Friday, March 25, 2016

Moving to Seattle: School Research

Continuing on from my last post, we arrived for our Seattle visit late Saturday morning. I had lined up a handful of apartment/house appointments around town, so we spent most of the weekend trekking around the city for those. However, since we aren't moving until mid-summer, it was way too early to sign a lease. We still own our house back in Portland (which is now PAID OFF! WOO HOO!), so we want to rent for awhile in Seattle before we make any long-term decisions like selling and buying a house. All that to say, these apartment appointments were just to form a basic idea of the different neighborhoods and to see what's available to rent in our price range.

More on house-hunting in another post, but suffice it to say that Seattle is very expensive. Yes, even compared to Luxembourg. And yes, that's saying something.

Once Monday rolled around, Pete was busy with work during the day and bonding with new colleagues in the evenings, so I was left to my own devices to "figure out Seattle." I had a couple more housing appointments on Monday and Tuesday, and also had planned to visit a few schools that happened to be hosting new student tours and orientations that week. Seattle Public Schools was in the middle of its open enrollment/school choice period, when you can sign up for a school that would not be your assigned neighborhood school based on your physical address. So a few of the more popular or specialized schools were in show-off mode.

Sometime on Tuesday I decided it was a waste of time to continue forming emotional attachments to apartments we will definitely not be living in, and shifted my focus almost entirely to schools. Because what I really wanted to learn about on this trip was the different neighborhoods in Seattle, and it seemed to me that the neighborhood schools would be a starting point to compare and contrast. I began showing up at schools one by one, open house or not, asking whoever I could find in the office, hallway, or classroom (when I got that far) about the school and its demographics. Then drove or walked around the surrounding area. All told, I made it to about 20 schools in four days.

I spoke to secretaries, parent volunteers, principals, teachers, librarians, and school nurses. Sometimes I scored a visitor badge and a self-tour, while other times I was even treated to an impromptu guided tour. Occasionally I only managed a quick peak down the hall past the front office, or a "please come back at X-time next week," but in general everyone was friendly and helpful following my expat-mom-repatriating-with-two-kids-and-just-here-for-the-week-please-help speech. I had it down pat by the end.

Daphne had just under one year of half-day kindergarten in the US, so I had only barely dipped my toes into the American school system from a parent perspective before we left four years ago. No big surprise: there are many differences between Luxembourgish public school and American public school. Some of these I have already discussed at length on this blog. But facing school going the other direction is the real beginning of our reverse culture shock. This is a well-documented phenomenon, but when you return from an international move, you notice more about your home culture than you ever did before. The experience is an enhanced but somewhat distorted flashback that brings every difference into sharp, often garish focus. You begin to question the purpose or necessity of each aspect of your culture, wondering how it got to be that way in the first place. Welcome to your foreign-home-culture; it kinda makes your head spin.

Here are just a few of the differences that are currently setting my brain awhirl:


Seattle's Coe Elementary- built in 2002, but evokes the character of an older historically landmarked building that was destroyed in a fire
There is a large variety of school buildings both in Luxembourg and in Seattle, primarily based on the era of construction or rehabilitation.
Viewlands Elementary in North Seattle from the 50s
B.F Day Elementary. A lot more wood and brick in Pacific Northwest schools and homes. Luxembourg is made of concrete and stone.
But the layout of a school is not mere surface aesthetics; it tells you a lot about how the school functions.
Luxembourgish public schools don't have these!
American schools have a main office, housing the administrative staff of the school. Growing up around school offices, it took Pete and me a long time to wrap our minds around Luxembourgish school buildings, consisting of only hallways and classrooms. That's because there are no admins, nurses, principals, or vice principals to put in any offices. More on principals later...

When we first attempted to contact and visit schools in Luxembourg, we were at a loss - how do you even approach a school without going to the main office or front desk first!? Now, at our kids' school, if we need to get in, we can ring a doorbell and the custodian (they do have those) might answer if he's around. Barring that, you call up the teacher's personal mobile or class phone and they'll come down or send a student. But this is not very useful unless you're already part of the school. I admit, I was quite grateful for main offices and school secretaries on this trip!

gotta have the school motto up
And there is artwork all over the hallways in American schools. Somewhere along the line, the amount of art on the walls became one of the biggest measures of the quality of a school in the eyes of parents. But more on parents later...

