Abby is the real deal. She has done the inner-city teacher thing. She is a mom. She has her feet in several different worlds, and I am so grateful for the perspective she gives to these conversations. Kids and schools are a difficult topic, but Abby comes at it full force. I love her brave, love-filled voice (and can't wait to read that book she is writing).
Where do we draw the lines?
by Abby Norman
Last year in Atlanta, the most prestigious middle school needed to be redistricted. It was overflowing with kids while the next closest school was half empty. One of the largest neighborhoods, which pushed the school to overflowing, was actually closer to the half-empty school. It was a no brainer --except it wasn’t. The overflowing neighborhood was also one of the most affluent. Many of the parents had moved into that neighborhood before their thirteen and fourteen year olds were even born because it was districted for the prestigious middle school. Those lines would not be redrawn without a fight.
The parents from the affluent neighborhood took it upon themselves to draw their own lines. Curved and zig-zagged, these lines kept the same number of kids at each school, but managed to put all the richer (and mostly white) kids in the already prestigious school, and move all the poorer, (mostly black) kids into the school with the bad reputation. When the school-board pointed out that these lines caused kids within walking distance of one schools to be bussed to the other school, the parents feigned shock.
Things got ugly from there. The local news was called, signs posted in the front yard, Facebook statuses and tweets were posted all proclaiming the need to protect our kids! Protect our future! We’ve invested in this school and we deserve to stay here!
The solution that the parents wanted simply made no sense, but re-districting the affluent neighborhood would likely cost time and money as the affluent parents were threatening to get an injunction against moving the lines. Plus, a school board seat is an elected position and pissing off your mostly likely voters is in general a bad idea. So, the school board shut down the half empty school, erected portable classrooms in the parking lot of the already overcrowded school, and bussed everyone to the prestigious building. It was a solution where the most affluent get what they want and no problems are actually solved. Welcome to education in America.
Often, people who are down with downward mobility draw the line at the education of their children. Hanging out with homeless people, mingling with immigrants, all of that is fine. But going to the neighborhood school? Sorry--Kindergarten marks the moment people go screaming for the suburbs.
Who can blame them? Shouldn’t we want what is best for our children? Of course we do. But best, in the conversation about schools often means the least amount of poor people problems. It does not take into consideration the value of a racially and socioeconomically diverse social group.
The situation with these two Atlanta middle schools was particularly heartbreaking because there was a viable option. If the parents of the kids from the large affluent neighborhood had moved to the new school, it would have been just as good in a matter of months. The brand new PTA would have made sure of that. This solution would have taken some investment, it would have taken some summer time, but no more time and energy than the campaign to keep their children out of the school in the first place. In order for this solution to work, the affluent parents had to believe in it.
This behavior is not unique. When it comes to loving our neighbor, the buck stops at the classroom. We feel we have to protect our children, even at the expense of our neighbor’s kid. We have to protect our kids from the conditions we readily accept for other children. The redistricting battles are never about making all the schools good. They are about who gets stuck with the bad school, and how it sure won’t be me and my kid.
But you have to draw the line somewhere! Isn’t that always the cry? And you do, I suppose, at least as far a school districting is concerned. My concern is the way we draw those lines. Are we drawing the lines out of fear? Are we drawing those lines to keep what we have to ourselves and those with less, out? Or are we drawing those lines after carefully considering what is best for everyone in the city? The lines need to be drawn only after looking into the faces of our neighbors and prayerfully considering how to love their children.
I suppose all of this is easy for me to write right now. With my oldest only three-years-old, school decisions are two solid years away and there is a lot up in the air. I have my eye on a charter school for the arts and the public elementary school. There is a rumor the rich district next door is looking to incorporate. This would mean amazing schools, but also my neighbors being pushed out of their homes by sky-high property taxes. Clearly, it is complicated.
The less affluent parents in my neighborhood are going to send their kid to the local school. They don’t have a choice; the busses don’t run to charter schools and public schools out of district. Parents with the ability to drive their kid to school are choosing very carefully and they get their information almost exclusively from other parents. Perfectly serviceable schools are branded as “bad” and none of the parents who have other options send their kids there. Thus, the school loses its PTA and volunteer parents, and all the other privileges that come with servicing a more affluent population. School boards, local businesses, parents, no one wants to invest in a school with a bad reputation.
I live in a pocket of the city that is in one school district and less than two miles away from two others. In conversation with a mom at the gym I mentioned what district my house is zoned for. She immediately told me the entire district was terrible. She would highly recommend that I not send my kids to any of the more than 100 schools in my district. All of them were horrible, none of them were good. I am sure she was just repeating what she heard. But what she heard and said is damaging, and a lie.
If we do decide the local elementary school isn’t the best choice for us, I am going to make sure that is all that I volunteer if asked about my decision. “It wasn’t the right choice for my girls.” If I wouldn’t say it in front of a teacher who works there, I will not say it about that school. I will recognize my ability to navigate the educational system for what it is, a privilege that most people don’t have.
Like much of the decisions in life, I don’t know that the Bible spells out any one right answer, but I do know there are wrong ways to go about making those decisions. Here are a few things we can do when thinking about education and our kids:
Pray about it
Consider how it affects your neighbor
Don’t spread rumors
Recognize your own privilege
Respect others decisions
As Christians, we should be drawing lines with a deep-seated belief that there is enough to go around. We should be invested in a positive outcome for all. Loving our neighbors as ourselves should extend to our neighboring schools.
Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She has two hilarious children and a husband that doubles as her copy editor and biggest fan. If two in diapers and a full-time job teaching English at a local high school don’t keep her busy, you can find her blogging at accidentaldevotional. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies, and carries a dream of one day writing a book about teaching in her heart
For more posts in the Downward Mobility series, click here.