I considered titling this post, “Abandoning White People Problems and Investing in Our Neighborhood Instead of the Other Way Around.” Because, as much as I hate to admit it, that’s what I’m writing about today.
I tend to stress over consequential decisions, exploring and weighing lots of options before making a decision. True to form, I stressed for awhile about finding the right school for the kids now that our oldest is nearing preschool age.
Eventually I realized this stress was the result of a gap between my actions and values. Again.
Surveying our school options
We’re surrounded by school options in our city. We live near five mainstream public schools and many public charter schools. Private schools were never on the table for us because we believe in public schools. But I toyed with the idea of homeschooling as a fall-back option, even though this choice would take resources away from the public school system and our community school in particular.
My logic behind considering homeschooling was that it could circumvent some of my issues with mainstream schools: the use of cognitive-based curricula in pre-K when kids should be playing instead, the focus on academics instead of on the whole child, problems schools have been having with keeping boys engaged in education, and the tendency for discipline practices to be punitive rather than constructive. (Spoiler alert: We decided to go with public schools. I’ve now admitted to myself that I was doing mental gymnastics to convince myself that homeschooling could fit in any way with the reasons why we support public schools.)
At first I planned to tour all the public schools nearby and pick one. So our hands were about to get full. We started by touring two schools: School A, our neighborhood community school, which is a 10-minute walk from our home; and School B, another community school a 15-minute walk from our home, also technically in our neighborhood but not technically our community school. We were excited that both student bodies were made up of 82% kids of color, and we were not bothered that both schools lack stellar test scores or ratings.* That’s about all we knew going in.
I figured, wrongly, that we’d know the right school based on feel. I mean, I believe in parental instinct, but a few things clouded our instinct during these tours: First, our kid still had a year of developing and growing to do before preschool, and I think we were ill-prepared to feel out how the environment would suit our son a year into the future. Second, we hadn’t fully thought through exactly what it means to support public schools. Until we encountered the responsibility of deciding on schooling for our own kids, our stance on schools was theoretical, except that we valued our own public schooling (I attended public schools for grades K-12, and my partner went to private school for grades K-8 and then to a public high school).
Anyhow, based on our instinctual response to the school tours, we were leaning strongly toward School B. A few things set us in this direction:
School A felt drab and old as soon as we walked in. The experience that left the deepest impression on us was a third grade teacher disciplining two students in a way that seemed overly harsh (was it coincidence that they were the darkest-skinned kids in the room, or was this racism playing out before our eyes?). That same teacher seemed tired and unenthusiastic (was it a bad day for her or something more serious?). Kids were on iPads everywhere (was this a behavior management strategy?). We didn’t meet the principal or get a sense of the vision for the school. It wasn’t all negative, though. The positive aspect that stood out most to us was that almost every teacher had been there 10+ years.
School B, on the other hand, felt more welcoming right away. It was newly updated, spacious, and bright. Classrooms were sensory-friendly, and two grades shared each room so kids could join learning groups that fit their educational needs most closely. The kids were more active and generally less glued to iPads. The teachers seemed happier to be there. The principal knew every student’s name (and was obviously loved by every student who passed by) and what was going on in every classroom.
We decided to let these thoughts percolate for awhile. Then we talked with other parents for additional perspective. Here’s what else we learned:
School A recently became a full-service community school, a new trend we’d never previously heard of. The idea is to look at each child more holistically, addressing social and health needs in addition to academics. School A has started a food shelf, holds events for the whole neighborhood, is pushing to become an Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) site, and has plans to make additional changes in the future to dig even deeper into this community role. Now THAT is a vision I can get behind! Moreover, parents glowed about their kids’ experiences and talked about how the teachers get to know, and fully welcome, every student. That third grade teacher had just been nominated for the state teacher of the year award. And test scores are rising for black students, which, to the extent test scores say anything about this, makes me question my initial impression of how the school is handling its diversity.
School B, on the other hand, was up for possible closure last year, and it’s unclear whether the school board will consider closure again in the future. The principal just changed and, she, like the last one, is getting great reception from parents. However, to increase enrollment, she’s introducing a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. For me this raises concerns about racial and class segregation within the school and sending destructive messages to kids about who is “smart” and “more valuable.” And black students’ test scores are falling—slightly, but I wonder what that says, if anything, about how the school is doing by its black students.
Our moment of clarity
With a fuller picture of the two schools, I realized I’d been hoping for a “perfect” school. One with staff who manage classrooms flawlessly, engage all the students fully, and maximize every opportunity to further the students’ social, emotional, and academic learning. Obviously this school would be a unicorn. And, more importantly, I’m sure such “perfection” would prevent opportunities for kids to learn some of life’s most important lessons.
We also realized, after talking with parents of school-aged kids, that we’ll be building community with the other families at our kids’ school. Although both schools are close to our home, we want the families we get to know through school to be the ones we live closest to.
Those factors alone were enough to guide our decision, but here was the ultimate kicker for me: I realized that, if we chose any school other than our community school, we’d be signaling that the school was fine for other people’s kids but not for our own. Holy shit, did that ever clarify things.
By now it’s probably obvious to you that we are unequivocally and enthusiastically sending our children to our local community school. We know it’s the right decision because it feels so good. All the stress is gone.
And I guess I can keep saying I believe in parental instinct. Our instinct just lacked the right compass bearings at first.
* Standardized test scores are a bad way to judge a school’s educational quality. That’s not what these tests measure. Rather, they compare students’ knowledge and skills to those of students nationwide. A school could be great and still have low test scores for many reasons. By extension, school ratings are bad for judging school performance. At least in my family’s area, these ratings are heavily influenced by…test scores.