher Jamie Rinaldi said one thing is clear: the future of public education is at risk.

“We’re also at a moment in American society where we doubt virtually every institution in our lives,” he said. “And now people are wondering whether or not their public school system is going to actually educate their children. At this kind of moment where people begin to entertain a kind of system-wide failure, you really do have a profound and dangerous moment in our country’s history. So, I do think that it’s imperative that we, as educators, prove that public education does work.”

Nonetheless, Rinaldi said that he expects that the majority of families who have resorted to alternative learning approaches will eventually return to NPS.

“The truth is,” he said, “private education is very expensive, and the Newton Public Schools are very good.”

As for Caldicott, plenty of hurdles lie in the way of her potential move to Australia this year. Chiefly, Caldicott’s flight could be canceled, as airlines begin to lay off more pilots. To be allowed to quarantine with her relatives, Caldicott must arrive before turning 18 in November.

“There are so many pieces that have to fit together for me to go,” she said. “I have always wanted to go to Australia for a long time, so it felt like this was the right time to do it.”

Caldicott’s response when asked about what she’ll miss most if she leaves Newton? “Definitely my friends and family,” she said.