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The Great Divide

Families with means leave public schools for private schools or ‘learning pods,’ raising concerns about worsening educational inequality

The Lajoie children (from left) Sawyer, 7, Miles, 10, and Willow, 12, with their parents, Wendy and Scott, at their Bourne home. The children will be going to three different schools in the fall.
The Lajoie children (from left) Sawyer, 7, Miles, 10, and Willow, 12, with their parents, Wendy and Scott, at their Bourne home. The children will be going to three different schools in the fall.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

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The recent e-mail from his sons’ public school district sent Townsend resident Andrew Millikin and his wife, Maria, into a panic.

The electronic survey from the North Middlesex Regional School District asked families how much time they would prefer their kids to spend learning at home this fall. The Millikins immediately feared a repeat of the spring, when their first- and fifth-grade sons sat at home largely idle during that sudden season of remote learning. The older child typically finished his week of assigned work by Tuesday afternoon.

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Within days, the parents decided to apply to Applewild School, a nearby private school that charges $20,000 tuition but planned to reopen for in-person classes; there is plenty of room on its 26-acre campus for its 200 students to spread out. Applewild leaders also detailed a rigorous online curriculum in the event the virus forced another closure.

Before the pandemic, the Millikins had not contemplated private school for their children before high school. But Andrew Millikin said he wanted to see “an academic curiosity and spark in my two boys again.”

The Millikins are among hundreds of Massachusetts families pulling their kids from public schools for the fall because they believe that private schools, full-time home schooling, or “learning pods,” where a group of families jointly finance a private tutor or teacher, will better serve their children’s health and learning during the pandemic.

Private schools can switch to online learning more easily, Andrew Millikin said, in part because “everybody has a laptop and access to the Internet, and they don’t have to worry so much about the kids who don’t.” While he adds that he has sympathy for families without those resources, shifting to a private setting “feels like something we just have to do.”

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Experts say the shift is predictable, but it could also have heavy consequences in the near and long terms, as these families — who are typically middle or upper-income — take with them vital funding and political advocacy for the public schools.

“Parents understandably are going to focus primarily on what’s best for their own kids,” said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K–12 equity and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank headquartered in New York. “But the downside of that is that the children in the public school system will suffer.”

Indeed, private schools are one of those rare ventures that have thrived amid the COVID crisis. While the enrollment at such schools has historically stayed flat, or gone up just slightly in the summer months, Brockton’s Cardinal Spellman High School reports recent growth of 13 percent. In Lynn, applications for St. Mary’s High School have quadrupled. In Concord, the tiny Tremont School’s student body grew 20 percent this summer. And in Cambridge, Shady Hill School has increased enrollment by 5 percent and is hiring more teachers to keep classes limited to 10 to 15 students.

“I’d like to think it has to do with the spirituality and theology foundation offered at St. Mary’s, but, I’m just being honest, that has not come up in the last 30 conversations I’ve had with new prospective parents,” said John Dolan, St. Mary’s head of school. “It’s been all about academic quality: ‘I can’t afford to have my child miss another year of school.‘”

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“The interest is really through the roof,” said Jeff Thompson, head of school at Cape Cod Academy, which charges $32,000 for high school tuition. “There’s some desperation among parents worried that their kids aren’t going to get what they need elsewhere.”

During the spring, only 36 percent of parents surveyed statewide said their children participated in daily online classes.

Officials caution that private schools, which often have smaller class sizes and other resources, are hardly shielded against the coronavirus’s impacts. State and local health officials can order them shuttered. And even as private schools pitch parents on their well-spaced in-person classes, some of their teachers, who aren’t unionized, are anonymously pleading online for remote learning in the fall, citing health concerns.

The private school exodus is much more likely to have a lasting effect on the public schools, educators say, because families making that move — unlike those signing on to learning pods — might be tempted to keep their kids in privates post-pandemic.

And that could have a long-term impact on the level of racial and socioeconomic integration in the public schools. Kahlenberg noted that research shows low-income students perform far better when they attend economically mixed schools compared to schools where most students live in poverty. “It’s that one-two punch — reducing economic prospects for families and increasing economic segregation — that help spell disaster for low-income students,” he said.

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‘The best of a bad bunch of choices’

Some families say that although they are opting out of public schools entirely for next year, they may very well be back.

Patricia Callan, who teaches writing at Salem State University, has pulled her 7-year-old daughter out of Beverly Public Schools to form a full-time home-schooling pod with three other families. She loves public schools, but as someone with hypertension and asthma that place her at higher risk of complications from the virus, she worried about her daughter bringing the virus home. The pod will provide her daughter with badly needed socialization and in-person learning, she said. During the spring, online schoolwork kept her daughter occupied for only an hour and half per day at most, Callan said.

