On Public Schools, race and class

I wrote a long post to a parents discussion list that I participate in recently– in response to a question posed by a smart and very thoughtful mother (someone I’ve met very, very briefly but don’t really know) as she was trying to think through the variety of values, concerns and goals she has in choosing a school for her son who is just getting ready to start school in another city.

It is such a big moment for a parent as well as for a child– when a child starts school.  All parents send our children off with all our love and all our hopes and all our worries.  It is such a big part of our lives; participating in an institution like a school, with all the hustle and hurry, with all the lively, good and interesting things that go on and all the challenges, upsets, and real deficits that every school operates with– though some schools operate on deficit of resources to address the real needs of their students to a greater extent than others.  Wherever we send our children to school we all do so with a desire that they will do right by one’s own particular child.

I remember well the fears and the intense focus of the year or so before my daughter started school as we, along with many other parents we knew with a child in our daughter’s age cohort, tried to figure out what was important to us, what our options were, what the different options honestly looked like and what really mattered to us about schooling.  Looking back, it was a clarifying time.  I had a little cohort of mothers who were also doing the same looking and evaluating.  I got to notice what we had in common and I got to notice our differences in values and also in approach.

As I set out to write a bit to the list, what came out was a piece in which I tried to reflect and speak honestly about our decision to send our daughter to a public school and my thoughts about public school now that we are five and a half years in.  I have edited it to take out some references to things either personal to the writer to whom I was responding or things that don’t fit here.  I’ve also added to it to reflect some shared assumptions that had already been established in the correspondence.  But although I have alluded to these ideas, this is the first and only “whole cloth” piece I have written to date about my thinking about why public schools.  I thought I would share it with you.

Dear T,

I love your question and I loved the chance to sit and work on writing some of our experiences.  This is one of those topics that makes me remember how much I want deep connections with other parents as I figure things out in my own family, and how much I love to listen to other parents as they work to figure things out in theirs, how valuable it is to be listened to well by other parents and how valuable it is when I can listen well.  The questions about school for our children are informed by our ideas and informed by our feelings and it’s good to be able to work on both thinking and feelings.

My very short, shorthand, general view of why stick with public schools is this.  I identify as someone with mixed class background– working class and middle class– but raised primarily middle class and currently middle class.  And I’m white and Jewish.  In the context of those identities (mine) the reason I think that sending a child to public school is important is that for all the deep failings and failures of public schools (but there are deep failings and failures of all schools in the world as it is)– public schooling is a very important foundation/demand in the society.  In my mind it (public schools for all) really is a foundation for a certain kind of democracy and equalizing of people in a society that is deeply stratified.  Pursuing public schooling puts us up against the need to eliminate racism and classism.  Public schools currently reflect all the racism and classism we face as a society, but they also seem to me to be the correct outcome –the right goal– good public schools for all–where young people build community with those around them to learn.

Participating in public schooling offers us and our children the chance to push ourselves to share in the many good things that are happening around us and in our communities and to not separate ourselves from others in our communities.   And public schools offer us the chance to face honestly and together– the difficult challenges we face as a society.   And they offer us the opportunity to work together with parents and with teachers to reach for change as quickly and effectively as we can figure out how to do so.

I think that for middle class people, participating in the public school system is an opportunity to take an important stand against individualism and the capitalist (and particularly middle class) notion that there are individual solutions to our difficulties or that we can somehow buy or even organize our individual ways out of the messes we face as a society, rather than make the whole system right.  I think about this in much more nuanced terms and I think there are good reasons at times– given the options– to make very different choices.

Those ideas were the overall thrust of my partner’s and my decision to lean toward and ultimately to participate in the public school system.  Looking back at our five and a half years of our daughter’s participation in our public school, it seems clear that this has been a particularly important stand for us as a middle class family.  That to have made a different choice would have had profound ramifications in terms of not just her schooling, but in the position it would put us in– in the world– as apart from others in our community.  These separations have effects both in terms of who we get to know, and how we come to understand ourselves.  I think that these are separations that aren’t the cause of, but do perpetuate the deep and unjust class and race divisions of our society.

My daughter is 10, in the 5th grade and has attended public school since she started school in kindergarten.  We live in a diverse neighborhood (both race-wise and to some extent still class-wise– though gentrification has made this neighborhood much less diverse than it was even 10 years ago when my daughter was born).  We are fairly centrally located (as opposed to some of the outer edges of our city which have a more suburban feel to them) in an urban neighborhood in a major US city.  Like you, we were very committed to public education for our daughter, but we wondered if it would be good for her, and if we should reach for something else.

Early on we looked at and applied to one progressive private school.  She was accepted there, but we couldn’t afford it– but more importantly we decided that the benefits it seemed to offer– which were quite a few– didn’t outweigh the sense we had of that school as a place “apart” from the mainstream of our city and in the end the benefits didn’t outweigh our desire to have her in a truly diverse, not a selective– environment.  So we didn’t explore options for financial aid or other ways of raising the money to send her there.

Both my partner and I are white, and my daughter is Chicana.  Knowing that she already faced, at age five, and would continue to face racism kept us focused on our desire to take a meaningful stand against racism/ classism in our decisions about schooling.  Though I don’t mean to imply that this would have been any less important to our own well-being had our daughter been white.

