Catherine Toth Fox: Why I Chose To Send My Son To Private School - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor of HONOLULU Family and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

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Editor’s note: Civil Beat welcomes a new columnist to our rotation, Catherine Toth Fox. Cat is well-known in Hawaii journalism circles and writes the popular blog, The Cat Dish. She brings a wide range of experience, including as an editor, children’s book author, blogger and journalism instructor. She is currently the editor of HONOLULU Family. 

It’s 3:41 p.m. and I’m refreshing my browser every 30 seconds, waiting for a change in what I’ve been staring at for the past 20 minutes.

My phone jolts: “Any word?”

“Not yet,” I quickly type. Then I hit refresh again.

I’m not normally this anxious — manic? — and my frayed nerves were a shock. And maybe a revelation, too.

Let me start by saying this: I’m a proud graduate of a public school. A school that my mom, her brother and sister and my two sisters attended. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience there. Some of those teachers rank among my all-time favorites, including a physics teacher whose lecture on Bernoulli’s principle I often still think about and a history teacher who taught us how to polka dance in class.

And yet, here I am, sitting at my desk at home, waiting for one, two, any private school to admit my son into its kindergarten program. And it’s suddenly stressing me out.

I hadn’t thought much about my son attending a private school until it was time to start applying. Parents at his preschool often chatted about application deadlines, rising tuition costs, legacy admission policies. (That last one was something I confess I had to Google.)

“Where are you applying your son?” was a frequently asked question last year, when applications for incoming kindergarteners were due. Even on the day applications to one private school became available, I got a flurry of text messages from other parents, reminding me to apply. (I had the date already in my iCalendar. With an alert.)

It’s not like I had always had these ambitions for my son. To be honest, I was just happy and relieved I got pregnant — at 41, without fertility assistance — in the first place. We live in a quiet neighborhood with a charming public elementary school, one with mango trees, rainbow-painted walkways and a huge grassy field. I imagined walking my son to school — we wouldn’t have to cross a single street — and getting to know the other families who live in this area.

Pauoa Elementary School 3rd grade Teacher Kristin Tatemichi teaches in class. Closeup of a student holding pencils.
Public schools and private schools both have their advantages. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Then Covid-19 happened. Schools closed, kids were sent home, and parents were stuck juggling work — if they still had jobs — and home-schooling. It was nearly impossible and, honestly, I don’t know how we’re all still talking to each other.

But many private schools pivoted quickly, bringing kids back on campus months before public schools did. And parents researching kindergarten options started considering private schools. We did.

But I wouldn’t say the private school response to Covid-19 was the deciding factor for us. I suppose we adopted the same philosophical justification our parents and grandparents did: We want to give our kids what we didn’t have. In this case, a private school experience.

Not to say public school doesn’t have its advantages. I learned how to navigate precarious social situations, how to adapt, how to be resourceful and flexible in a public school setting. We didn’t have fancy classrooms with modular workspaces and ergonomic desks. Our buildings were named after letters in the alphabet, not big donors. And we didn’t get issued an iPad at orientation. In fact, I can’t remember if we even had an orientation.

We did the best we could with what we had — and that’s a valuable life lesson in itself.

Kids can thrive wherever they are, and both private and public schools boast excellent teachers, dedicated and compassionate and focused on the needs of their students. And public school
environments are vastly improved from when I was there decades ago. Ewa Makai Middle, for example, offers classes in video production, coding and culinary arts. Manoa Elementary boasts
robotics, STEM and a friendship exchange with another school in Japan.

But each child is different — and each child may need a specific environment to flourish and learn.

But we have decided, as parents, whatever we do have is what we’re giving to our son, and if we can afford the yearly tuition to a school environment that we feel he will thrive in, we’ll do it.

I struggle with the seeming disparity between the haves (private) and the have-nots (public) and worry how my sending my child to a private school will only contribute to that divide. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, with monogrammed backpacks and trips to Tahoe during spring break. (I actually still haven’t been to Tahoe.) And my son likely won’t, either. We are not the conventional haves in that sense — my husband and I earn a combined income that wouldn’t allow us to buy a single-family home in Honolulu right now. We drive Honda Fits, live in my husband’s childhood home and don’t have any club memberships beyond 24 Hour Fitness, which costs me $40 a year. (I know, it’s hard to give up.)

And honestly, we’re not too different from other parents who send their kids to private schools. Most work full time, spend all day Saturday shuttling kids to soccer practice and gymnastics, shop at Costco, care for aging parents, binge-watch Netflix series at 1 a.m., stick to budgets, save for retirement, worry about the future.

Our son got accepted to a great private school and waitlisted for another, and parents have until mid-May to make their decisions. Honestly, just knowing he has a seat — an ergonomic one! — in a classroom somewhere is a relief.

Regardless of the outcome, we know he would be OK at any school. He would learn, play and grow. He would make friends, join clubs and have strong opinions about school lunch. But we have decided, as parents, whatever we do have is what we’re giving to our son, and if we can afford the yearly tuition to a school environment that we feel he will thrive in, we’ll do it.

I just hope he learns that this experience is a privilege — oh, I’ll remind him often! — and that the goal, really, is for him to be globally minded, civically responsible and socially conscious. I want him to be part of the solution, not contribute to the problem. And if we can help him get there, we will.

We just won’t be going to Tahoe anytime soon.


Read this next:

John Pritchett: Old School


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor of HONOLULU Family and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Love seeing your byline in yet another local media space, Cat. Looking forward to reading more and congrats to Baby Fox!!

Jacy · 3 months ago

I’m deaf. I’m just happy my son isn’t.

colinkailuavarsitysoccer · 3 months ago

My daughter attended a public school, worked hard, went to a public university, worked harder, got a degree as an electrical engineer and got a job (no grad school!) with a good salary and stock options. She did miss out on seeing all of those standardized test taking sites around the island. We must have missed the ads on TV.

Fred_Garvin · 3 months ago

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