Saturday, August 3, 2013

Spending "social capital" at the neighborhood school

We did it. We enrolled our son in a neighborhood school. Our son, who actually may not have any melanin in his skin, will be in a school that is comprised of 90% children of different shades of brown and black. This is only of interest if you consider that in the same school district, the magnet schools, which are determined by lottery and are supposed to be the best schools, are populated by almost 50% White children. Many of these schools are labeled as “gifted” schools, which also means they have full kitchens and nicer buildings. You know, things that “gifted” children need.

What we have in St. Louis is re-segregation within a diverse city. This is evidenced by the fact that charter schools and private schools are popping up left and right every year (and incidentally, also closing every year). These schools are supposed to maintain a “racial balance,” which means that most White children and more generally, middle-upper class children in the city of St. Louis can avoid open-enrollment, neighborhood schools.

Now before you think that I am somehow bragging about my decision, I wish I could let you feel the nausea that has been a constant companion for the past few weeks. Essentially, I am going against all advice from my parents, professors, and church friends. On top of that,  I have never had a child in school before. And finally, my choices for preschool teachers at the school we got into are 1) a teacher who showed implicit bias against her students and parents in an earlier observation and 2) a recent TFA (Teach for America) grad that hasn’t finished her teaching degree yet. The second is the one I hope we will get, because all the parents like her so much they have requested to stay in her room for one more year. I take that as a good sign. 

I found an e-mail address for this teacher and wrote to her very openly:

“I can see bias in people and in the system. I can see that I, a White woman, was treated better than another parent, a Black woman, the day I came to visit. That is not right...

I know my son will be treated well no matter where he is. My big concern for my son is that he will slowly learn that some people are 'worth more' than others because he sees day in, day out, that some children get punished more for lesser infractions, while some children get treated better...

I worry about lowered expectations for the whole class that will impact how much my son can learn over the course of a year. I'm not claiming he is gifted--I just know that right now he loves learning. That is my bottom line—even if instruction is terrible, it has to be fun. He has to still like school when he is in 1st grade. I want to put him in an environment where he learns that all people are valuable, smart, and worth an excellent & challenging education.”

The teacher, who again, is the one that we prefer, commented that it was nice to finally be talking about inequality with a parent. I replied:

“Well, I am not the only parent to call it out. The parent who was there the day I visited was calling it out also, but she did it in a way that was 'unacceptable' to the teacher. In looking at research on social capital, it just happens that I have a middle-class way of activating my social capital. I know how to work the system to my advantage. The challenge will be for me to do so in a way that doesn't privilege myself over others, but enters into solidarity with other more marginalized parents and students.”

This is a situation where knowing “too much” about education is not working in favor of my nervous system. However, I am committed to making this work. My governing ethic is that because I have this “social capital,” all this knowledge about education, social networks, etc. I can add it to the schools resources for a greater net sum. So I marched myself over to the school to meet with the principal to get the ball rolling.

I can see the ways in which my level of education and socioeconomic status become “capital,” starting from the way I am treated before I have even opened my mouth. I often wonder, however, how I gained my sense of entitlement. Further, I wonder why it is that the way I advocate for myself is received so much differently than others around me. I have an expectation that I will communicate my needs and desires, negotiate outcomes with the “experts,” and achieve at least some of my demands within the confines of the institution.

Both Lareau (2002) and Lareau & Horvat (1999), who are educational sociologists, describe so well how this sense of entitlement is transmitted from middle-class parents to their children, and the rewarded by institutions.

“In a historical moment when the dominant society privileges active, informed, assertive clients of health and educational services, the strategies employed by children and parents are not equally effective across classes. In sum, difference in family life lie not only in the advantages parents obtain for their children, but also in the skills they transmit to children for negotiating their own life paths” (Lareau, 2002, p. 749).

This effect is further compounded by White privilege in the case of White parents and children. My strong sense of entitlement is something that is transmitted and then affirmed through institutional interactions.

It is not that one way of advocating is better; it is that institutions privilege only certain behaviors and perceived attitudes.

I do not deserve better treatment than anyone else. Everyone wants to be treated with respect. But I have to acknowledge that on a deep level, I expect to be treated well, and because of my privileged status in society, this expectation is often fulfilled.  This is yet another space in which I can choose to use privilege redemptively, by using it for the good of all children, and not just my own. 

I’ll let you know how it goes.

I would love to hear feedback from parents and teachers.  Is anyone else doing something unique in education that counters the trend of segregation and inequality?  What does that look like for your family?  



Lareau, A. (2002). Invisible inequality: Social class and childrearing in Black families and White families. American Sociological Review, 67(5), 747–776.

Lareau, A., & Horvat, E. M. (1999). Moments of social inclusion and exclusion race, class, and cultural capital in family-school relationships. Sociology of Education, 72(1), 37–53.

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