Looking back I would describe our decision for ourselves and for our daughter as a decision to cast our lot with the working class people of our city in the particular way that public schooling provides.   I want to be honest here.  There were public schools in our neighborhood, including the school we were zoned for, that seemed too harsh and like places that it didn’t make sense to send her to– so we “cast our lot” to the extent we could, while also holding onto our thinking about what we thought did or didn’t make sense for her as a young girl, to face in her school on a daily basis.  Some of the schools we completely rejected served predominantly working class people of color.  And some of the schools we rejected out of hand, were deemed “good public schools” and were dominated by middle class white families but also seemed harsh and unworkable.

We ended up sending her to a public school here that is walking distance from us– though we, like you, were just a block on the wrong side of the school zone line.  She got her spot at the school she attends through a lottery system that is available to any resident of our city who wants to send a child to a public school outside of their school zone.   Because her school is considered one of the several “good” schools in our school system, many working class and poor families apply to it through the lottery, as we did and many who attend this school come from outside the school zone and outside of this neighborhood.  This school is a dual immersion, Spanish English bilingual school which is heavy on Latino/a staff, leadership and families, a fact that was very important to us.

You also asked about people’s perspectives on the importance (or lack thereof) of choosing a school that is in close proximity to home.  I will say that for us, school has had some big ups and downs and having the school be convenient has been very helpful.

I have always worked– and we live — not terribly far from school, so I have had the chance to pop over there when she’s having a hard day, when I wanted a better sense of what the heck was going on, when I have wanted to increase my connection to the school or to her when things have been hard.  It has helped that I can get there easily.  But there are other things about the school that probably would have made it a great choice even if we hadn’t had the convenience of the location.  Also, because this school is considered a “desirable” public school– although we live nearby– many, many of her fellow students are young people from families who live all over the city and long distances from school.  And because our family, and my daughter, in particular– has been successful in building friendships with many young people across race and class lines– we have many relationships that involve a fair amount of commuting to different parts of the city– some not very close at all.

A couple of other observations.  We have had our share of good and not-so-good and many somewhere- in-between teachers.  We share your perspective that there is a need for a profound change in the culture overall to afford deep and full respect to young people and their minds, your perspective on the value of big opportunities for young people to show rather than stifle emotion– including heavy tears, laughter during lessons etc. and your perspective about the importance of lots of play and deep connection as integral to any learning environment.  So with all that as our baseline and with all the conditions of capitalism and in particular with teachers and teachers’ unions under increasing attack and criticism and the increasingly difficult conditions in classrooms (testing and all that stuff that you know well)– we’ve had our ups and downs.

We’ve tackled difficulties one at a time, some very successfully and some not as successfully.  Like any young person, my daughter has her struggles in school and out of school, but she has not been squashed by her schooling even though it leaves much to be desired.  She is a wonderful, inspiring person and she definitely has her own mind intact.  We’ve done lots of special time, and wrestling and staying home from school when things just feel too hard, talking and many other things to make it so that she feels our support and backing and can tackle the challenges as they come along.

I think there has been great, great value for my daughter in being part of a truly public school and in casting our lot with our neighbors– close in and throughout the city.  And I know it has been very good for me to be part of this institution even though it has challenged me in many ways.  I think that in our particular mixed race family– our love of the school and our relationship to it has been an important stand for us white adults to take against racism.  It appears to me that her seeing us take this stand has made a huge difference to her.  And her being part of such an amazing and diverse group, with all its strengths and naked difficulties– has also been great for her and for us.

She has had some incredible teachers– in kindergarten and the next year a first grade teacher who were Latinas and were both so incredibly loving and tender and reassuring and enthusiastic, and relatively welcoming of tears and feelings, I couldn’t have found anyone better if I been left to hire the teacher myself.  Last year her teacher was a young black man who is an amazing guy.  She adored him and chose (over my offers to move her) to endure a Spanish teacher who was unfairly very, very harsh with her, so that she could be with Mr. R.  My partner and I also  adore and have the deepest respect for, Mr. R.

Mr. R. was a great teacher and offered her some valuable perspectives on herself and on the world, that I know will stay with her forever.  Over the course of her difficulties with her Spanish teacher, Mr. R. became our ally and her ally in some remarkable ways and our chance to get to know him so well was one of the big gifts of that school year.  Mr. R. would not be found in a school other than a public school.

Having a young person in school and reaching to make it work in the biggest sense for the child is a project, for sure.  We adults have thrown all we have at the project of making this education work well.  My partner coaches the 4th and 5th grade girls basketball team with another parent, and I have volunteered in the classroom a lot and taken on some projects to make us visible as Jews and to address racism and “diversity” issues in the school.  We spend a lot of time getting to know the teachers and we have fought hard for good relationships with everyone from the security guard, to the lunchroom folks, the principal, the librarian, the janitorial staff, the front office staff and with many other parents.  (My partner is especially good at this kind of relationship building, one at a time, from security guard to principal.)   And we have succeeded in many of our efforts.

One other thing I love about public schooling that I think would be different in a different setting is that there is a certain lack of pretense.  The administration isn’t trying to “sell” the school, so that to some extent when we’ve had complaints the teachers or the principal have been more free than I think they would be in a different setting to say something along the lines of “yeah– that is really a problem but we don’t have the resource or don’t know exactly what to do about it”.    And the lack of pretense has been helpful even when the situation wasn’t good.

Those are some of my many thoughts.  I’d love to hear more of yours as you navigate these waters.

With love,


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