educational equality and the economic divide

I have mentioned before that my two kindergartners were accepted via lottery into a public charter school this year, while Jafta is attending a more traditional (and technically “underperforming”) local public school. What I haven't mentioned is that when this public charter school was proposed, I actually fought against it.  I’ve been hesitant to talk about my cognitive dissonance in sending my kids to a school that I initially opposed. and to call out some of the classism and racism I observe in my local school district. But I’m going to go there today.

I am sure that the public school class-system I am about to describe occurs in other parts of the country. But here in Orange County, there is a vast disparity between public schools that is largely based on neighborhood, and the income level of that neighborhood.

In the town where we live, a freeway separates the town down the middle and that line also delineates what the schools are like. Even as I'm writing this, I feel like I am describing some phenomenon from days of yore, where certain neighborhoods were described as being on “the wrong side of the tracks”, but that is really what it is like here in our town in present-day. And Mark and I live on the “wrong” side.

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If you were to draw a map of the schools in our town along with their schools’ ratings, you would note that on one side of the freeway, the schools are consistently rated very high. On the side where we live, the schools consistently underperform on the standardized testing used to rate schools. The result of this is that people who live on my side of town typically don't send their kids to their neighborhood’s public school. They scramble to get a transfer to the good side of town, or they lie about their address, or they scrimp and save to send their kids to a private school. On our street, there are over 20 families with school-aged children. Not a one of them sends their children to the local school. In fact, I don't even know of a family that sends their child to our neighborhood school, beyond my weekly cleaning lady.

map of school district

When our city began planning to plant a charter school in the district, I will admit that I was annoyed. I felt like any extra funding, special staffing, or attention given to our school district should have been placed on the number of underperforming schools in our district. The problem is that there are not as many educated or upwardly-mobile families with children in these underperforming schools. That sounds stereotypical to say, but it is true. On our side of town, most of the parents with kids in public school are lower income and less educated. On the other side of town, a majority of the students in public school have parents who make a good deal of money and have a college education. With money comes influence, and the result of all of this is that there is more money funneling through the better schools, more parents involved at the better schools, and more parents going to city meetings to fight for improvements at the better schools. The underperforming schools just don't have as many parents with the money or savvy or education to advocate for them. It results in this awful dynamic where the kids with privilege maintain the privilege by getting a better education than the kids without.

Race and socioeconomic status play a big part here as well. The schools on my side of town are predominately immigrant families. People try to pretend like it isn't an issue of race, but I truly believe that a lot of people don't put their kids in school on this side of town because they don't want their children going to school where there is a majority of Mexican students. Our town’s schools are divided by race and economic status., but it isn’t by virtue of neighborhood. It's not that white families don't live on my side of town. But they don't put their kids in public school on the side of town. It results in a major racial division in the schools, creating an effect where certain schools are “mostly Mexican” and certain schools are “mostly white”. This is a fact that has always bothered me about where we live. Here is an example of two schools in our district, that are just across the freeway from each other. Newport Heights is rated a 9. Pomona is rated a 3.  You can see how this school has been racially organized, and I can assure you that not all of that is by districting. There are more than 5% white students living within the district of Pomona Elementary. Some of the racial disparity is by parent choice. It’s self-segregation.

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When the city started planning the charter school, it sounded like yet another privileged school that would be funneled with resources and filled with kids from privileged families. In many cases, this has turned out to be true. While the school is available to any child in the school district, it is mostly privileged families who have the savvy to sign their kids up for the lottery (online) a year in advance. The school was meant to be a place where kids from all walks of life could benefit from a high-tech, progressive education. But when you look at the student population, it still represents a certain demographic, and it isn't the demographic of kids who are attending these underperforming schools. So instead of becoming an alternative for kids zoned for the underperforming schools, it has just become an alternative for parents with a computer and enough connections to know about the school politics in our town.

In the early meetings for this proposed school, I attended regularly and tried to be a voice of advocacy. I suggested that they use the money to bolster at the underperforming schools. I also suggested that this charter school only be available to students who are zoned for underperforming schools. None of those ideas were met with a lot of enthusiasm from the other parents, most of whom were just excited to have this option for their own children, and not for kids from poor families. I hate to say it, but I have observed that when it comes to educational inequality, there is a serious lack of empathy here in Orange County. I suspect that maybe true in other places as well.

Despite my protestations, the school happened exactly as I feared it would, and I was frustrated that we had yet another well-resourced, well-staffed school while the underperforming schools full of immigrant kids continue to be under-resourced. So I had a great deal of cognitive dissonance when I decided to sign my own kids up for the lottery to get into said charter school. On the one hand, it wasn't really the direction I wanted the school board to go in. On the other hand, I didn't really feel like it benefited my children to die on the altar of my politics and put them in underperforming school, if a better one was available for them so close to our house. So with mixed feelings, I applied and two of them (Kembe and India) were accepted via lottery. Jafta was not.

As a result, this disparity in education that has bugged me since we moved here is now playing out in my very own home.

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As you can imagine, the new charter school is superior to the underperforming local school in many aspects. The incoming students are coming in at a higher academic level because almost all of them went to good preschools. The classrooms are outfitted with the latest technology. The kids are proficient at the computer even in the kindergarten class, and benefitting from programs that utilize cutting-edge technology to teach. At open house, I was blown away by the technology in the classroom. The parents are more involved: in both kid’s classes the teachers have had to schedule volunteers and even turn parents away because so many sign-up to volunteer each week. The staff is cohesive because the principal hand-picked each teacher when the school began four years ago. The teachers utilize creative teaching techniques instead of relying on worksheets.  The older grades have netbooks for each student. Currently, the PTA is asking for donations from the parent so that the classroom can have iPads for each student as well. It's likely that they will raise this money.

On the other hand, Jafta’s school does not have nearly the same amount of resources. There is no talk of iPads or netbooks. He seems to do much less work involving technology in the classroom. His homework involves a heavy rotationally of old-school worksheets instead of computer technology or creative systems like his younger siblings. Don't get me wrong . . . I think Jafta is getting a decent education. He has a great teacher this year. But it's absolutely not the same education that the twins are getting,, and one result I see since starting both of these schools is that Jafta is starting to hate going to school.  Honestly? I get it. I think the twins are enjoying their experience much more, and learning even more as a result. Their teachers have the resources to make learning more fun, and because the test scores are always so high, they are more relaxed about making sure they are facilitating a love of learning. At Jafta’s school, I see a lot of anxiety about test scores, and as a result, a lot of “teaching to the test” instead of teaching conceptual learning. It’s rote, it’s repetitive, and it’s boring.

I am not worried about Jafta falling behind per se… we supplements quite a bit at home. He is constantly learning from educational games our iPad, we read al the time in our house, and we also travel a lot. I think that we will make up for whatever is lacking in his current school setting. But unfortunately, I don't think that will be true for every student at that school. And so, the kids at the charter school will have an advantage in life over the kids attending school on the underperforming side of town.

One of the reasons I’ve not fleshed out my feelings on all of this in a post is that I’m not sure what my conclusion is. I don’t have an answer or an action step.  I continue to sit in this cognitive dissonance as I notice the disparity between the two schools my kids attend, and I don’t have a clue what to do about it. The one thing I can do, that I see very few people in my community doing, is to acknowledge that it’s happening.  Race and class and privilege are huge factors in the public school system, and few people are talking about it. I guess that is where I’m going to start.


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