Notes on middle school open house
With love: STOP MICRO TARGETING ME
It is so hard. We want to make the right decision for our kids and for our neighborhood and for our city and it's not even that the right choices are in conflict with one another, it's that there really doesn't feel like there are any right choices available. Of course our family choices aren't going to fix this. And you rightly note that schools are at the end of many funnels. And still!
When we moved to Milwaukee a realtor confidently told us not to worry: that we still had time to move to Tosa before our kids were school-aged. She couldn't fathom that we wanted to be here, yes, for the schools. That "the right choice for our kids" for us meant we didn't want our kids to grow up in a racially and socioeconomically homogenous environment. And still.
I worry about what we lose as a community, as neighbors, without the anchor of shared, neighborhood schools. And I understand why so many black and brown activists fought for a chance to not just directly inherit the inequalities baked into residential segregation. And I, too, am annoyed that this choice is on me at all, and embarrassed at how low stakes, ultimately, it is for my family. And still.
Vouchers and giving parents "choice" is hot topic around my area. Our governor promotes it fiercely, the same guy who won't do anything to improve gun violence in schools. My retort to his sound bites is "what choice are you giving me, choice of morgue??". It infuriates me.
I loved your comparison to fire departments and the quality of water to extinguish flames. I was reminded of "food deserts" that leave poor communities, often non-white, without access to fresh foods and healthy choices. Access to good food and education should be like a utility, and not a "choice" for those privileged to have the means to make one.
Every time I think about school for my kids, my head explodes. I had no choice growing up. My parents were immigrants who were grateful we had public schools and public transportation. There wasn't a system to navigate because they were unaware of the system. We live across the street from the neighborhood public high school, BUT everyone keeps reminding us that the magnet schools are SO GOOD and THE BEST, and don't we want the best for our kids? I'm so deeply skeptical. It's not just the inequality of the whole thing, but I was a career teacher and administrator for 15 years at an elite private school. It was good enough for multiple Presidential families, and yet "the best" actually was awful in so many ways. I've never taught so many kids who had so much financially and socially, but who struggled so much emotionally and mentally. I normally am the kind of parent who talks through different choices with her kids, but this school choice feels like such a terrible one to ask them to make.
Hard to know what more there is to say that hasn’t already been said. It’s insane and unjust and has been ever since school systems were set up and it breaks my heart and breaks children and breaks society, over and over. And within that, teachers and their colleagues put everything it trying to make the children’s experiences unbroken.
I really appreciated the fire station analogy and I am looking forward to borrowing it for the Holidays. We're fighting deeply unpopular vouchers in Texas right now and your headline is also such a great summation of my general thoughts about all that.
And then there is your son and who he will become while he is here. Having a strong peer group that values school is a huge protective factor in middle school, a time when kids can be chameleons and hide their agony from parents, even your own child who you think you know, sinew and bone. As you already understand, being a teacher. And this is the danger if your kid is in this magnet school or a language school or a fancy suburban school or a private religious school or a pipeline to Ivy boarding school. Whose opinions will he value, what group of kids will try to convince him or bully him into deciding that trains are stupid, essentially working to pull out everything you’ve planted in him? School choice sucks but not having it (I raised my kids in an Idaho town where there were two middle schools and one high school and, well, it’s in Idaho) can also be fraught. I hope your son thrives wherever he’s planted.
I loved this piece, Garrett thanks so much for writing it!
There's one benefit to school choice that I haven't really seen an alternative to, which is enabling schools to have a shared vision for what education should be, other than our vague shared sense of what "default school" looks like (I think of it as "school as you'd put it in a sitcom if you were working fast").
I'm thinking about the charter school where I work. I think the way we do things (project-based learning with a strong focus on equitable structures) would be good for every kid, but I don't kid myself that we have any kind of shared national (or even city-wide) agreement on what "good education" looks like, so I can easily imagine a family saying "this is not for us" and doing whatever it takes to make sure their kid doesn't go there (just like I'd do whatever it took to make sure my kids didn't get enrolled in a "no excuses school."
I can imagine a school district running in a way that its schools could be fairly small, autonomous, and each able to develop its own distinctive character—I'm not sure if any large school districts have ever achieved this, but I can imagine it. But then what you'd end up with is schools with very distinct characters, and it would be reasonable for families to want to choose which school to go to. So school choice would play out either through "official" school choice, or through the real estate market.
I guess the TL;DR is that I have two wolves living in me, one of which thinks if we funded schools better we could do away with the desire for school choice, and another of which thinks the core assumptions about humans, the need to "sort", and what "learning" means that are baked into school are so screwed up that we need to radically transform everything.
Due to some life circumstances (d'oh, falling in love), I've been thinking more about our school and the ones nearby (aka the burbs). According to my reliable (second-hand) source...a suburban school system nearby doesn't have lunch for kids in most of its schools. No lunch, at all. The public school has no plan to feed its kids, other than "parents had better had their shit together." It astounded me (my poor boyfriend had to listen to a 20 minute rant following him telling me this). How can a school call itself the best, so great, when they can't feed kids? The answer is because it is almost exclusively white, and relies on patriarchal and classist assumptions (that is: every family has 2 parents, and one of those parents is a stay at home mom who has time to always put together a nutritious meal; or older kids can afford to eat out at a restaurant during lunch, or get home for a lunch). To me, it cannot be a "good" school if there is no flexibility for parents having a rushed morning, or needing to work shift work that's difficult to get out of if the kid forgets their lunch, or parents who are simply not present at all times. But it's a "good" school, so the realtors push white parents there.
This was so thought-provoking and well done. I don’t have children but I do wish that no parent had to deal with our current educational system, which bakes inequity right into the pie. The fire department analogy was spot on.
I’m excited to get my copy of your book 🤓
Take this but make it a spring 2020 inner monologues about kindergarten admission; that was me.
Wow, I love this reflection so much. This is such an important conversation for white parents to have!
Thank you for this. I teared up a little reading it - I have a train-loving kid in our neighborhood elementary school that happens to be bilingual and also has decidedly mediocre rankings. We love it. The teachers are friendly and (seem to) look out for the kids, the PTA is active without being in your face, and most families are there because they want to be (it's possible to opt out to a non-bilingual program). I try not to think about middle school.
Garrett I don’t have anything to say here except that I am furious and in-tears-devastated after reading this.
“What a gift to have your main relationship to this process be mere annoyance.” This is a small unassuming sentence in this whole gorgeous reflection but I find it so important. Thanks you Bucks. As usual, so grateful for the ways you are able to widen and shrink the aperture on the things that matter most with such complex intelligence and deep humility.
Thank you for writing this. I work with public schools, but I have never been part of a community where school choice was a thing, so my thoughts & feelings about it have been really poorly informed. You have given voice to something that I wondered about, but didn't know.
Garrett - please stop hitting me right in my emotional center.
My son just started kindergarten and I cannot tell you excited/happy/guilty I feel that we have a brand new elementary school right in our neighborhood that is diverse in both staff and students. In many ways it is approaching what I would like school to be like for everyone, but it is still disconcerting in ways I truthfully have not had time to unpack.