“I just wanted to create a safe version of school that I could live with and she could live with, for as long as we have to,” Callan said. “It feels like the best of a bad bunch of choices.”

She also felt that as someone with the privilege of being able to work from home, she should free up space in the public school for kids who need to be there.

But she remains conflicted: “Bailing on a public school, if you’re somebody who has time and resources to devote to that public school, is not good.” Callan plans to return her daughter to public school once the pandemic is under control.

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Parents should look for opportunities to pursue their own interests and broader community welfare simultaneously, said John Diamond, the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. One possibility is to advocate for greater federal and state spending that allows public schools to reopen as safely as possible (regardless of where their own children will be educated this fall).

“People have to make decisions about what they think is best,” he said. “But I think they should be clear-eyed about the implications and keep in mind the collective good.”

Clashing views on causes

Public school districts are worried about the migration of families, as each departure means less state funding to serve all students, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. He disagreed with the notion that private schools offer a better alternative amid the virus and said public school districts and the state are improving both in-person and remote learning in the fall — with safe in-person instruction being everyone’s goal.

Scott said he believes some families’ departures are being influenced by teachers unions pressing hard for fully remote learning, even in areas with very few coronavirus cases.

“Parents are choosing to use their pocketbook and their self-interest to try to provide the best education they can for their children,” Scott said. “We have this outpouring of interest from parents who want to see something more face-to-face.”

Yet Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the real blame falls on state government for under-funding public education for decades and for under-investing in rapid coronavirus testing and other health needs to ensure safe school reopening. Superintendents should be working harder to improve health conditions at schools, she said.

Najimy acknowledged that the spring’s remote learning rollout was rocky, but said the fall will be better because schools have had more time to prepare. Unlike many private schools, she said, public schools must serve all students — including those in poverty, English language learners, and those with special needs.

She questioned how it could be safe to gather hundreds of people in any school when the governor’s office says it’s too dangerous for more than 25 people to gather in an enclosed space in non-school buildings: “Be it public or private, the risk is the same.”

Keeping one foot in the public schools while creating new alternatives

Many experts in education inequality are also parents, and find themselves grappling with new decisions that are both immensely personal and highly relevant to their work.

When Berkeley, Calif., announced in mid-July that all schools will be fully remote in the fall, Prudence Carter, the dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, decided to create a pod for her first-grade son with two other working families. The group will keep their children enrolled in public school, but hire someone to supervise them as they learn remotely together.

“Even when we’re doing that for our own sense of well-being and our children’s sense of well-being, we are colluding with an inherent form of inequality,” Carter said, as people will likely form pods with others of like racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Yet, even as she resorts to one, she believes that pods are problematic if they take away public resources — for instance, if parents ask a district to help their pod — or if they result in parents taking their kids out of public schools for good.

Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia hopes the pod she’s helping create for her fifth-grade daughter and other children of color will challenge Boston Public Schools to better serve families.

The learning pod, which will be run by the nonprofit Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network and be free for participants, received $235,000 from The Shlomo Fund, a local charitable donor group, to hire five staffers to instruct and support 20 students in grades two through eight, Mejia said. The students, all Black and Latino, will meet every day at the Lena Park Community Center in Dorchester, but remain enrolled in their public schools through the schools’ all-remote learning plan. They will follow along with support from the pod, which will also provide before-school and after-school programs.

Mejia sees the pod as a new model to address long-running achievement gaps. She wants them to be accessible for low-income people of color as well — and justifies the considerable resources going to the one she’s a part of by saying the nonprofit is sharing technical assistance and some of the money to help start four to five other pods. Mejia says she is helping parents start similar pods in Codman Square, East Boston, and the Fenway.

“We’ve never had an opportunity to do something for ourselves,” Mejia said. “It’s empowering.”

In Sagamore Beach, Wendy and Scott Lajoie said their 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son felt unchallenged by the offerings of the Bourne Public Schools during the spring, with entirely free afternoons and minimal teacher instruction. That experience solidified their daughter’s desire to go to Falmouth Academy, which she had applied to during the winter but had previously been unsure about. Their son got into Rising Tide Charter School.

The kids hoped the schools they chose would be more rigorous and engaging, Scott Lajoie said. The daughter liked that Falmouth Academy — a private school that costs $31,720 — offered class sizes as small as 10 students.

In the long run, though, with three kids, it “might be difficult for us to afford.”

Lajoie said the pandemic revealed how stretched public schools are in trying to meet all kids’ needs. “Everybody’s working their tail off to try to make sure that we do the best for children overall,” he said.

Yet as a parent, Lajoie added that he needs to ensure that his own children “get the focus that they need.” And for the time being, at least, he’s grateful to be able to make a choice.

Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that the learning pod described by City Councilor Julia Mejia will be run by the nonprofit Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network and that some of the money will be used to help start several other such pods.

Sarah Carr and Bianca Vázquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.