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.