My first-grade son and I waited to collect a tardy slip, the latest in what could be a world-record total for his age group. The school secretary, a kindly and long-suffering soul, gave a cheerful reminder to our fellow reprobates. “Late start tomorrow, remember! No class till 10:30!”

Right. Late start. One Wednesday most months, Portland Public Schools delays first bell for a couple of hours. An invisible wave of anxiety ripples across the city as parents call in favors, emotionally blackmail relatives, and grovel to their bosses in order to take care of their elementary-aged wards. (What do older kids do with this idle time? My parental mind reels.) No doubt the ritual obeys some obscure logic, but I prefer to imagine it involves astrology, like the decree of a capricious czar. That’s how it feels.

For a parent, the whole school thing weaves triumph and farce. At schools with great teachers, dedicated administrators, and engaged communities, you can see the kids getting sharper in real time. Their writing becomes more cogent, their math skills more incomprehensible to aging onlookers. A decent school reminds you what humans can do, even on a modest level, when they work together. And yet it can all be so paradoxically depressing. In the public realm, the budgets tend to be minor crimes against humanity, the wider statistics grounds for general outrage, and the system bedeviled by constant policy debate. And for some of us, all of that only leads to the real dilemma: the damned options. In the time and place where I grew up, a kid either went to public school, goody-goody Catholic school, or the one hippie alternative school that produced delicate flowers of enlightened social conduct. (I went to public school, if you can’t tell.) 

As our annual report on metro-area schools shows, today’s Portland offers comparatively endless choice. You can shop among scores of private educational philosophies. You can send your children to the woods to learn archery. You can try to game whatever intracity public transfer system prevails at the moment. It’s easy to imagine that any move would be better than the one you’re making. Spendy private academy? Could be worth it. Bows and arrows? Sounds good!

But I try to remember that all the school achievement stats in this issue are rooted in the same story. Public or private, rich or poor, soaring or struggling, standard-issue or exotic in format, every school will pose a few immutable challenges. Your kid. Yourself. Simply getting there. Most everyone involved is just trying to get an A for effort on that daily test, and learn something in the process. 

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