I put my kids in a Title I urban public school in a school-choice city, and we all like it.
We had our second grader in public school in Alabama (for PreK, K, and half of 1) (our K got half of PreK there). It was a hop skip and a jump away from us. Our school was a Title I, failing by the standards that Alabama never released. Our middle-class circle thought we were a little weird for living where we lived and not trying to put our kids in Christian school or homeschooling, but we couldn’t afford the former and I would’ve been DISASTROUS at the latter. I went to PTA meetings but we had two younger kids, and it was a struggle to do more than that. Our kids did great, their teachers loved them, (and in some cases got too attached), etc., etc. We lived where we lived, and that meant our kids went to school a quarter mile down the street from us. A little weird, but not a huge deal.
And then we moved to the city of St. Louis.
We have only lived here for a year and a week, so I don’t write with the deep knowledge of someone who has been in the city for years, but as I understand it, the city was devastated by white flight — you can go out side the city limits and there are whole tiny municipalities all built at the same time with the same house models and materials (and usually “good” public schools). It’s actually lovely looking in some cases. But when white people take their kids and their tax money out of the city, it makes problems. (And this isn’t to say that some of those suburbs didn’t also fall victim to white flight too but…I live in the city, so that’s what I know.) Because St Louis is also a very Catholic town, there are lots of parochial schools, and also private schools. It looks like charter schools have been here for 16 years. When we moved here (for my husband to be an associate pastor for a church that makes a big deal about social justice and ministry to the poor), and told people we were planning on using our neighborhood school, just like in Alabama, the response shocked me. “Nobody goes to the public schools.”
I will back up a little and tell you about our family. I am 100% not trying to construct a good-white-person narrative, though I REALLY want to be a good white person. I am white. My husband is black. So our four kids are biracial or brown or black whatever they want to be. Our baby, who is two, called herself purple last night but we probably won’t let that one stand. My husband and I both have masters degrees (his in divinity, mine in sociology). We have a shit-ton of books in our house, even though I don’t read to the kids as much as I should. Though economically we probably aren’t middle class, or are just barely (having six people in your family sure screws with metrics), many of the people we know socially or in our church circles are, or aspire to reach it. I love being a Costco member, but I can’t bring myself to buy their fresh meat.
Roy was the first one in his family to *finish* college, though his mom started and dropped out. My paternal grandmother only went to high school, but my dad and his brother went to college. My maternal grandmother was studying for her masters when she either got married or got married and pregnant and dropped out. On my mom’s side, higher education has always been a thing. I was homeschooled until 9th grade. I spent the first two years of high school in a tiny Christian school (started late enough not to be a white flight school hurray!) and the last two years at one of the best private schools in Mississippi (opinion varies as to whether it is a white flight school or not. I have dear friends teaching there so maybe it’s not?). Roy went to public school in New Orleans (pre-Katrina obviously cuz we are old), and spent his high school in a gifted, mostly-black school that prepared him well and gifted him with a friend group with whom he is still very close. Roy is a pastor in a denomination (my life-long one) that is mostly white and acts, at least, like it’s upper middle class, though we have been fortunate to attend and/or serve in churches that are multiethnic and often socioeconomically diverse. You can’t be a preacher in our denomination unless you’ve gone to seminary. So that’s our social location. Our kids are light skinned with “good hair” [*cough* not that we believe in that *cough*] but are pretty obviously non-white. It took a few months but they finally started to love Hamilton the musical, and they’ve always been fans of The Roots. When I listened to my “Best of Keith Whitley” CD in the car, I got some complaints. Oh, and I’m a struggler with grown-up ADHD. But besides having a mom who is less than competent at managing their lives, our kids have so many reasons beyond themselves for their success.
Here are some reasons why we chose public school for our children:
IT IS SO CLOSE TO OUR HOUSE! When I was in 8th grade, my mom taught at a school in the Atlanta suburbs, while we lived even further out in the Atlantan outskirts. We were in the car for probably an hour and a half/1:15 each day. And we had to leave so early. It was AWFUL. Now we are close enough to walk to school if we get ready in time (almost never happens) or walk home from school (if it’s not too hot or too cold). [I say “we” because I have a preK kid who has to get signed into class by a parent.] It takes 2 minutes to get there (but 5 minutes for me to parallel park to my satisfaction). If my kid is having issues, I can be there almost immediately to check on them. I feel so much safer that way. And we have so much more time in our life to do stuff and not be in the car. Full disclosure: my kids use that time to play Minecraft.