more artwork and projects
And what would an American school be without the lunchroom or cafeteria? Answer: a Luxembourgish school!
Can you smell the cheese pizza?  These looked almost identical in all the Seattle schools
At Luxembourgish school, kids are on lunch break from 12:30pm to 2pm, give or take. During that time they either go home for lunch, or their parents pay for them to stay at the onsite daycare to eat there. In the latter case, they eat in regular-sized, multipurpose classrooms with their assigned daycare workers. The elementary school cafeteria is a strong childhood memory for me, and a completely foreign concept for my kids. They were absolutely blown away by that cafeteria photo!

the kids were also impressed with the photos I took of school libraries
I have never seen the library at my kids' school here in Luxembourg. They tell me it's in the basement and about the size of their bedroom at home. They each visit and check out one book per week.

American computer lab
Perhaps some Luxembourgish schools have computer labs, but ours does not. Instead, there is one set of laptops that gets shared between all the classes at the school as needed.

The above photo could easily be of a Luxembourgish school, except for the Welcome sign in English and the wood floors.

However, a handful of elementary schools in Seattle are "open concept" or "open space." When I first heard someone mention this, I assumed it must be part of an effort by Seattle schools to prepare kids for the modern work world of post-cubical, open-plan offices at places like at Amazon. You know, a great sea of desks with corporate drones typing away at computers. If you're depressed by that vision for an elementary school, you're not alone. But, as it turns out, open concept was an experimental trend from the 1970s meant to promote collaboration and flexibility amongst teachers and students. It typically looks like clusters of 3-5 classes in one large warehouse space, separated only by low bookshelves and other modular dividers. Some of the open concept schools I visited had since been remodeled slightly to put up some permanent walls and create a few traditional classrooms, but most still embrace their layout's positives and negatives as part of the school's DNA. The main downside I witnessed at one open concept school was when I could smell whatever they'd served for lunch--everywhere.
I didn't get a great picture because most rooms were full of kids, but this room has another class behind and wraps around to the right into another class's space
Several of the more culturally-diverse schools proudly highlighted this aspect.
Kimball Elementary with "Welcome" in many languages
this school in West Seattle has significant Somali population, enough to translate all its signs
And one last building comment: portables. Although most of the schools I visited had them, I didn't think to snap a photo, probably because, let's face it, they're quite uninspiring. In the US, a school builds portables outside for additional classrooms when it's overcrowded. That probably happens sometimes in Luxembourg too, but I think it more commonly means they're in the middle of remodeling the old building or constructing a brand new one for the school. And what they call a "portable" structure here seems a lot like a standard quality, permanent school in the US. An American can't fathom that they'd actually tear it down once the "real" school is finished.


My first taste of principal-related reverse culture shock came before I even set foot in a Seattle Public School. It surfaced when I began researching Seattle housing online. For a each property, Zillow displays the nearby schools and a link to their ratings on

The existence of the Great Schools website itself brought on flashbacks of struggling to find similar information for Luxembourg public schools. My inquires about comparing schools four years ago were met with either confusion or offense. "All our schools are the same" was the standard response from the relocation agent, the Ministry of Education, and even from parents. End of discussion.

But back to principals for the moment.

On the Zillow Great Schools summary page, you're given the following for each school:

Let's take those one by one. 1) Teacher quality: sure. Makes sense.

2) Principal leadership. Wait, huh? Right, of course there are school principals in the US, I remember those. But then the bigger realization dawned....oh right. The principal is a big deal. The quality of the school is directly linked to the quality of the principal. The principal sets the tone for everything. The principal is the leader. A bad principal equals a bad school. It's a make or break situation, at least in perception and probably also in reality. We shall see.

And sure enough, I witnessed this effect, and even felt its direct effect on me, as I visited the schools. Overall I had contact with 7 or 8 principals, either speaking at open houses or in personal conversations. I picked up a clear vibe for each one: their personality, passions, leadership style, comfort in their role, vision for the school, etc. And I caught myself already forming strong opinions. From parents and teachers, I heard about how this or that principal left and who came on next and what that did to the school. I even heard of families and teachers uprooting to follow a principal to the next school. That's commitment.

Then I thought about our little Luxembourgish school, with a head teacher who lives a block away from the campus and who I've had personal contact with maybe once, and very indirect contact with a handful of times in four years. I thought about how at one time I couldn't imagine a school without a principal, office and administrative staff. I thought about the Luxembourg Ministry of Education, which I know monitors the schools, but I'm embarrassed to admit I have no idea what that looks like in practice. And I thought about the great salaries for Luxembourgish teachers.

