Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bleeding on the Eggshells

Throughout the kindergarten selection process, I was surprised by many of my encounters. I was pleased by the schools I toured. I was excited about one of the two magnet schools, and I found the actual registration process entirely pleasant.

I was also surprised by my talks with people about the process. It appears that a lot of parents were frustrated, but most of them appeared honestly frightened beyond rational thought. Most of these parents were white, middle-to-upper-middle-to-upper class, college-educated folks. These were parents that somehow seemed ashamed that they were researching local private school options for their children. One pair even whispered their choices to each other in conversation like the mother from St. Elmo's Fire discussing money and illness at the dining room table as "hush, hush" subjects. I addressed the situation with as much lightheartedness as possible. People shouldn't be ashamed that they're making (or even thinking about different school options for their kids.). I'm happy, as a probable future Unit 4 family, to have them pay $12,000 a year in tuition to send their child somewhere else and to give us their tax money for Unit 4, without costing us anything. There was a time, not so long ago, where I thought Next Generation was going to be the best option for my son. That was, until he got wait listed and I dove head first into my Unit 4 exploration. I am inspired at what goodness I found.

But here's the issue: Champaign is segregated by socio-economic status. And as of right now, when I talk to parents from not-poor families about their kindergarten choices, there is a lot of "my family/my child" talk. Very rarely does anyone ever bring up the idea of "community." They leave kids without helicopter-level parental advocates to fend for themselves. Worse, they don't even recognize that it's what the Controlled Choice process is built for... to look out for all children. And that's just not right. My child has no more value in this world than any other child on the planet -- except to me. 

For all of the complaining, whining and fear talk about Controlled Choice, no one in the community is coming forth with a better way to make sure that children of all economic levels are able to go to school together. Sending children to neighborhood schools won't solve any disparities. It, in fact, it will only increase them. Potential school board members in tomorrow's election, specifically Grey, Brown and Novak all talked about various aspects of this at the community forum. The geography of our schools is terrible. The schools aren't where the people have been moving for the last 40 years. At the same time, even though we're not allowed to use race as a marker any more, there are a large number of African American families below the poverty line in this town. They tend to live north of University. And they were woefully treated for a shamefully long time in this town. Hence why we had a decree in the first place. 

Poverty is the one giant characteristic that can bring a child to his knees. How can a child who doesn't have food or shelter possibly perform well in school, regardless of the color of his skin?

Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a column called, "Separate and Unequal" on March 21, 2011. In the column, he writes:

"Educators know that it is very difficult to get consistently good results in schools characterized by poverty. The best teachers tend to avoid such schools. Expectations regarding student achievement are frequently much lower, and there are lower levels of parental involvement... Long years of evidence show that poor kids of all ethnic backgrounds do better academically when they go to school with their more affluent -- that is, middle class -- peers. But when the poor kids are black or Hispanic, that means racial and ethnic integration in the schools. Despite all the babble about a postracial America, that has been off the table for a long time... Schools are no longer legally segregated, but because of residential patterns, housing discrimination, economic disparities and long-held custom, they are emphatically a reality."

And this, my friends, is Champaign in a nutshell.

During my tour of BT Washington, I was shaken by the fact that the school only has a 7 percent white population. The clear racial divide in our town was at first heartbreaking -- and then suddenly I felt anger in my chest. And it wasn't an annoyance, it was seething. Months ago I had been worried about sending my son to any school in an impoverished neighborhood because poverty to me = higher chance of crime. During my tour, I was suddenly flushed and shamed for many reasons. First, I know that this particular fear is illogical. I worked in the BT Washington neighborhood for a year at the Douglass Branch Library. I enjoyed my time there. I worked with smart and savvy kids. Some of whom had parents who were in their faces all the time about school work and behavior, and some kids who I'm guessing haven't been parented since they left diapers. Some of the kids had parents working two jobs to make ends meet. Some of them had parents who were constantly looking for work. Others had parents in school. And a few had parents at home all day. That's no different than people in any neighborhood. Second, when you live in a neighborhood of homes well over the $200,000 range, like I do, you can say that you think the world has gotten a lot better in terms of racial relations because you see diversity in your neighborhood, at the park, in the extremely expensive pre-school/daycare that you've sent your son to for four years. But then you walk into BT and look at the faces of the students and realize how disjointed your reality really is. 

