Choosing an Urban Public School

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A few months before our first son was born, my husband and I moved into a charming downtown sort of neighborhood with many amenities: historic homes, tree-lined streets, shops and restaurants within walking distance. The community was eclectic and diverse, but good public education not one of the selling points. It was assumed that by the time our not-yet-born child turned five, we would move to a standard suburb with high scoring public schools.

Image Credit: _IamNicole_, via Flickr

So when I read Katie Granju’s Public Schools in Gentrifying ‘Hoods: Who Wants to Go First on Babble, I knew where she was coming from:

The public schools for which our neighborhood is zoned aren’t considered very good. Their test scores don’t measure up, and in some cases, the physical facilities aren’t great. They certainly don’t look or feel anything like the bright, shiny public elementary schools in the more upscale parts of town. Plus, as I said, I don’t actually know ONE SINGLE PERSON who is currently sending his or her child to our neighborhood’s public schools. And let’s face it, it’s scary to think of having my own child “go first,” as it were.

As Kindergarten loomed for our first-born, we researched schools: charter, magnet, private. I studied up on ways to apply for inter-district transfers, and attempted to juggle our expenses to squeeze out the annual private school tuition. For a brief moment, I considered home-schooling. Out of due diligence, we even toured our local public school.

The morning we visited the neighborhood elementary school will forever be one of those pivotal life moments for our family. There was the realization that significant percentage of the student body qualified for free lunch, that the same percentage also were non-native English speakers, and that the school’s overall test scores were not a selling point to people who are interested in such statistics.

But the kids looked happy. The teachers were experienced and caring. And as the principal informed me, “All public schools use the same curriculum.”

In the school office that morning, we met up with other families similar to ours. We all shared the same concerns. Like Katie Granju and her neighbors, we all looked at each other. Only instead of asking, “Who’s going in first?”, we said to each other, “We’re all going in together, right?”

That was five years ago. My older son just started fourth grade and my younger one is in first. I’ll admit, it hasn’t always been easy. Meeting the needs of disparate groups of children is a challenge. It’s not easy to bridge language and cultural differences to create a truly unified student body. Our population does not have the fundraising base that wealthy bedroom communities have.

In spite of all those things, our neighborhood -- and our school -- are the core of our community. And there is hope and enthusiasm for it.

Denene Miller of My Brown Baby recently wrote a piece called In Defense of Poor Public Schools on Parenting.com. I got all teary-eyed as I read it.

Classes were racially, ethnically and economically diverse; the school wasn’t some drab, dreary, gray affair but a bright, warm place that felt like kids could be happy there; teachers, staff and principal were friendly and accommodating and eager to show us that they could hang with our girls; and everyone welcomed me to become a part of the fabric of their vibrant school.

For all the negative stereotypes of urban public schools, they are also the source of life lessons that aren’t found in the standard core curriculum. The parents in our community are much more highly engaged than in more affluent neighboring campuses. Nothing catalyzes volunteerism and political involvement as much as seeing the effects of a broken educational children wrought on your children. Which is not to make it sound like sending my children to an urban public school is simply a bourgeois “do-gooder” act, or a holding hands across the railroad tracks while singing Kumbaya stunt.

The fact of the matter is that private school simply doesn’t pencil out for many parents – even educated, professional parents. Even if they are White or Asian. Unless something changes, inner-city public schools are a bellwether of what’s to come for all public schools.

I can’t promise that my children will always attend this kind of school. There are too many uncertainties. But for some, mainly low-income Latino and Black children, there are no other choices.

Have you seen inequities in the public school system based on race and class?

Where do we even begin to fix this?


Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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