Tuesday, September 23, 2014

FAQ: School Choices in an urban neighborhood (part 1)

It turns out that this answer, to what appears quite a simple question, might be longer than I thought. Which means I’m splitting it into two parts. You’re welcome.

Jayci was not even two years old when we decided for sure we were going to move downtown. As her hair grew even blonder and less baby-fine, her legs grew longer, and the crazy dream inched (oh-so-slowly) towards reality, we got the same question with increasing frequency: What are you going to do about school?

Despite how often we get asked this question, I’ve avoided answering it, particularly in such a public forum. People have all-of-the-strong-feelings about schooling: public vs private vs homeschool vs unschool. And my feelings, as it turns out, don’t run especially heavily in one direction or another.

For us, the answer was generally a shrug and a good-natured quip about having a few years to figure it out. Then, we would invariably shoot each other slightly-panicked looks because, what were we going to do about school? And time marched by, with kindergarten looming ever-closer. We researched a few schools with somewhat half-hearted luster, uncertain of how exactly to proceed.
Basically we narrowed down our options to the following somewhat simplified list: public school, charter school, private school, or homeschool.

I, of course, wanted to immediately cross homeschooling off the list, because I am unorganized and impatient and everything I imagined a homeschooling momma should NOT be. Adam refused to let me nix that idea, so we kept it on the table.

Without being too organized about it, we researched (read: googled and talked to friends and visited) our options. And then we talked a lot about what our priorities were for school for our kids. We prayed some, and then prayed some more.

For us, we knew that diversity was one of our primary considerations: As I’ve mentioned before, we wanted Jayci (and eventually Caden) at a school where they could sit under teachers of color, and learn alongside people whose skin-tones spanned the rainbow. We know the Kingdom of Heaven will certainly not look a whole lot like us, so why should our walk here on Earth?

Both kids attended preschool at an amazing and wonderful private school, where they got scholarships (which they could have continued into elementary school); however, we began to feel an emerging uneasiness with the divide becoming evident in our lives and our kid’s lives. This divide basically amounted to the fact that all of their peers and friends looked a whole like like them; but the kids with brown skin in our neighborhood were the ones fed and helped with homework, and otherwise cared for. This means no matter how carefully we treated those around us at home with dignity, there still emerged a clear demarcation of white skin = peer, and brown skin = poor. Obviously, this was nothing we were intentionally cultivating, but we felt worried that the choice of a private school for the rest of their school years would perpetuate and strengthen this assumption. And this worry didnt even begin to touch the prickly feelings I felt about lack-of-diversity in many of the private schools we looked into. That, I suppose, is another story for another day.

The obvious swing-in-the-other-direction option would be our local elementary school. I still spend many days where my mind grows troubled by the thought that we should have sent Jayci there. That she could walk to school (literally a block away) with her neighborhood friends (and us too obviously). That nothing will ever change or get better unless we are truly, fully, willing to enter into the places where clamor for change grows loudest. The truth is that our local elementary school is low-performing and at-risk and Title I and failing and all of the other labels you might imagine. It’s 99% African-American (although for all the time I’ve spent there, I cannot quite figure out who comprises the other 1%), and 100% free-and-reduced lunch.

One of the best pieces of advice we received from some veteran urban-missionaries at last-year’s CCDA conference was that there is no one perfect answer for every child, every year. That we could rest in the freedom to be led by the Holy Spirit and to switch schools if we felt that leading changing. That our kids could go to two different schools if we felt that was best for them and for our family. That we were not making this decision in a terrifying vacuum of “the rest of our lives,” or at the very least the next thirteen years.

That said, Jayci is shy and timid. She’s not particularly confident or loud, and she embarrasses easily. Despite a certainty that we could supplement any lacks in specific learning-areas at home, we felt a certainty in our hearts that Jayci would not weather well being the solitary cream-colored girl with bright blonde hair and shy blue eyes in a school full of braids and soulful dark eyes and chocolate skin. Based on some of the events we have attended with our children at Gideon’s, our children would be singled out in this environment for special treatment. They would get sent to the front of the line rather than having to wait their turn. Singled out, for Jayci (as for myself), just might be the worst-possible fate. Understanding that none of these reasons even begin to scratch the surface of inequities in education and the fact that we, because of our socioeconomic status and skin-color, have far greater range of options and considerations. I could preach for days about low-budgets and lower performance, of kids who deserve far better, of classrooms without books. But for now, I’ll climb off that high-horse and try not to apologize for not choosing this school for Jayci.