"Low overhead" was the term that kept popping into my mind.

I think that's all I'll say about that for now!

Parent Involvement

The last difference I'll highlight in this mammoth of a post is the whole parent issue. "Parent Involvement" was number three in the review categories on and another big reverse culture shock moment before we even set foot in Seattle.

To help illustrate why, I will bring you up to speed on parent involvement at our Luxembourgish school:

  1. Parents do not raise or donate money to help fund or run the school.
  2. Parents do not volunteer in the classrooms or anywhere inside the school. They are barely allowed in the school building to begin with (I was kicked out by the custodian just last week). This may explain why although there is some student art in the hallways, it's not as intense as in the States; there aren't as many parents around to ogle it.
  3. Parents do not chaperone field trips, including multiple night camping trips.
  4. Parents can be part of a parent group that puts together 2-3 school parties a year. Money raised through small raffles and food sales at the parties goes to fund the next party. I am in this group at our school.
  5. There is in fact a parent-teacher committee for the school, with elected parent members. I have seen the notice come through about nominations and elections (in French so I just got the gist). I have never had contact with this committee and have no idea what it does. It definitely does not raise money for the school from the parents or surrounding community.

But then I realized, or re-remembered (it's getting harder to tell which), that parent involvement is huge deal in American schools. The "good schools" are the ones with the most parent involvement. The "bad schools" have disinterested parents, or parents who are all too busy making ends meet to be super involved.

As I visited Seattle schools, "we have a very active PTA!" was constantly pitched to me as the prime selling point. Through annual auctions, jump-a-thons and the like, they had raised anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000 in a given year to fund things like after school enrichment activities, reading or math specialists, classroom supplies and equipment, and even extra full or part time regular classroom teachers to help reduce class size. Another frequent point of pride was "our parents are very involved," usually meaning they contribute many volunteer hours.

A few of the schools in the "poorer" areas did not gush about their PTAs. I had to ask about it myself, since I was still curious. One secretary looked at me a bit like I was some pretentious yuppy snob and scoffed as she said something like, "no, we don't do that out here, those are the schools further south of us. We have a couple parents who do sort of a PTA." A principal at an inner-city school told me that in lieu of a PTA, they have a parent committee that helps advocate at the district for programs that support struggling families in the school community, since most of them are in need of support rather than being in a position to give financially or in volunteer hours.

The flip side is that the schools in the poorer areas typically have more kids with extra needs, so they receive more money from the district for during and after school programming and support based on need anyway. At least that's how I understand the system in broad, generalized strokes.

Side note: Luxembourgish schools don't have after school clubs and activities directly associated with the school. Any sports or extra-curriculars are run though completely separate, private organizations.

peaking in at a little after school sewing club at a school without a PTA
In Summary

Whew, that was a lot of blog post! I could go on, but I will end with this review of a school that I thought sums up why I'm feeling all the weirdness I'm feeling. I didn't even go looking for it; it was the first one that popped up when I went to take a screen shot of a review. To an American who's only known American school, I suppose it seems completely normal. For me, it feels...vaguely familiar yet oddly foreign.

We've got the "we're lost without our beloved principal" bit. We've got the general feeling of scarcity and desparation regarding parent volunteers and funding issues. And we've got a reference to the honorary 4th category for reviews: artwork on the walls.

So no, we haven't found a place to live yet, nor do we know which school the kids will attend. We missed the school choice window so they will attend whichever public school is closest to our home. I didn't do all this school research to hand-pick a specific school for our kids. Instead, I feel like we have plenty of suitable options. Ideally, we'd like a neighborhood and school with a bit of socioeconomic and cultural diversity, and we aren't on a hunt for "the best school," but all options are on still on the table. The experience of moving to a foreign country and doing the same - taking whatever neighborhood public school we got, but with even less control or understanding ahead of time than we have going the other way - has made us much less concerned about these things. Sure, if we end up somewhere and things go horribly downhill, we make a plan B. But our general attitude is that wherever you end up, you take the good with the bad and you bloom where you're planted.

If the kids can do that in a foreign country in a foreign language, they can do it in Seattle. 


Anonymous said...

Wow! That's quite a research paper. Seems like you did more in a week than many parents do in a lifetime. Well done!
Mum & Dad

Martha said...

I'm just catching up on your blog and loving these posts. We're expats in Lux right now. We've been here 2 years and will return to Seattle in a year. Definitely things to love and not love about both school situations.