SCHOOL CHOICE: OUR FAMILY’S JOURNEY THROUGH PUBLIC EDUCATION – PART 1

Well, the 2016-2017 school year is over, but the conversation about school choice will probably never cease—especially now that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos thinks it’s the magic bullet for families. I was reading this article that came across my Facebook feed, which basically says that well-off people advocate for choice when it comes to their own kid’s education, but are against it when it comes to kids of color and/or poor children.

After I read it, I thought it would be good to unpack this in a way—through my family’s journey—that I hope makes it clearer about the notion of choice in our public school system, who has choice and what the outcomes of choice are. It comes down to three big buckets: income, parent flexibility and race.

For Part 1 of 2, I will give you background on my family and our journey through PreK to public school in our first city. For Part 2, I’ll cover our public school journey in our new town and how race and class impact learning.

Note, that all of what you read is from my own perspective through personal experience, some research and knowledge of others’ experiences. We all know our public education system is designed for one population—white, middle-class families. With some exceptions, anyone outside of that demographic will struggle mightily within the system. As you read this, I encourage you to think about how your own family and the families of your kids’ classmates/friends navigate(d) the system.

Our Little Family

rainbow-families-stick-figures-770We are an upper-middle-class family headed by two women—one black (me) and one white (Jill)—with four beautiful Black children (2 girls and 2 boys), an array of animals and a huge, very diverse, extended family. Just like every other family with multiple children, ours are all very different from each other, but you can still tell they are a Dziko because they were raised the same way.

Jill is an adoption social worker and attachment therapist, serving the children who need a home and the families who want them. I work for the underserved students in our public education system as the Executive Director of the Technology Access Foundation (founded by Jill and I in 1996). We live in Washington State.

The Early Years

We started out living in Seattle. Our children got a great start in their educational experience, beginning with attending a small pre-school in Mount Baker that was (and still is) relentless about diversity and inclusion, and very affordable. Each of our children started at the age of 2 and stayed until it was time to attend kindergarten. When I look at the pictures they look like they’re in one of those Benetton ads. This is where they learned to form friendships with people besides their siblings. They learned through play and exploration. They learned to take risks and work together.

The First Big Decision – What Elementary School Works For Everyone?

When our oldest was 4 we got serious about looking for a public school. We were picking a school for all our kids, so this was no easy chore. I was already familiar with the schools because of my work at TAF, but we needed a closer look. At the time I was sitting on the board for the New Schools Foundation which was working with Seattle Public Schools to bring a new academic PreK-5 model to T.T. Minor Elementary School (which by the way was out of the reference area for my kids). I loved everything I learned and pretty much decided this was where I wanted our kids to go, and the timing was perfect because the school would have two years under its belt by the time our oldest arrived.

Being mindful that we’re choosing for everyone, the year before our oldest was to enter kindergarten, we volunteered once a week all day at the school. We got to know the teachers, students and some parents. We were sold. We knew we’d have to get in and if we did, we’d have to drive our kids every day because the school our kids were supposed to go to was three blocks away.

T.T. Minor was 82% Black, and 93% free and reduced lunch. The teachers and staff in the school were awesome.  There was no wait-list because there were plenty of other neighborhood schools for those who didn’t want to be around all those Black kids, so we got in easily.

For the first two years Jill wore out a groove in the road between our house, the preschool and T.T. Minor. We continued to volunteer with toddler in tow. By the time the next two kids were old enough to attend kindergarten we were a staple in the school and toddler was in preschool almost full time.

The school was running well our first three years there (even when we had to fight to keep the district from closing the school), then there was the merger with Martin Luther King Elementary, which changed everything. The quality of the school and teaching took an immediate dip as some of our old teachers left and the new ones transferred in. The merger wasn’t well planned, promises were made to teachers and families. The main benefit was the free Montessori program that came with it and we got to hire a new principal who turned out to be great.

Even with the problems, we broke protocol and let our youngest finish his preschool years at T.T. Minor mostly because we loved the teacher (the other gift from the MLK merger) and our baby really needed to break out of his shell. So there we were with a PreK, 2 first graders and one third grader. Oh and I was the president of the newly revived PTA. Lordy.

