I was scouting the web for thoughts from other parents about the Challenger school system and I was surprised not to find any posts whatsoever on this topic. Schools are discussed so often in social circles so I was expecting to find at least one parent who would take the time to share their experiences. (Ok, for now, let us blame it on Google’s poor search technology).
I have had the opportunity to get familiar with the Challenger school system for a few years now. So here goes…
First, let me dispel two common myths about Challenger.
Myth #1: Challenger is too academic. The kids have to slog it out starting from pre-school and kindergarten.
This is completely untrue. There is no question that the kids learn a lot. But the slog days are long gone. The kids don’t have to stay up at night learning facts and figures by rote. The academic pressure appears to have eased up dramatically over the years. Kids get a lot more time to pursue extra curricular activities. I had heard the same horror stories before, but they are certainly not reflective of present-day Challenger curriculum.
Myth #2: Admission is next to impossible. You have to queue up overnight to get your child admitted.
Again, completely untrue. There was a time at the height of the dotcom days when this was true. The system has changed. It is now a lottery system. Besides, since the dotcom bust the number of applicants has significantly reduced. It’s a different story that that the school will act like its “full”, would want to conduct tests etc. before they admit your child. But the reality is that admission to Challenger is not as hard as it was a few years back. This does not in anyway imply that they are starved of kids. The general student teacher ratio is about 25 to 1 though it is a lot better in the pre-school and the kindergarten level (more like 1 to15).
Having addressed the two common myths, here are a few pros and cons. First, the pros.
The Teachers: The big question always on parents minds, “How are the teachers?” The reality is that the teachers at Challenger are like those at most other schools (I hear that pay scales are equally poor in both private and public schools) — there are some exceptionally good teachers and some mediocre teachers. Thankfully, the Challenger school curriculum is excellent. So if your child is lucky and lands a good teacher, the combination with the curriculum makes it terrific. On the other hand if the teacher is mediocre, the curriculum is the only saving grace (don’t expect the management to be of any help!). Note that you will also find the occasional teacher (a computer teacher in elementary school, for instance) who chooses to go his/her own way (define their own rules) and surprises parents with their own unpredictable ways.
The Parents and The Kids: This is probably the best part about Challenger. There are plenty of like-minded parents from identical social backgrounds whose kids go to Challenger. They face similar challenges and share the same values, resulting in lasting friendships and camaraderie between families.
Now the cons.
The Administration/Management: This is easily Challenger’s weakest link. The Administration operates a lot like the Bush Administration. In other words, they chose to do as they please. They never bother to look at any issue objectively. When faced with any parent complaints or issues, they simply stone-wall. You can kick and scream all you like, go up the ladder, all the way up to Ms. Barbara B. Baker , but objectivity is a non-existent commodity in the Administrative circles at Challenger. If you ever bring up an issue, it is promptly shot down with generic responses like “Its the teacher’s prerogative”, “It is only because your child is affected”, “hysterical Mom/Dad” etc. One of principals’ favorite responses to any issue (no matter how unrelated) almost always begins with “when my son was in Challenger…” Many parents who have taken their kids out of Challenger have done so because of their frustrations with the Management. (In fact, some good teachers have left the school because of their inability to deal with the management). But the general philosophy of the Management seems to be one of “If you don’t like it, you are welcome to take your child some place else”
Update Nov’ 08: Since posting this article, there have been changes in personnel at the Challenger school that I am familiar with. I must say that my interaction with the new personnel has been far more positive .
Adoption of Technology: Considering that the Challenger schools in the bay area serves kids whose parents largely work in the high tech community, you would expect a greater degree of technological savvy at school. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Email as a means of communication is hardly ever used by the school. The website is just a bunch of static pages. The school as a whole does not seem to have embraced technology. The parents on the other hand leverage technology to remain in contact, socialize, communicate and share ideas about issues their kids face etc.
The Ethnic Mix: The kids in the Challenger schools in the bay area are predominantly of Asian Indian and Chinese descent. This is true of the teachers and also the Administrative staff. Without a doubt, Indians form the majority. The lack of a strong ethnic mix is a definite minus , but its no different than the student mix at UC Berkeley or for that matter at some of the leading high tech firms in the bay area (Cisco, Intel, Google, Yahoo etc.)
The Big Question: Should you send your kids to Challenger?
I hate to sound like a lawyer. But my answer in this case is “It depends”. The thought of developing a checklist followed by an automated “Challenger Readiness Score” did cross my mind. But I’ll stop here and let you make up your own mind based on the above. I welcome comments and thoughts from others, especially other parents.