Monday, October 5, 2009

The Public's Schools

I have a confession to make: As the mother of a rising kindergartner,
there's a tiny part of me that hopes all the "neighborhood schools" candidates get elected to the Wake County Board of Education on Oct. 6.
You see, as a mom, I'd really love for my son (and, in a few more
years, my daughter) to attend the elementary school in our neighborhood.

not to love? We could walk to school in 20 minutes, joining with our
friends along the way to form a daily elementary school parade. He
would be in school with kids he knows, whose parents I know. He'd be at
a "good" school that's safe, familiar, stable and on a traditional
calendar. Norman Rockwell himself would probably want to paint a
picture of it all.

Even before I became a mom, I couldn't fault the parents who complain
about (and then form yet another group to fight) annual reassignments
that resulted in instability, uncertainty and sometimes long drives for
families around the county. Now that I am a mom, I understand their
concerns in a whole new way.

But I know too much. I am more than
a mom -- a former teacher, a public education advocate, a citizen, a
taxpayer -- and I cannot in good conscience support an approach that
will lead to the re-segregation of schools, no matter how lovely my
personal scenario might seem through the eyes of motherhood.

a parent, my job is to do what is in the best interest of my own child.
But the teachers, administrators and elected officials in our
community? Their job is to do what is in the best interest of ALL
children, regardless of what neighborhood they live in or who their
parents are.

There are plenty of arguments on all sides of the
debate around "supporting diverse schools" or "supporting neighborhood
schools" (which aren't mutually exclusive in theory, but generally are
opposites in practice). I don't have the time or energy or clarity of
thought to wade through them all. But here are few things that, from
research and personal experience, I know to be true:

  • Schools
    with high concentrations of poverty have a harder time being successful
    than schools with fewer low-income students. It's not some kind of
    hogwash about having poor kids sit next to rich kids so they can learn
    better. It's simply that students living in poverty, no matter how
    smart they are, come with additional challenges (like being hungry or
    not having adequate health care or having a single parent who can't be
    home much because she's working two jobs) that schools must try to

  • Schools with high concentrations of poverty
    tend to have higher rates of teacher turnover because they're tougher
    places to teach. That usually means more teachers with less experience
    and a general instability within the school culture, which means that
    teachers suffer and students suffer. And that's all students in the
    school, not just the poor ones. Studies suggest that students in poor
    and minority schools are twice as likely to have an inexperienced
    teacher and are 61 percent more likely to be assigned an uncertified

  • Advocates for a "neighborhood schools"
    approach who claim that additional funding will be given to schools in
    poor neighborhoods to help them overcome their challenges are full of
    crap. Particularly in today's world of slashed budgets, the money won't
    be there -- or if it does come, it won't last long. And, unless you're
    Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children's Zone, it won't be enough to make a difference.

  • Wake
    County's diversity policy is imperfect -- and I think the district
    sometimes does a poor job of implementing the policy, leaving families
    feeling ignored and snubbed -- but maintaining integrated schools is
    the right goal. The district is not "out to get" anyone and derives no
    pleasure from disrupting parents' vision of how school should be. They
    are simply wrestling with making the best decisions they can in support
    of the nearly 140,000 students in the district.

As for the
election on Oct. 6, unfortunately I don't get to vote because I don't
live in one of the districts on this year's ballot. If you are eligible
to vote, I certainly don't presume to tell you who to vote for and am
not endorsing any candidates. But I hope that, regardless of where you
live, you'll consider that, as parents, we have the luxury making
decisions based on our own children. Our school districts must consider
all the children at once.

* * *

If you'd like more information the role of diversity in maintaining healthy public schools, read Making Choices, a report I co-wrote in 2003 when I worked at Wake Education Partnership, or Striking a Balance, a 2008 report from the same organization. And feel free to comment, argue, debate -- just please be polite about it.

When Cyndi climbs down from her soapbox, she can be found blogging at Junius & Pippi Take the Cake.

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