Thursday, March 6, 2008

Choosing the Tools

First of all, thanks to everyone who weighed in on my last post. I have a lot to consider! Everyone who pointed out that needy kids are in every school are exactly right and I am sure that if I take the job in the rural school, that I will have plenty of kids to love. And really, I probably ought to take that job simply because it would be easier than an inner-city school and I will probably need easy my first year back. I can always transfer when my own kids and family life is less demanding. And it would be kind of a challenge for me to take the rural job. I've never taught in a school like this one, so it would be interesting to see the differences and the similarities. Kids are kids after all. It's just not the demographic that I most want to work with, but it might broaden my horizons too. Hmmm. Much to consider.

Now, to fill you in on a related worry...

I am worried about putting my money or kids, rather, where my mouth is.

We currently live in Knoxville. Conservative, very religious, 86% white Knoxville. The school my kids are zoned for is one of the best elementary schools in town. It is something like 98% white and upper middle class. Our neighborhood is almost all white. I can go days without seeing one African American or Hispanic person. We live in the land of soccer and SUV's.

And I don't like it. I do not want my kids to grow up in a bubble. I don't want them to think that this place is reflective of the larger world. I want them to have friends who are different from them. I want them to experience other cultures and ways of life. This is so, so important to me.

I think in order to be prepared for the larger world, children need to know things different from themselves. They need to learn tolerance and acceptance of people and ideas who are at odds with them and this is hard to do when you are only surrounded with folks like yourself.

Plus, people from other cultures and backgrounds have so much to offer you. You can learn so much from them. I want my kids to have this experience.

Someday in the next few years, we will move back to Nashville, in part because of the diversity issue. When we do, we will not be able to afford to live in such a great school zone. My kids will go to a school that has more problems then the one here and it worries us.

The questions is, how do you choose what is best for your kids? What is more important; that they got to a diverse school or that they go to the best school academically? It's a tough call. We all want the best for our kids and we want to give them the tools to succeed. But what do you do when you have to choose which tools to give them?

This issue is also a test of my dedication and belief in the value of public education and it is a test that can directly impact the quality of that education for us all. If all the upper-middle class, highly educated parents took their kids out of the public schools, those schools are all but doomed for failure. Indeed, this has happened in other larger urban districts such as Los Angeles.

The upper middle class and educated parents are the ones who know how to work the system and demand excellence for their kids. They are the ones who call their school board, who are in the office talking to the administration, who are attending conferences. They are the ones organizing the PTO's, giving money and helping fundraise. Schools depend on the funds and support that these parents give and it improves the school for everyone.

In my old school, we had a group of parents who all fit into the upper middle class, educated bracket. They had the option of moving out of the county to wealthier areas with excellent schools, but they chose not to and it was a deliberate, reasoned choice. These parents decided as a group to stay in their neighborhood schools. They planned it together, in fact. They were committed to the neighborhood school, kept their kids in, and worked together to improve the school for all the students. They served on the PTO, organized fundraisers, volunteered in the classroom. They met regularly to discuss ideas and ways to improve the school. It was a noble decision and I really think their kids were the better for it. I know the school was.

Without these parents and their children, the schools become institutions that serve only the urban poor and immigrant children. Children whose parents are too busy making ends meet to attend after-school functions. Children whose parents do not have much of an education themselves and are often fearful of schools and teachers. Children whose parents do not speak enough English to communicate with the school. Children who live in single-parent households where they are expected to work themselves to contribute to the household income.

In addition, when the upper-middle class pulls their kids out, the remaining children are not left with many peers who raise the bar for everyone. They have no peer role models and the level of discourse in the classroom lowers a little. This is the argument folks make against academic magnet schools and it has some degree of merit.

And let's not even talk about the message it sends to kids when you tell them you don't want them in "that school" with "those kids."

What it all comes down to is that public education only works to its full potential when we all buy into it.

So, do I buy into it enough to put my kids in a school that needs help and then work as hard as I can to change things? Yes, I think I do, but it sure is a hard choice.


TC said...

Come on and move next door to us. You'll get all the diversity you need.

jennifer h said...

I think you should take that blog post and turn it into a full-length article and submit it to a lot of magazines until one of them has the good sense to print it.

We all need to hear what you just said.

I'm not sure I could argue either side better than you have already. I'm stumped, too.

Anonymous said...

I'm sort of guilty of pulling my kid out. I agree with everything you've said but I'm torn because I don't have any regrets.