During the process, I mentioned that BT Washington was third on our selection list. In response, I had someone utter words about how I probably don't want my kid to inherit any of "those kids'" bad behaviors. My gut clenched and I explained that as a parent, I'm pretty sure that my child could learn bad behaviors anywhere. And that it's my job to make sure that he understands right from wrong whether he's in public or private school. Since that conversation, I've had three other people repeat the exact same words to me, so I've repeated the same answer, biting my tongue from including, "racist-like" between "bad" and "behaviors" as I spoke.

Five days after Bob Herbert's column, the New York Times ran an editorial about cuts being made between a rich school district and a poor school district in New York. Much, much, much more money was being taken from the poorer district than the richer district

Why representatives continue to make these kinds of decisions probably has a lot to do with campaign contributions and heat from well-to-do parents who like to point at their schools as being "good" and "successful." I got a similar class-centered vibe the first time I met the principal of Bottenfield Elementary School. Admittedly it was one of those, "You have 2 minutes to tell me why I should put you on my list of five schools --Go!" moments at an informational meeting. But the first thing he told me was that a large number of students at Bottenfield qualify for the gifted program -- but don't go.

The gifted programs are in schools north of University. Perhaps Bottenfield does do an overwhelmingly awesome job of education so that parents, particularly those conveniently located, don't feel the need to move them from a successful educational experience. But at the same time, it put up a divider and labeled "good" schools and "bad" schools. It took a tour of Bottenfield where I observed the awesome work by the teachers before I felt more than comfortable there. MacTroll, admittedly felt they were too formal. But I still listed it as my number 2 based on the educational and social growth excellence I saw going on there. 

Similarly, when I got my 20-minute tour of Stratton. The principal there talked about competing with the magnet schools to deliver  her students an equally enriching educational experience, particularly in the gifted program. I don't want my school district to have competing elementary schools. I want each child to be valued the same and treated as an individual. It shouldn't matter where he goes to school. If there's this much unevenness in how principals see their individual schools, how can we ever come together as a district?

So it was with a lot of shock and awe that I toured BT Washington with its principal after going to the informational meeting about STEM where the administration and teachers all confirmed that they would be teaching the curriculum in a different time frame without a focus on testing and would be using inclusivity among all students (even those in the "self-contained" gifted classes) in their new school. Seriously, I got up at the microphone and asked them to confirm/repeat what I'd heard before I posed my question. 

But it's become obvious to me when people ask me about kindergarten that there's a divide between those choosing private and those choosing public. If I come out first and say, "We're in the lottery for Unit 4." There is first a holding of breath on the other parent's part, and then a complete stoppage of conversation about where his or her daughter might be going. Five minutes later, I have to come around and ask directly... before they'll commit to telling me where they're choosing to send their child. And then they'll somehow confess hidden public school fears that they might or might not admit whether or not they think they're irrational. Most often, they blame it on their spouse, which may or may not be true. (For example, when we toured Next Gen's primary school when X-man was 18 months, MacTroll was sold on it. I was more for keeping the thousands of dollars to ourselves for his college. As we got closer to kindergarten, I agreed that X-man needed more outdoor time than the public school could give him, and maybe that 45 minute rest after lunch wouldn't be such a bad idea, but that obviously didn't work out for us.)

I don't mean this blog to shame anyone (except for maybe myself). The truth is that if you found a private school that you can afford that will teach your child a second language, given them outdoor time every hour, instill in them the religious values you hold dear and found a school where you feel the administration, teachers and environment are best suited for your child, etc. -- go for it. Don't worry about what other people think, especially not me. And, if this is you, disregard the next paragraph completely.

My anger comes out of other place. A place where folks have told me they plan on moving to Mahomet when they have kids to avoid the mess that is Unit 4 or Urbana. Or they want to move to Philo to be in Unity. Or they're suddenly joining a particular church, even though they haven't gone to church -- ever (like since they lived with their parents), to make sure their child attends the private school that's attached to it. These decisions are based primarily on fear. The parents don't even want to bother to find out information because? -- I'll venture a guess.

