Sunday, December 15, 2013

Working it out in the neighborhood school

Many people have asked me how things are going at my son’s school. I realized it's been a while since I have written an update about our initial adventure in the neighborhood school in SLPS. I have attempted several times to put into writing what our experience has been, and yet it’s has been hard to do considering we were in the middle of that experience.

In taking time to reflect, I first have to look at what my son and I have brought to this school experience. First of all, this is the first time I have ever enrolled a child into any school. I don't know quite how to behave as a parent. I am constantly surprised at my "mama bear" reactions. This is a new facet of my identity that I am figuring out.

Add to the mix my son, who is quite exceptional. Quirky, actually. We have gone through all kinds of testing to see if he qualifies for special education, both for disability and gifted services. While this is all part and parcel to the school experience, it certainly intensifies everything. On the other hand, I can’t forget that this is the first time that my son has gone to school. And he is only three years old. So of course we had tears for the first few weeks and even months. There are still days where he begs me not to go to school so he can stay home, watch TV, and play with his brother. Even though I know he and his brother would drive each other crazy at home, I still feel guilty.

The only other experience I have had with school is when I was a student myself. Regardless of the school that I attended, the world is admittedly a very different place from when I was in school. My son will experience technology that I did not. He will be required to take tests that I was not required to take. But on the other hand, I intentionally enrolled him in a predominately Black school, while I went to school in a predominately White, segregated community. His experience is already vastly different from mine in that respect. So it has been hard for me to parse out what is the experience of being a new parent and a new kid at school, and the experience of what is "urban" and the neighborhood school.

When I get really honest with myself, I also realize that I have been worried that people are secretly waiting for us to fail. I imagine that they will be relieved when we finally confess that actually the neighborhood school is full of "dangerous" Black children, that the quality of education is inferior to whatever school they have chosen for their children. This is compounded by my own secret fears that I am doing damage to my child. Perhaps it stems from the little comments from my family members about my choice. Comments from well-meaning friends about the psychological damage that can be done to a White child in an all-Black school.

And yet, I have research to back up what I am doing. Evidence to show that explicitly teaching my child about "race" and racism will result in “race”-consciousness, anti-racism, and a healthy White identity. That getting involved in the school and maintaining a relationship with the teacher can add to the overall resources of the school. I have to reassure myself that I really do know what I'm doing. I just haven’t ever done it before.

All of this reflection is similar to the work I do with my research. I have to constantly "separate out a sense of self" from my research activities. That is, as with everything, "me" gets mixed into anything that I'm doing. So even as I try to be objective about getting involved in the local school, "me" is bound to get tangled up in the issues that are already at hand. The activity of separating out what I contribute to the experience in the school is helpful, and only serves to show how much more complex the situation actually is. The value in this activity is that I do not resort to quick and easy answers. I have quoted Charles Payne before: If the problems are complex, then the answers cannot be simple.

I have wanted to be able to write some kind of definitive statement about our experience, but it has seemed so messy and I have not been able to settle on what I want the public to know about this neighborhood school. I feel the need to protect it from the public’s tendency to call anything urban "bad.” But I also want to loudly proclaim that what we really need is more funding. That the education my son receives in the neighborhood school is inferior if for the mere fact that the teachers are paid less and there is no budget for preschool supplies.

I think I have at least come to the conclusion that our school is a good school. And more to the point, it is not a "bad" school. In fact, it would seem that the teachers are all that much better if they can teach without all of the funding and resources that wealthy districts enjoy. So in the end it's a very complex picture. That is, I think, the very point I hope to encapsulate here.  

We are too accustomed to thinking about schools in absolute terms. 
We talk about which schools are "good" and which schools are "bad." We have no paradigm for anything in between. But the truth is, that's all we have. Apparently, there are problems that stem from opulent wealth (e.g. “affluenza”), as well as from abject poverty (e.g. hunger, homelessness).

We have violence in all schools. We have children who are struggling to test "proficient" in all schools. There is racism and discrimination in all schools. There are very bad teachers in all schools. And there are wonderful, magical teachers who, despite all the odds, still teach and care for students. And let's not forget the parents, who pack up their children every morning to drive them or send them on the bus to school, including those parents who people say "don't care about education," and yet there they are at the bus stop, waiting in the freezing cold.

The truth is we don't have any perfect schools. We don't have any perfect experiences because schools are made up of humans, who are fundamentally flawed. But we know that there are better experiences than others. And we know that when children have full bellies, they can learn better.  We know that more money in education-terms always improves the overall experience. We know that a good teacher can make all the difference in the world, and that children need engaging instruction and curriculum. And we know deep down that not all children learn in the same way nor on the same day.

That is not to say a "good" school does not have many good things about it, or that a "bad" school doesn’t have many problems that the "good" school never has to face. But this is another example of a "chicken or the egg" scenario. Is the school "good" because people believe it is good, and therefore send their children and their money there, which causes "good" teachers to seek employment there? Is the "bad" school really bad because people believe it is and then send the kids there that nobody else wants? And then situation is compounded when the teachers believe they are teaching the "worst" students, so the students figure, "To hell with it. They already think I'm bad. I might as well go all out.” I believe this is the case.  

Because we construct our own reality, we can help to deconstruct it. 

We have encountered various issues that might be specific to an "urban" school, but I think they are also issues that all schools face. This means that my son has as much chance as anyone else. In fact, he is already privileged. He is getting a free, public education at the age of three years old. That puts him on track to be reading by kindergarten, which puts him on track to enter Harvard University, provided that we are making less than $60,000 a year so he can go there for free.

So my messages is, the suburbs can keep their schools. We're doing just fine in the neighborhood school.