Choosing A School For My Son In A Segregated State (A Reprise)

Jose VilsonJose6 Comments

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A few weeks ago, I attended my son’s prospective school’s fundraising fair in their backyard. They had the standards: a bouncy house, a ball toss, a face-painting station, and a plastic frog pond. They also had some unique features: a DJ that played Black music standards like Shalamar, Michael Jackson, and James Brown, a raffle for a dinner voucher at Sylvia’s, a principal in a smock running around with the kids and parents in a playful manner. As first time pre-K parents, we’re nervous for Alejandro, a boy who already counts to 100 and reads Dr. Seuss with clarity and regularity. Academically, he’ll be fine. His mother is an assistant principal and thoughtful educator. His father has taught for 11 years and waxes poetic about the latest education research and its ramifications for a well-read blog. He’s supposed to be fine.

But our question was, will the teachers like him?

I read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ latest piece shortly after the school fair. This article focused on the confluence between her work as a reporter for the New York Times and her daughter’s schooling threw tapped every nerve possible. In my mind, I’ve played Nikole’s words in my mind while trusting my child to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s UPK program. I believe in social justice. I believe that the choices each of us makes for our child affects other children thereafter. I believe my child will be alright regardless of what school he goes to. I don’t think public schools are all that public, but, as fate would have it, I live in the middle of Harlem / El Barrio, the heart of some of the most well-known – or notorious, depending on who you ask – charter schools in the country, from Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy 1 to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone. Not only did I openly resist these school options, I even winced at the Catholic school options. As a Catholic school graduate, I hoped that the schools we chose had open spaces, creative pedagogy, and a loving environment for Ále.

We’re trusting these institutions with our child.

These choices are ostensibly connected to the larger landscape of NYC, too. Even with the latest developments in the PS 307 / PS 8 fight in Brooklyn, it still begs the question of school structure and, specifically, how many of our kids have voice in the ways and means that the school they send their child to. I’m fortunate that, as parents of color who are educators, Luz and I know what to look for when we choose schools. Within a matter of minutes, we already have enough observations to fill up a notebook. Not many parents have that fortune. For those that don’t want to think too deeply on this, schools that openly advertise their schools (and have the means to do so) seem attractive to parents. Some of my associates who send their students to the local charters extol the virtues of structure and discipline.

It’s as if these schools stripped the crosses off the walls, traded them in for grant funding, and kept everything else intact, including the long hours.

But as I’ve said before, the will of white parents seems to dominate the NYC schools narrative. As an outsider interested in the intersections of race and education, these conversations seem to fall in my lap. A white educator gives a list of resources afforded to her Upper West Side school that’s slated to integrate with another less fortunate school, and a list of reasons why the other school shouldn’t have the same resources in coded language. A school choice advocate throws out how we shouldn’t begrudge all-black or all-Latino schools as incapable of doing the same work as predominantly white schools. A real estate agent displays a series of brochures with properties around “good” schools, code for predominantly white institutions. School officials change their tune around us when we tell them we’re long-time educators.

None of this deals with the issue of creating equitable schools. If anything, it reinforces the idea that, so long as our students are kept separate, their schools will be unequal. And should we integrate schools, we won’t get equity in power and policy, either.

To that end, I’m nervous. In most of the schools that had the pedagogy we desired, we saw names focused on markers for success like “gifted,” “magnet,” and “STEM.” We saw uniforms, school trips, partnerships with corporations and non-profits. We saw special grants and achievement statistics. We saw the current demographics of our son’s new school, predominantly Black and Latino. I went to the open house, too, mostly white parents. We heard during other school fairs how this need for competition often means that schools can get gentrified too. We heard the parents telling us to our faces that they appreciate diversity for their own children’s sake, but not too much because it signals a bad school. Parents of color rarely get the opportunity to have a well-resourced school that doesn’t see the population shift from right under them.

The political will to get it right for my kid and every other kid is not there. We have segregation of our kids, their parents, and their minds.

After leaving the fair, I finished Mrs. Hannah-Jones’ article, yelling at Luz with “THIS!” every few lines. As a father, I was angry for my child. As an educator, I was angry for the 1000+ students I’d ever taught and the millions I never did. As a reader, I saw Ále in Najya’s eyes. I know she’s going to be alright because I see her parents the way I see me and Luz.

I’m just not confident that every child has parents who are that confident in their schooling prospects. Ultimately, that’s what I seek.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 6

  1. Carla Jefferson

    Thank you for this! I speak about this frequently with my educator friends. As an educator who spent time as a special needs administrator living with a child of autism, I know the right questions to ask…..I know what to ask for…. and what a school district is responsible for. I think about all of those children who have parents that do not. Sometimes, parents get “lucky” and end up in a school with teachers with a conscience – that will do what’s right for children no matter what. Unfortunately, that is not the case in so many places and my heart weeps for those children and their parents. So many parents sit in meetings and conferences littered with letters, phrases and buzz words that fly right over their head. What hurts me the most is that this behavior is allowed, condoned, and even encouraged sometimes. We must do a better job of enlightening parents and holding schools to an accountability measure that forces them to meet the needs of their parents.

  2. ECM

    What are the things you’re looking for when you choose a school? What are the questions you’re asking,the observations you’re making in the first five minutes??

    And a separate question – do you think if we funded schools differently (ie not through local taxes, but in some other, more equitable way) we’d make progress toward fixing our schools?

  3. sethleavitt

    I sent my oldest son to kindergarten the same day as I began my own teaching career. That was 25 years ago. My second son followed the first to the same school.

    I became a grandfather last week. I know I’ll suggest my son and daughter-in-law be much more thoughtful in their choice of schools than I was for my own children. I know more now. And what I know isn’t encouraging.

  4. Gretel Johnson

    Jose, I’m so glad Ale and Molly are starting their UPK journeys at the same time. So much of what you’re saying here resonates with me. I chant to myself “she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine…” but it’s terrifying when you see the flaws in the system and how many kids will not be fine. As a white woman, raising a little brown girl in a Chinese neighborhood, I see a lot of intense conversations coming our way.

  5. Indira

    Great article, you echoed my sentiments perfectly. My daughter is in one of the best schools in my county yet I am constantly worried that, because she is usually the only brown kid in her class, her playful and intuitive nature will be misinterpreted. As an education researcher who studies gender and ethnic disparities, I am hyperaware of the subconscious biases people hold. But like you I must trust my instincts, become informed and hope I choose her schools wisely.

  6. Kaitlyn P.

    This sentiment is such an alarming one that gets forgotten or neglected. Although I do not have a child yet, I know as an educator that I know more than the average parent about the choice there is in schooling, and what makes schools a good one. So what about the parents that don’t know as much about schools, and whose child is put in whatever neighborhood school they were sent to? Is there a way we could help them or show them the inequality in schools? Or do they know, but don’t think there are other options? Or should the goal be to tear away at these inequalities (which would be a long and hard battle)?

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