The one common thread appears to be wealth and race: Sticking with your own apparently makes people feel very comfortable. But that's not how the world should be, and the big lesson I learned from this whole situation is that the best thing I can do for X-man is to show him how the world works and how to make it how he'd like it to be. I want to teach him to be kind and patient and to be successful and scholarly in a group of peers who don't all come from the same place or look the same. And as bad as I think Champaign is at feeding the fear monster and putting way too much pressure on parents and kids about getting into the "right" elementary school, an article in the Financial Times (reposted by Slate.com) makes us look like weenies in the school selection process. At the same time, the author touches on the same kind of encounters and thoughts I've had about fellow upper class parents.

Katie Roiphe writes:

"The reality is that their school, like all the other schools, is a tiny bit diverse. There are a few kids who come a very long way every morning, from another neighbourhood, on a scholarship, but the large bulk of the class very much resembles in background the other kids in the class... if you were truly committed to sending your children somewhere "diverse", would you not be selecting a different school, one that doesn't require almost all of its students to pay tuition that could support several villages in Africa? ... The interesting element of this obsession is that each of these unique and excellent schools seems to be conferring some ineffable quality, not just on its students but on the parents of these students. In the 10 minutes they spend dropping their children off in its hallowed hallways, they are seeing some flattering image of themselves reflected back: progressive, enlightened, intellectually engaged."

In other words, the choice of the school and the fancy-pantsness of it -- reflects mostly on the parent. A "good" parent picks the school that has historically perform well (test scores). A "bad" parent settles for -- anything else. And I refuse to play that reindeer game.

I put Carrie Busey down as my first choice because I loved my interaction with teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the healthy food and fitness initiatives and the fact that not all the kids came from the same background. I worry that if we do get our first choice that once the school is built a stupidly convenient six blocks from my house -- that part of what I loved about the school when I chose it will fall away. I don't want it to lose that Carrie Busey feel and metamorphoses into something like a Barkstall. I don't want large and institutional with uniforms. I want it to be personal and individualized. Because as much as parents coo about the ease of uniforms -- in a school like Barkstall (and even at Stratton) you can still tell the haves from the have nots just as easy as if they had picked out their own clothes that morning. 

Honestly, I could forgive the ugliness of uniforms... but I couldn't forgive a kindergarten selection process that didn't open the doors of a new $18 million school to everyone in the district, and not just the people in my neighborhood. That just simply won't do. 

Controlled Choice is what we have. It's there for a reason, and it's not to screw your beloved child out of a good kindergarten program or to drive you insane. It's there to level the playing field so that all kids have fair access to all buildings regardless of how much money parents make or don't make. While many parents may see it as penalizing -- many may see it as a blessing.

In the end, I know my child will be fine, no matter what school he goes to. MacTroll and I stress education, respect and hard work. He'll learn those lessons even if his school isn't the highest ranked or most chosen school in the district. And if you don't believe me that parental involvement matters in awesome amounts -- ask Steven D. Levitt and read his book Freakonomics.


Julie P said...

Longtime lurker, here. Although I always enjoy your writing, this is the first time I've felt compelled to respond.

My daughter attended public school in Urbana from grades k-3. The first two years were wonderful - we loved her teachers, and she made some wonderful friends, of all shapes, sizes, and shades. Starting in second grade, lots of intense behavior problems began to emerge from severl of her classmates. I'm sure that it stemmed from environmental factors, and my heart did and does break for those kids. But, the school was unequipped to deal effectively with what was going on. My daughter was threatened with a knife, called horrible names, and had a boy expose his genitals to her (I can't even think about what that boy went through at home for him to feel compelled to do such a thing). The school, for reasons that I still don't understand, refused to take action (in spite of several meetings with the principal). Her teachers spent more time trying to manage the class than teach. When she matriculated from third grade without having completed the mastery of all the times-tables (they were only able to get through the 10s, though she knew them all), we felt that her education was too important to risk at that school.

