My darling daughter Skye turned two this week. I’ve been asked one question repeatedly from friends and strangers alike ever since I birthed her: Where do you plan to send her to school?
Hold up, I’m daunted by potty training; kindergarten is a long way out. Nonetheless, I’ve perfected my answer: Skye doesn’t have to go to the best school.
In truth, my husband and I don’t know where we’ll send her. It’s too soon. Of course we want the best for her. But what is the best? For me, the answer doesn’t lie only in test scores.
Skye will change and grow over the next few years. Therefore, her personality and learning capacity should guide our education decisions. She’s a curious toddler who loves books, blocks and stuffed animals. I gaze at my child, with her cotton ball afro of curls, and see curiosity in her eyes. Right now, racial understanding, art, empathy, nurturing and playtime are elements of a good school. Later I want critical thinking and foreign language teaching in her curriculum.
My husband and I graduated from Chicago Public Schools and are committed to public education. Early on, we made a pact to not get caught up in the name-brand schools, inconveniencing ourselves during rush hour to ferry her in the opposite direction of our home or work.
The most important thing to do between now and kindergarten is educate ourselves. Chicago boasts some of the best and worst public schools in the state. I see middle-class parents plotting their childrens’ educational journey with disconcerting intensity. Barely out the womb, yet pre-jockeying for a handful of schools in a vast system rife with inequity. Neighborhood schools – often racially and economically segregated – are left behind in this paradigm.
We live in Hyde Park, the so-called bastion of progressiveness and integration. Yet the public schools are segregated. Our eldest graduated from Kenwood Academy last year, a fine neighborhood high school in which there’s a place for low-achieving, middling and high-achieving students. Just as a neighborhood school should be. The principal received a prestigious Golden Apple award this month. There are so few white students that you can count them.
Our neighborhood elementary school is the virtually all-black Kozminski Community Academy. On paper, it’s not “good.” It’s a Level 2 school and 90 percent of the students are low-income. Student growth is ranked as average; student attainment falls below grade level.
These statistics alone discount Kozminski as an option for many families. But that doesn’t sit right with me. I’ve pledged not to write it off. I owe it to our family and community to at least visit the school and check out the culture and anything else hidden outside of the charts and graphs.
Does the school offer any extras, such as art and music? What are the facilities like? What are classroom sizes? How engaging is teacher instruction? Is the principal an effective leader? I need answers to these questions so my family can make an informed decision. Ultimately, the school might not be a fit, but I’m not willing to accept the shorthand language I hear middle-class parents use about a school being “bad.”
Skye is not my pet project or public school experiment. But I know the amount of social capital middle-class parents can bring to a school in the form of resources and fundraisers. And frankly, the powers-that-be listen to these parents more than others.
Testing a four-year-old for a classical or selective enrollment school doesn’t sit well with me. It’ll be thefirst in a long student career of testing as a means of measuring intellect, and that kind of pressure can boil over by the time a child hits college. If we choose not to send Skye to Kozminski, I know there are other “good” schools in CPS that don’t rank in the top 10.
It’s not lost on me that these are easy, noble, perhaps naïve statements to proclaim. I’m educated. I’m a writer. My husband has two master’s degrees. Skye’s current caretakers are her four grandparents who shower her with love, story time, puzzle games and nature walks. My mother, a retired CPS teacher, is on a mission to take her first grandchild to every Chicago Public Library with a children’s section. They’re on track.
Skye is lucky. We are lucky. This is why I know she doesn’t have to attend the best school. She has a community to monitor and help with her education outside of the classroom. She’s already dragged to museums, humanities talks and poetry readings. My message is for parents with means to broaden their definition of a good school, look deeper into what CPS has to offer and even if you don’t send your child to your neighborhood school, find a way to be a good civic neighbor.
As abhorrent as I find early childhood testing, in the end, we will probably follow that preordained middle-class path of testing a four-year-old Skye.
Sun-Times columnistNatalieY.Mooreis a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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