I'll stop here for today, more coming tomorrow (or possibly the next day . . . you know how hard it is for me to make promises).

Updated to add: You can go read part 2 right here).

14 comments:

  1. I love that reminder that decisions are not for the rest of our lives and that no choice is perfect for all children. Word.

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  2. I am so excited to read part 2! We think about this all the time for our yet-to-be-born-or-conceived children in our neighborhood. Thanks for sharing openly about your journey! So much wisdom!

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    1. Jamie :-) I totally get thinking about it a lot already! -- feel free to email or call with any other questions you have any time . . . or we could get coffee :-)

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  3. Oh, Rebecca. OH, I hear your heart! Our family is wrestling down the same issues.

    For us, the right choices has been the urban school down the street. We walk there every morning and I walk them home every afternoon. It is 100% free lunch, Title I, and failing. (Or "priority" as Oklahoma now calls it.) It has been a very deliberate choice to send our girls there but the dynamic is a bit different. It is truly the rainbow of diversity that we have dreamed of - black students, Asian students. Hispanic students, and even a sprinkling of other white students like our girls - but we constantly question, "are we doing the right thing?" It looks so very, very different from the schools Kyle and I grew up in, and we are mostly thrilled about that. Except when we are not.

    Our biggest struggle will come when it comes time for them to leave our happy, safe elementary and move forward to middle school. The middle school we are zoned for is not safe. So then we have to navigate how to honor our family's devotion to diversity while making choices that are best for our kids' holistic health and well-being. Oh, the dilemmas.

    Anyway, I love, love, love that you pointed out the tension between white skin = peers and brown skin = poor. It's a tension that those of us who choose urban living know so well, and I just so appreciate your boldness in giving a name to that tension.

    GOSH, I wish we could just sit down for coffee and talk this out in person! I know we would have so much wisdom to share with each other.

    Thank you, thank you for writing this. I understand so much.

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    1. Megan! Ditto to the coffee wish. Sounds perfect. Or maybe margaritas and cheese dip :-) Also, Adam and I have talked about that if the school was more mixed-ethnicity, I think we would have sent Jayci there even if it was 100% free and reduced lunch. Something about being literally the only white girl . . . . I dont know though because gosh you are right, such a wrestle all the time!!!

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  4. Oooh, girl. I love this perspective so much. I don't know that I'd ever thought of the "risk" (too lazy at the moment to comb around for a better word) of being the only white kid in the school. And of course you know what I mean by risk...not the obvious kind of risk.
    I admire your thoughtfulness here.
    Much love.

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  5. this is my favorite…. keep it comin!!!!

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  6. So excited to read this. We always assumed we'd homeschool for mostly selfish reasons - our families live far away and we want the freedom to travel whenever and wherever we'd like without school obligations holding us back. But as our girls (ages 2 & 3) near school age and I started looking into co-ops around us, I started feeling this anxiety about becoming separatists, only surrounding our kids with people who looked, thought and acted just like us. I'm SO conflicted now! I'm reading a lot of opinions from other mamas about what they do and why and I'm really interested to read the rest of what you have to say. Love the reminder that we are not making a 13-year commitment, or even a 1-year commitment and can make changes as needed and as He guides us.

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  7. Thank you for writing this! It is good to hear your thoughts as y'all are already going through this. I look forward to hearing more!

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  8. I love you. You can do this, friend. (and thanks-not-thanks--just when I thought my unschooling book was done--I thought of a bunch more stuff I should have included)

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  9. I love this post! We have talked about this very topic even though we don't have babies yet. I was homeschooled but I work in a very diverse, Title 1 school, so I've seen the best of both of those worlds and also the things that give me pause... Looking forward to part two!

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  11. As a fellow shy/timid soul, I love this and appreciate all of the thoughtfulness that has gone into your decisions :)

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