My daughter began attending private school in 4th grade, and is now ending her 8th grade year. I can't tell you how wonderful our experience has been. She experienced none of the issues of middle school that many of our friends talk about, and I believe much has to do with the fact that she remained in the same school / school community through 8th grade. I never have understood why public schools put the kids with the wildest hormones and greatest physical/emotional/social changes in one building.

Anyway - I'm glad that you still have faith in the public school system. We sent out kids to private school, not out of fear or racism (and certainly not any sense of elitism - we struggle to afford the tuition), but out of a desire to give them the best education we possibly could.

Best of luck you your little guy and your family.

Charles said...

Dana, good stuff here. I'll try to respond in small chunks first.

I volunteer at Carrie Busey. Over time, I have developed an informal relationship with a child who is now in 5th grade. He is an awesome child, full of ambition, energy, skill and leadership skills. He is bursting full. So much so that he often gets in trouble - he simply does not thrive in the uniform, teach-to-the-test methodology that is handed down from our wonderful government. One day while he was in "time-out", I sat down and started talking to him. He didn't want to talk. I started talking to him about random things and asked him what he had for breakfast. He didn't have breakfast. He rarely has breakfast. That broke my heart.

We do have a huge socio-economic divide in Champaign. And I would love to learn how to bridge that gap more effectively. Not just in theory, not just "training", but doing. I love it that Carrie Busey has a fairly decent socio-economic diversified population. I do not like it that the PTA is not likewise diversified, and am taking steps to do something about that (another story). I believe you are right, Dana, that folks like to hang out with their own. It is a tough wall to climb over, but not impossible.

I am very concerned that Carrie Busey's SES ratio is going to shift towards middle/upper-class area. Is it practical or even realistic to ask our "richer" community to make room for and invite "poorer" Champaign residents to Carrie Busey? Am I making much ado of a small thing?

These thoughts nag at me. And I hope they spur me to action.

About that Kindergarten Lottery..... expectations not met. Change the expectations and VIOLA! :) But that also should be another story.

The Fearless Freak said...

@Julie, your story sounds similar to others that I've heard. Those parents elected to sell their house and move out of town instead of private school.

@Charles, our PTA has, for the whole time I've been there, been actively working towards getting more minority activity in the PTA, including our large ESL population (we've brought in translators, issued invitation through the ESL teachers, issued personal invitations to parents in our children's classrooms, etc) and haven't much success with it. This year, for the first time, we actually have a couple of dads involved, which is a huge change from our all white, all female PTA, we've had in the past. I feel like we can lead a horse to water but we can't make them drink. We have spent a lot of time and effort and gotten nothing for it. Of course, we have a small PTA to begin with (maybe 15 active members, although there are several others that have joined and help at big events but don't come to meetings, out of over 400 kids) so maybe we've got as much as we are going to get minority or not.

I know when we went through the process, I knew I was only willing to accept a few schools. I knew before we ever started that there were several I had absolutely no interest in so that narrowed my choices considerably (I knew, for example, that year-round just wasn't something that I could support). Because of that, we did tour private schools to have as a back up. At the time I was teaching at a Lutheran preschool and we settled on St. John's for various reasons, which, although I dislike most organized religions, would have required us to become members of the church so that we could afford to send him there. Fortunately, we got our 1st choice, so the point was moot but I think that most people fear the unknown and rather than touring all the schools (I know I sure didn't), they based their choices on assumptions and word of mouth.

Charles said...

Instead of inviting folks to come to us, we are going to go to them. It is just a pilot idea; my goal is to give folks a voice where they might not feel they have one. This past week I put an announcement in the school newsletter inviting folks to contact my wife and I if they were interested in meeting in small groups in a comfortable setting near their home. Only one has responded so far. But we will keep cooking up ideas. :) Never know what will work.

Julie P said...

We thought about moving, too, but it didn't work for us. I think Loosey has it right when she says that each family needs to do what's right for them. She's also got a point about the financial benefit to public schools - we still pay property taxes that support the schools, but don't use their resources. It's a win-win!