6 years ago I put my son into Montessori for two years (preschool & K) and then the best public school I could find for his primary years. When I bought my first house the school district was my number one priority.

Montressori was an amazing experience and gave him a love of learning that will serve him his whole life. The publice grade school I chose for him was in our district, but not our local school. I considered how well they could serve his needs and determined that he would reach his full potential in a school that focused on diversity and a unique approach to letting kids learn at their own pace.

I don't regret the choices I've made. I have trouble with the idea that I should shoulder guilt for not staying with my local school to make it better for all.

Magpie said...

It's a hard call. We lived in Manhattan when our child was born. We looked to find a bigger apartment, which would have strapped us financially, and later there would have been the school issue. I know that there are decent schools in the city - but they are few and far between, and involve a degree of luck to get into. So we moved. And the town we moved to has terrific schools, but a not very diverse population. It tears me up a little...but it seemed like the right move to make. Plus, we were able to afford a little house which is bigger than any two bedroom apartment we could have bought.

I may be singing a different tune when she goes to kindergarten next year. Right now, I have my fingers crossed.

richgold said...

Ok. Ok. I've got to get off my liberal soap box at some point in time, now is not it though.

I read your post with great interest and it drives me to quickly shift through my thoughts and project the best. So, here goes. My condolences for the semi-book. (You've posed an interesting position.)

My point of view is that *you* are making a decision that you want to make a better place in this world. You're projecting a set of values on a school based on the economy and color of parents who go there.

Diversity is good and all that, I completely agree and am not debating it. What I'm questioning is the reasoning you are following for basing where you place your kids.

I just wonder how far a parent will go to make a mini-me. Maybe they don't/won't share your values about how they want to save their corner of the world. True, true, we need to be exemplary in our actions in order to get the point across. Is this a case now? Why can't you put your kids in the best schools (economically based) to give them the support they may need to succeed? (Maybe this base will give them the umh to change the world in great ways.)

Couldn't you then make a decision about where you want to work? (Put them in the best schools because they need the base, while you go off and make another school the best because of your presence, passion and skill.) It's not a hypocracy to split the decision like this.

Seeing that you're kids (I'm presuming here) are just entering school, and that you're going to move within the next five years anyway, show them EVERYTHING. The good, and the bad. Why not give them the best you can give them (what you suggest most educated parents strive for - but that's debatable ... my experience is that the parents with money abandon their kids and that those kids need guidance, attention and support just a much as the next kid, so as to learn to make good decisions for him/herself - minus the economy issue.)

When your kids are older (say secondary school/junior high), place them in a mixed school. Explain your choices. Involve them in the choices. Teach them about why you'd like them to go to another school. Why it's important for their adult lives. Help them make decisions about their lives. Involve them. You may get the next Craig Kielburger.

If I may ask a rather stupid question - you frequently talk about the black population being the ones who need the most attention. Isn't there impoverished whites, Latinos, Asians, < immigrant of choice here > in your area?

I personally think what's missing is passion amongst parents. Sure there's passion when two people meet up and make the child, then the passion about the child wains as the child starts to express his/her opinions. It's regrettable that, for example in my school, parents don't care how their kids are doing that they have to implement a mandatory report card meeting (parent must show up to get the report card). I've been told time and time again that I'm not one of *those* parents. Well, that's because I made a decision to parent differently then I was parented. (My parents were one of those parents and they ARE educated people. I figure they were just tired and a titch selfish by the time I came around.)

You have the passion and then some. (And passion can be contagious.) You are the kind of teacher *WE* want. IN ANY SCHOOL. It's not the building or location that makes the difference, its the people in it.

A bit about me and why I have a squirrelly point of view: I live in the second most impoverished area in my community. I'm a highly educated woman in a blue collar neighborhood. I moved here based on economics, and proximity to my kids school. It also helps that we've got an up-and-coming arts district which is pretty cool ... All in all, sometimes education doesn't give a person an economic foot up. I married (twice over) men who were the first in their family to graduate from high school, let alone go to university. So a lot comes down to motivation (and one or two good teachers on the way).

Mr Lady said...

My kids' old school in Denver was exactly what you described your old school being. It was a lower-performing, racial diverse school with a big old white "awesome" school down the road a little, who EVERYONE choiced their kids into.

Except us.

We stayed, we fought, we used what we had to make that school awesome, for ALL the students. And now, this school with 70% free/reduced lunch, with a 50/50 racial split, with 3 classes devoted soley to seriously disabled children, this school is one of the top performers in the district. And the NEIGHBORHOOD benefits, all of us.