school fight

Last week, on the virtual pages of The Local, a battle was raging over the direction of our district 13 schools.  It’s clear that everyone in the debate wants what’s best for their kids.  Some people are fighting for an expansion of “progressive” schools.  Others are arguing for supporting the schools that we have like PS 11 and PS 20, and still others have their eye on the long term problem of middle schools for our community.  I am not an educator, nor have I read much about educational reform (people keep talking to me about Diane Ravitch and others).  I am, however, the father of two girls at a local elementary school (PS11), and I am passionate about my involvement with it.  I believe, as Tudy stated in her comment on The Local below, that more school choice is not the best way to go if we want to see reform that truly helps our broadest communities, including our own children.

“In a system where school choice has become a prized “right,” it’s created competition between parents and between schools.  It has allowed parents to take an easy out instead of really standing up and insisting on quality public schooling for all. When parents approach public schools with the mindsets of consumers rather than involved citizens with a sense of commitment to their communities, the result is the inequity and broken system we see around us.”
— Tudy in Clinton Hill

My two children, in the third grade and Pre-K, currently attend PS 11, which is a few blocks from our home in Clinton Hill.  Before my oldest daughter entered Pre-K, I visited many schools with a focus on finding the “best” school for her.  When I went to a meeting about Community Roots Charter School, which had not yet opened, I was very excited because it felt like the founders had great ideas. Most of my friends were interested in this option as well, and submitted their children’s names to the lottery for a spot.  At the same time, the idea of supporting my community school was very important to me. We ended up going to our local school and I’m extremely glad that this is the path our family took.

One parent, who was struggling with this balance between what’s best for her child and what’s best for the community, compared it to a prisoner’s dilemma. I think she meant that if she does what’s best for her child she won’t be doing what’s best for her community and vice versa.   Putting it in this light assumes that choosing the local school over the lottery school would put their child at a disadvantage.  I don’t think this is true.  My daughter, who has been at PS 11 for 3 full years, is thriving there. We have struggled with small things but found it possible to negotiate through these difficulties.  While we all want what’s best for our own children, it’s also important to recognize that taking our kids out of challenging situations isn’t always in their best interest, and it’s not going to do anything to help bring about a diverse and robust education system for everyone.

If the vast majority of well-educated parents with financial and social resources vie for the choice spots at a limited number of stellar schools, then children without the advantage of this kind of parenting will be left far behind.  If those resources and energy were instead invested in their neighborhood schools like PS 11 and PS 20, they could quickly become the kind of schools that these parents envision; without leaving behind the kids with less well-connected parents.  It’s important to remember that schools like 321 and 8 were once troubled schools.  Robust parent and community involvement turned them into the sought-after jewels they now are.

That same process is well under way in our local schools.  When my daughter was two, we went to an information session that the “Friends of PS 11” had arranged, and it was exciting for me to see others in the neighborhood putting so much effort into improving the local schools.   When it came time to sign up for Pre-K, I wasn’t able to get one of the limited spots at either PS 11 or PS 20.  We ended up going to 282 in Park Slope, which had a reputation as an up-and-coming school.  We had a great teacher and a fantastic class. However, I learned from the commute that for our family, it simply didn’t make sense to go out of the area, even if a school was “better.”  I think it’s important to remember that a 45 minute to 1 hour commute each day to a school like BNS or NEST is hard on a kid.  It’s 1-2 hours a day of extra stress, and even more travel time for the parent.  That time, if spent in their child’s school volunteering, could have an enormously positive effect.  After biking from Clinton Hill to Park Slope and back it always seemed like I had to turn right back around and go to get my daughter from school.  This distance also kept me from having the time to be involved with the school.

That year, as I tried to figure out the best Kindergarten for my oldest, I again went on the tour at 11.  It was led by a parent named Nancy Bruni, whose son was in the 4th grade. EVERY kid in the school knew Nancy.  They all ran up and hugged her.  I was kind of blown away by that, and inspired. Her relationship to the school and the students made it crystal clear that supportive parents in the school have a profound impact on the children.   We were very excited when we got a spot at 11 for Pre-K.   Now that I live close to the school (and thankfully work from home) I am able to help out at lunch 1 or 2 days a week.  It also makes it possible for me to easily make it to PTA meetings, and other volunteer situations.  Now, like Nancy, I have trouble moving through the school without being hugged.

Over the last couple of years I have seen a series of profoundly positive changes at the school.  The PTA pulled together its resources and created an after school enrichment program (supported through fundraisers like the silent auction) to compliment the Dodge Y program that’s already a great resource (it has limited capacity and can’t take all the kids that need it).  My daughter has taken tennis, violin, guitar, piano, mad science, and yoga.   Due to the phasing out of the Lead program (gifted and talented) the school has more resources for schoolwide enrichment. The students go to science and art class twice as much as they did in the past (and the science and art teachers are amazing). Last spring, several parents came together to put together a school environment initiative to set up a structure for positive reinforcement and a focus on school values.  We met consistently for the past 8 months and have come up with an awesome program of values that is being worked into the curriculum and will be integrated in a new recess program in January.  We are now talking about ways in which we can share this work with other schools.

As I said at the beginning, when I first started looking into options for my daughter, I was certainly seduced by the idea of schools like Community Roots.  Who wouldn’t want the “best” situation for their child?  However, my experience, as well as the current debate about the possible Arts and Letters expansion, has led me to ask some hard questions about our current situation.  I won’t argue with the fact that Roots is a great school.  At the same time, it seems unfair that some kids get the advantage of having schools that can hire on the open market and have extra resources for smaller class sizes, simply because they won the lottery.  We should be fighting for supportive education for all of our children.

In addition to this resource gap, when these families leave the local schools for the lottery schools, local schools like PS 11 and PS 20 are left with much less social capital.  The hardest question is how is it any different for people to demand school choice in 2010, (which if we step back and look at it honestly, leads to a great deal of segregation by class and race)  than it was in 1960 for people in Boston or Chicago or NY to move to the suburbs to avoid school integration?  Who would we hold up as examples of who we would want history to show us to be; the ones who moved to the suburbs – or the ones who stayed and worked hard to integrate the schools in order to create a more equitable society for their children?

I don’t want to create the misconception that going to our local school has been some kind of sacrifice.  Our older daughter, who is in her fourth year at the school, loves the school.  This year she is starting to play saxophone in the school band and is thriving academically. Our younger daughter in Pre-K has an amazing teacher and despite the fact that she would much rather just be at home with her parents, is also doing great.  I believe that our neighborhood schools are strong and I urge my neighbors to join me in making them even stronger.

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