More Decisions

As the next few years passed, there were a few more decisions we had to make and were only able to navigate and execute them because of our privilege of choice.

  • When our oldest son was in first grade we had him test for the gifted program just to see where he was cognitively—we had a hunch. Our hunch was right and he tested into the gifted program, but we would have had to move him to another school and we didn’t want him in a school where he’s likely be the only black kid in class (more on gifted black kids in another post).

Also during the first semester of his first grade year he came home crying almost every day about the math they were doing—basically counting from 1 to 100 and doing simple addition. He was bored and he was done. He tested at the 3rd grade level in math and the teacher had no clue how to help him. So we asked to have him go to 2nd grade for math for the year. He excelled in the class, we supplemented for reading to keep him growing and he was at grade level for writing. At the end of the year we had him promoted to third grade, skipping second.

  • On the complete opposite spectrum, his sister was struggling in first grade. We asked to have her tested for special education and they said she was too young, so we used our resources to have her privately tested and she indeed needed additional help. We showed the school the results and she was entered into the special education program, where she was pulled out of class a couple of times a day for direct instruction. This was not working and eventually we looked for an alternative. We also paid for private speech therapy. We eventually moved her to the Montessori program on the campus after a few very long conversations with the teacher.
  • When our youngest was in kindergarten, he had a brand spanking new teacher who had no clue how to educate the half of her class that came from the stellar preschool class the year before. These kids were reading and she started with the alphabet. We knew from the experience we had with our other son that we needed to act fast, so we applied for the Montessori program that was on the campus.
  • For our oldest, we focused on getting her with the right teacher based on her development. She’s a compliant kid who didn’t have to work hard to get good grades. We needed to make sure she had teachers who would push her to be her best and go beyond her comfort zone.

I cannot even imagine navigating this without the resources we had. There were a lot of kids who were ultimately underserved after the merger and we both helped other families as much as we could.

The biggest decision of all

By the time our oldest was finishing fourth grade, there were rumors of more school closings. When the official word came down that the middle school our oldest was to attend would close by the time she finished fifth grade we were still hopeful we’d find a place for her. But then the word came that T.T. Minor would be closed too. We were done. After many discussions and heartache at leaving the neighborhood we loved and the house we raised our babies in, we decided to move. We checked out a few neighboring towns and ultimately decided we wanted to raise our kids in a small town (like we both had been raised) where we could have control of their educational experience. After a little more research, we put our house on the market—right when the housing market was at the beginning of the dip—and before the school year was done we were living in our new town. (Part 2 of this series will cover our time there).

Making it work

We were fortunate (and continue to be) enough that Jill could stay at home fulltime until we got everyone into fulltime school, then she began working part time. I had the flexibility at work that enabled me to be where I needed to for our kids.  In fact, being available for your kids is so important to us we created a culture at TAF that enables our staff to put their kids and immediate family needs first.

Jill and I are an example of what can happen when you have true choice. We know that the majority of low-income families (and particularly those of color) don’t have anywhere close to this amount of choice! Some even get punished for going to great lengths for some resemblance of choice, like the case of the low-income Black woman in Ohio who was actually sent to jail for sending her kid to a better school district.

We try to not use our privilege just for our own children, but for others too. That’s why I’ve dedicated the last 20+ years of my life trying to make this system work for our most underserved students. And it’s why Jill is dedicated to finding homes for all those kids who would otherwise end up in the system and ultimately underserved.

Shaping my perspective

I have always been agnostic about school models (public, private, charter or home) just as long as they work for the kids that attend. However, my personal experience and what I know of others’ navigating the public education system has completely shaped my perspective on the value of charter schools as an option for those that don’t have true choice in our public school system. Furthermore, I believe that charter schools started in communities by the people from those communities are the most effective because those schools reflect the community’s brand of choice. I believe in them so much that the project for my Pahara Fellowship centers on supporting single-site charter schools led by people of color.

As the article that spurred me on to write this post says, “Families are starting to see that some of you only care about having choice for your children, while other folks are on the outside looking in. Please, don’t come for these public schools, unless sent for.

I would encourage everyone to support the improvement of our public schools as well as the ability for parents to get their kids in the best educational space possible.

As usual, I welcome any an all feedback. Just be courteous.

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