THEY FEED OUR KIDS! Because a high enough percentage of our school’s population is in poverty, breakfast and lunch is free for everybody. I am not the mom who has it together enough to make lunch for my kids (with or without sweet notes), so I am so thankful for this not-small-at-all blessing, though I do feed them breakfast because school doesn’t start until nine — they get up much earlier than that.
WE KINDA FORGOT TO THINK ABOUT SWITCHING UNTIL IT WAS TOO LATE. Last semester, the spring semester after we moved, our oldest was the only one in school. She never liked that semester. Her teacher was a sweet white girl from out in the county (possibly even one county removed? My St. Louis regional geography isn’t that good) who was at our school through Teach for America. She didn’t have control of the class, from what my daughter said, and she treated my daughter differently and set her apart from the rest of the class in an unhealthy way. And she [the teacher] told me that when she saw my husband (apparently projecting a middle-class look), she wondered if he knew about the school. She’s not still at the school and I don’t want to poop on her but…it wasn’t the best situation. My daughter was increasingly worried about returning to the school. And she came home from school saying things like “I don’t want to be brown because brown people talk funny.” <Insert crying for real emoji> But we moved here in super-late December and were still finding our way when it would have been time to look into other schools for her (and her two now school-age brothers). You know, so one of the reasons we are still at the school is because we aren’t parents who have it all together. We started this school year with a lot of trepidation in our hearts. All of us.
WE KNEW SOME STAFF. The nurse at that school goes to church with friends of ours. I was able to call her and talk to her about it before we even got to St. Louis. She told me that just seeing a face she knew was so encouraging, because she often felt alone being a public school employee while a lot of her friends sent their kids to/taught at charters or super-sweet Christian sit-on-the-mat schools [it took hours to remember after I wrote the first draft but I think I mean Charlotte Mason]. So I felt safer knowing that someone I knew was there on the inside. And I got warm feelings knowing that our presence there made her feel better.
WE WANTED TO BE A PUBLIC SCHOOL FAMILY. When I heard that “nobody” went to the public schools, I was heartsick. Of the kids that use public and charter schools in St. Louis, roughly half of them go to regular public schools. That means — and my husband is at a church that has a core identity of loving and serving the poor — our church had a big ol’ blindspot that called half the non-private-school kids in St Louis nobodies. And if you call them nobodies, you aren’t seeing them or helping them. I wanted to see them. And it turns out, being them is a really good way to see them. I’m not volunteering there or even being the very best parent — I didn’t check my second grader’s backpack and totally missed the winter concert! We are just going to school, and sometimes I bring cake for the teachers. (It’s true that I am hoping to start a school garden in the spring, but a lot of that is self-interest because our yard is so small I can’t grow much at all.) Roy grew up in the public schools, and wanted that for his kids. And since our kids are brown, given the research I’d read and the stories I’d heard, I felt much more comfortable with their being in vast-majority black schools than being cute fetishized minorities in a Christian or private school. Sending them to public schools didn’t feel like a brave choice, it was a wise choice (second grader’s first semester here not withstanding).
So after a year at our school — though really these reflections are from the last semester, when we had three kids at the school, here’s the deal.
OUR KIDS ARE THRIVING. I mean, given our social location and everything, they would probably be doing great anyway, but being at a re-accredited-last-year school has not slowed them down in any way. My second grader is reading and doing math at 5th grade levels. She loves her teacher (who is a black woman this year, like I prayed for), she is making a few friends, and there was even a boy who liked her [this terrified me but I think it came to nothing — like I said, I was homeschooled for elementary]. She wants to go to school and is bummed about holidays. Our kindergarten boy is reading, doing math, and in love with writing things. Our PreK kid who was always the kid I worried most about developmentally has become so much more verbal his Sunday school teacher noticed. He can write his name and “mom” and the alphabet, though only when he wants to. They have art class and music class and PE. I am confident that the oldest two have excellent teachers who love them and are going the extra mile to reach their educational needs. PreK has been a little different story because there was some turnover [we just got a new teacher two days before school got out for Christmas!], but even with that, he has shown improvement.
