Poverty, Race, and Early Childhood Education Pt. I: Public Schools

 Let’s ponder what $1.4 billion will do to “drive education reform” and save jobs in Pennsylvania—from the perspective of a povertized, disabled, overeducated, Latina mestiza single mother of four.

This one’s personal, for me, so I’ll admit my biases, without hesitation: I’ve been waging what amounts to a small war, with the gatekeepers in my area, over what should not have been a complicated attempt to enroll my five-year-old in kindergarten.

Part of my bias is attendant to the fact that I am a native of the West, where education is an entirely different, more liberal, process; I have never lived in an area that is not also a university town . . . until now—and the effect on academic matters is straining; my previous home states were California and Colorado, which rank top and well, in national scores for public schooling, so this area’s lack of focus on the matter is more than a little appalling, to me; I am Spanish-speaking Mexicana, and we are not a demographic largely represented in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, where racism, ethnocentrism, and white privilege can be virulent.

When I move to a new state, I always read pertinent law regarding anything that might affect the rights of my family, including education law. Call me crazy, but I want to know the facts, before I start listening to what amounts to the opinions of district employees. In truth, I recommend this as an early strategy to every parent: be armed with the facts, and know your state’s education law is likely to be available for perusal online.

Pennsylvania statute provides that kindergarten is established for children ages 4-6. I breathed a sigh of relief at that, because my youngest is a “late child”: one whose fifth birthday is in October. What the statute doesn’t immediately disclose is that, in recent years, local districts have been given the right to elect “age cutoffs,” and to choose the date for which children must gain the required age for kindergarten enrollment.

My local district elected age 5, for kindergarten, and made the “cutoff” date 1 September. My little one had missed the “cutoff” by a matter of weeks.

I wasn’t particularly concerned by this news: I felt certain my child’s readiness would be the matter of most consequence to the local educators. I am, after all, a trained educator, myself. This is my fourth child and, as I often say, this is not my first rodeo: my first-born has an early December birthday, and there was no problem enrolling him in school—he was admitted on the basis of his readiness.

After speaking with the nice woman who had informed me of district policy, I phoned the superintendent’s office, to make an appointment. The obvious next move would be for my child to be tested for readiness, so she could begin school, right?

The superintendent’s secretary returned my call, and asked what I would like to discuss with her boss. I told her. She then said she would discuss the matter with the superintendent, and call me later. “No,” I told her. “I didn’t call to have you brief the man on why I want to see him; I called to make an appointment.” She fumbled briefly, then told me the superintendent handled those matters himself. “Well, may I speak to him?” I insisted. She put me on hold, for a very long time, while she clearly briefed the man.

He came on the line, disgruntled, and already of the opinion he meant to deny me. Yes, I can get all that from the way someone attempt to say the six syllables comprising “Dr. Jaramillo.”

We entered a long and contentious conversation about whether he could, in his capacity as superintendent, test my daughter for readiness. He stated he could not, that this was a district rule, implemented by the board of education, and the matter was thus “out of his hands.” Picture that going on for about twenty minutes.

I put down the phone, and called the State Board of Education. A kind man there spoke with me for a long while, in one of the most rewarding, yet depressing, discussions of late: the state rep agreed with me that the quality of education here is abysmal and told me, in the end, that, if he were me, he would not bother enrolling my child in a public school in Pennsylvania. I slid my eyes sideways, while laughing. “That’s irony-rich,” I told him, “but do you understand how deeply saddening it is for me to hear that, coming from a representative of the State Board of Education?” He said, in a verbal shrug, “I’ve worked here thirty years. I’m just being realistic.”

The facts of the matter, according to the State rep, are that the superintendent did, actually, have the authority to test my daughter for readiness, and approve her to enter kindergarten. That being said, the politics of local districts are such, it’s unlikely I could get the man to do so, without a court order.

Further, I learned that kindergarten is not required, in the state of Pennsylvania. So, even had I achieved the honor of having my child enter kindergarten at age 4, she would not be legally grandfathered into the first grade, because kindergarten has no bearing on the required grades. I’d be back to the whole fight again, the next year, when my child would still be a year younger than the majority of her classmates. And, the state rep wanted me to know, don’t try to matriculate credits from a public kindergarten to any private school: none will be transferrable.

All good arguments for not sending my child to a public school in Pennsylvania. When the state rep suggested I run for local school board, though, I just laughed, and nicely said, “Fuck you. Honey.” He laughed, too.

On 2 November, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the $1.4 billion given to Pennsylvania “is part of the single largest boost in education funding in recent history.” To be eligible, Pennsylvania leadership provided assurances that education reform will come in the form of annual student improvements; college readiness; the effectiveness of state standards and assessments; progress on removing charter caps; and interventions in turning around underperforming schools.

Mm hmm.

Next up: finding a private school to forward the education of my brilliant little girl. Crazy? As it turns out, worse than I’d imagined. Hey, but I’m from the West, where dreams come true, and these things are not so insane. Just don’t try it in Pennsylvania . . .



Canela A. Jaramillo



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