In April, I took off my educator’s hat and, writing as a parent, confessed to doubts about sending my 4-year-old daughter to public school next year [April 30, “The Parent’s Dilemma”].
Judging from the emotion of the responses sent to SFR and to me, the column struck a nerve.
One parent wrote in passionate praise of his child's school, Wood Gormley. Another, Cate Moses, whose watchdog commentary should not be dismissed, pointed out the privilege of abandoning public school and called foul on me for doubting SFPS as a parent while supporting it as a professional. A fellow educator shared how his own children had flourished in Santa Fe's supposedly "bad" public schools. Others expressed hurt that I was turning my back on teachers and schools when they most needed support.
I was glad people shared their beliefs about education—always a good thing—but the responses left me disturbed: These people care as deeply about children and education as I do. How did we suddenly find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence?
A few months later, I think I've finally pinpointed the problem: I seem to have shot the messenger.
Our public school system, after all, is just a vessel, guided by the values of the community in which it sails. The real question is not whether one parent like me believes in the vessel; the real question is whether the vessel is being oriented by the right values.
Thorny question, that. To take it on, we'd have to do some soul-searching and uncover which community values are sacred to Santa Feans. Imagine a series of informal conversations, in workplaces and churches and soccer fields, held in Spanish and English and Tibetan and Tewa, through which we discover, for example, that Santa Feans overwhelmingly value just working conditions, environmental sustainability and the celebration of diversity. Or maybe artistic expression, our tri-cultural history and creativity. (A guy can dream…)
If and when we reach some sort of consensus about these shared values, we could then turn back toward our schools—not as confused parents but as a thoughtful community—and provide our elected school board members with a clear mandate to ensure these values are not simply taught in our schools, but embodied by the system itself.
If some of the values I've named above prove to be ours, hard questions will arise: How can we value the celebration of diversity when nearly a third of our city's elementary school kids attend schools intensely segregated by race and class? How can we value our history without a robust, well-funded language program in English, Spanish and Native languages? How can we value creativity when some teachers are required to deliver content from a script? How can we value just working conditions while allowing first-year teachers to get paid a mere $32,000 a year?
Of course, we'd also find many areas where our schools are guided by these values. The Academy of Sustainable Education, a program of study launching this fall at Santa Fe High, has been carried by a team of dedicated teachers but supported by a vocal sector of our community that values environmental sustainability. Several dynamic arts programs are alive and well in our schools—and above all, there are brilliant teachers and principals bringing values like these into their classrooms each day.
The first step, then, toward a school system that all Santa Feans can wholeheartedly embrace begins not with the schools implementing reform programs, not with parents like me advocating for or against policy, but with this community figuring out who we are. There is no Superman in this story. It's up to us to identify what we stand for, up to us to provide our elected officials and public servants with the mandates they need to create a school system that can not be pushed off course by passing fads or alluring grants, a school system grounded deeply in what we Santa Feans—all of us—know to be true.
Columnist Seth Biderman is a SFPS graduate, parent and former public school teacher and administrator. He manages the Institute for Teachers at the Academy for the Love of Learning.