ADMINISTRATION MATTERS [duh]. For the first month or so of this past semester, we had a new principal whose previous school had done really great but she was NOT a good fit for our school. I wasn’t comfortable with how much she was asking (I mean demanding) of the parents, and it was clear the teachers weren’t comfortable with how she was treating them either. But then she left (with, uh, no explanation given to the parents at all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), and our new principal is so great. She talks to the students without talking down to them, and she wants to start a garden! The teachers and our friend the nurse have said they like her a lot. The afternoon schoolyard pick up is still chaotic but the atmosphere is much less tense.
I STILL CAN’T GET BEHIND CHARTER SCHOOLS.
<Apparently this is the mini-essay part + exhortation>
Caveat upon caveat: you do you, I’ll try not to judge and my opinion doesn’t really matter anyway, God calls us to different things, etc., etc. A lot of people I love and respect a lot and a large proportion of our church are charter school proponents and/or employees.
“Decrying school choice overlooks fact that kids need better schools *now*” is a Twitter quote from my friend Jemar Tisby. And I mean, we all need better schools right now. You can’t really argue with that.
But I really struggle with the reality of all kids needing better schools (assuming the charter schools are actually better), but not all kids getting better schools, just the ones whose parents have it together enough to make the choice. Kids themselves don’t actually have a choice. It’s the parents that choose, and not all parents are created equal. There are some pretty shitty parents out there. Or parents that are overwhelmed with life. Our kids have food and know they are loved, but I wouldn’t say that we are super-great parents either. I mean, we did chose SLPS but we also didn’t get our shit together in time to make another choice. I’ve seen some pretty troubling parenting in the school yard. I have seen parents or grandparents raising their backhand the second they hear their child is in trouble, complaining about school not getting out at 4:00 when dismissal is technically at 4:07, advising my son that if someone hits you, you HAVE to hit them back or they won’t stop. I don’t know. Maybe this also happens at charter schools — I don’t know. My N = 1, after all. And I don’t see every parent all the time, either, so take my observations as they are.
I don’t want to call myself the kingdom of God, but Jesus does say that the kingdom of heaven is like just a little leaven that makes the whole loaf of bread rise. On the other hand, if you take all the leaven away, your bread doesn’t rise. If the public schools — or even just our little one — are left with only the parents who don’t care/care but don’t have their shit together/or simply overwhelmed by day-to-day life [for the six-block statistical unit we live in, 40.5% of the residents live in poverty and the median income is $22,000], they have a much heavier burden than the charter schools whose parents all opted-in together. But all the schools are judged by the same metric, which doesn’t factor in if your students had supper last night or if their family dynamic regularly includes violence. Now, I suspect that with our principal and our new PTA leader, things are going to keep getting better at our school. Hopefully my Costco cakes and vocal support and the garden will help. (And I don’t want to sound judgy about the parents at our school. I acknowledge that I haven’t lived in urban poverty and the racist structures that are in St Louis for my whole life, and survival looks different for everyone. You can’t escape that stuff unscathed — but I do think you shouldn’t beat your kids. And we do have great parents/grandparents.) Every kid needs a better school now, but unless we are very careful with using school choice as a solution, we abandon the most vulnerable student populations and expect more from the school faculty/staff when they are increasingly given less support and heavier burdens. It’s not equitable, though it is starting to feel inevitable.
What if we chose the kids who don’t have a choice?
Please consider supporting your local public school. Send your kids there, and advocate for good. If you don’t have kids, see if you can volunteer. Try to get the city to stop okaying developments with deferred taxes [this may be just a STL problem, I don’t know]. Even if you don’t have kids, do research and vote for the school board members. Consider the time that “good” black families would get back if they didn’t put their kids on buses at 6am to send them to the “diverse,” better funded, better testing county schools. Please don’t be scared of brown and black kids, of poor kids, of immigrant kids. Look deep down inside and consider your motivations for where you send your kids to school, where you choose to live to send your kids to school. There’s a different answer for every family, yes, but make sure your answer isn’t accidentally motivated by racism or fear. Please consider not only your own family’s interests, but also the interests of others.
At the least, read this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html. Nikole Hannah Jones does a phenomenal job of explicating the ins-and-outs of school segregation and performance, many things I glossed over in my piece.
(these are where I found most of my facts:)