Friday, September 13, 2013

What is a Good School?

Last week Gabrielle Blair at Design Mom blogged about sending her kids to a public high school in Oakland that has a rating of "2" on the Great Schools website. It heartened me because this week we sent Charlie off to kindergarten at our neighborhood school that currently has a rating of "1" on that same site. We made this choice intentionally, although, we may never have done so had the district not made sweeping changes to its school choice policies this year. As much as I hate to admit it (because the bureaucratic dysfunction and apparent lack of service ethic at the district often has me wiping my brains off the ceiling after my head explodes with rage), I am grateful that we were given the opportunity to get away from the test scores and white middle-class parent rumor mill method that seems to be the primary way of defining what a good school is these days.

Last winter, when it was time to apply for schools for Charlie, it became apparent with all the changes afoot that the likelihood of us getting into any of the schools with good test scores and good reputations available to folks living in our area of the city was very low. Once coming to terms with this fact, I decided to explore the option of doing what the district seemed to want us to do, which was go to our neighborhood school. I emailed the principal with a bunch of questions based on what I knew at the time were indicators of a successful school and the seeming ways the school didn't measure up. I told him I was scared. He responded to me with the most intelligent and well-reasoned communication I have ever received from anyone in the district. I got excited. He invited us to come tour the school. We went and the experience completely dismantled everything I thought I knew about what a good school is. The staff were friendly, invested and clearly talented. The students (mostly kids of color) were highly engaged in their work. There was a quiet order to the way the place functioned that still had plenty of warmth.

Honestly, I was ashamed of myself. I had so easily fallen into the trap of conventional thinking with a very deep white privilege bent to it. While the principal was telling me that the makeup of the school would likely change as it transitioned from magnet status to neighborhood school and many of the current students would lose busing, I felt like a jerk because I had clearly come across as someone that needed to be reassured. I found myself hoping that it wouldn't change too much because the community that I saw had such integrity.

So, what is a good school? Charlie is a week into kindergarten and we're all feeling pretty happy about it. I have found that the kindergarten team has been high-touch and incredibly responsive with any challenges we've had in the transition. Charlie talks a lot about school and he seems to be getting a level of stimulation that is good for him. I love walking to and from school with him everyday, burning no fossil fuels and feeling no road rage (maybe I'll even love it in January). I'm sure there will be bumps along the way, but I have plenty of school-related trauma from negative experiences with Ellis that happened in schools that have full "good school" endorsement, so it will take a lot for that to dismantle my good feelings after I've let the rational part of my brain examine them.

I guess what I'm saying is that I wish that we would all stand down from the current hysteria about public schools. Decisions that are based on fear are not the best decisions, and I think those of us that have had the luxury of choice in this country in the past decade have made a lot of decisions through the lens of our collective anxiety. I'm hoping that more of my neighbors will fully embrace the school that is right here and that we don't end up losing it because there's not enough interest from the community to keep attendance up. There are a terrific administrator, great educators, and great kids there. While right now it lacks the full kit of specialists (music, art, etc.) and organized parent involvement found in more affluent schools, these are things that can be built around the strong core that is there. Maybe we're ready to create change in education that looks less like a battle being waged and more like a community being built.

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