I have spent the past two months planning to fall in love with a Santa Fe Public School District elementary school. Since love is supposed to be blind, I’m trying not to focus on the fact that New Mexico’s public education rates among the worst in the nation, and Santa Fe lines up near the bottom of state ratings.
At this point, I am not sure which elementary school our family will hook up with. Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS) has a lottery interzone transfer program, and we applied to transfer our five-year-old, Theo, who will enroll in public kindergarten in September. Our zone’s school is not a failing one, but it’s not our first choice. Actually, every parent I know in our zone applied to transfer out of our school.
We discussed which schools to list as our first choices, and we admitted that our zoned school would likely perform better if all of us would just send our children there. We would participate in and actively support the school in our neighborhood. We could even walk our kids to school! Certainly, our school would benefit from more involved parents investing in this community-school ideal—all schools do.
As soon as I had kids, I anticipated the day when my public-school-devotion ideology would come head to head with the educational prospects for my very own children. I believe strongly that good, public, community schools are essential to the fabric of our towns and cities, our country and our democracy. And I also wonder whether that sentence is true if I take out the word “good.” I wonder how “good” is best described, much less quantified.
Fortunately for my ideological stance, public school is the only economically feasible option for our kids. I think this also is fortunate for our family, at this point, and that, of course, is the ultimate stance, the one that matters. I want Theo and Sylvia to be in school with kids whose experiences are different from theirs. Through them, I want to become involved with a school that’s an integral part of where we live—and also one that demands I engage with the state of public education here.
If I am honest, though, I must admit that I want Theo and Sylvia also to have teachers and classmates whose lives are not too unlike ours and who share our values. I want them be challenged, stimulated, excited and encouraged by learning alongside their peers. I want their schools to be places of achievement and inclusivity.
I toured the five elementary schools closest to us in anticipation of an inter-zone transfer, including the one in our zone. I wandered the buffed-linoleum hallways, examined the student work on display, sat on tiny orange chairs, observed literacy and math classes, and talked to teachers and administrators. It is not incidental that these five schools are also SFPS’s best. If Theo doesn’t get into the school we requested, our neighborhood elementary is still one of Santa Fe’s better-scoring schools, and he’ll be fine. He’ll be more than fine—he’s well prepared and poised to take advantage of the school’s resources, which are many.
In all but one of the kindergarten classes I observed, a little more than half of the students had had pre-K experience. I was taken aback when one teacher said that none of her students had attended preschool. Probably, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I want Theo to have peers who can explore books and science and stuff with him, not just peers who primarily are learning how to sit still in a circle. Which is not to say that these areas are mutually exclusive—or that Theo can’t use some work focusing in a circle.
I toured the prospective kindergartens with parents much like me: Our schedules were flexible enough to allow us to visit multiple schools, and our children were in preschool. But the classes were more diverse than we were, which is one of the reasons we were there in the first place.
Is it hypocritical and elitist to want my children to learn from and with many different kids—and then to actively avoid schools where half the fourth graders cannot read at grade level? The data is more nuanced when I dig down into it, and therefore more encouraging, but the surface data is alarming. It is easy to understand why many families who can, choose to send their children to private schools.
Matthew Di Carlo, a fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute, wrote a Wall Street Journal post last fall addressing the ranking of public schools state-by-state. He notes that “absolute performance levels—how highly students score—are not by themselves valid indicators of school quality, since, most basically, they don’t account for the fact that students enter the schooling system at different levels.”
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in kindergarten, even though the disparity at entry level can accelerate as kids progress through school. Early childhood education is a great gauge of future achievement. But for most kids in our state, it’s either unavailable or inaccessible.
Only 40 percent of three- and four-year-old kids in New Mexico attended preschool between 2009 and 2011, according to New Mexico Voices for Children (NMVC) KIDS COUNT data. The same is true for Santa Fe County—slightly higher (surprisingly) than the three-out-of-ten national rate cited by President Obama in Tuesday’s State Of The Union Address.
Santa Fe has three public pre-K programs offered through the New Mexico Public Education Department; one pre-K site administered through the Children, Youth and Families Department with United Way of Santa Fe County Children’s Project’s Early Learning Center; and five Head Start programs run by Presbyterian Medical Services. Together, these programs address roughly 560 three and four-year-olds.
SFPS enrolled about 1,175 kindergarteners last year, so, obviously, there’s a significant gap. And while Santa Fe has some wonderful private pre-Ks, it is unlikely that the balance of SFPS kindergarteners come from these.
About 24 percent of Santa Fe children live in poverty, according to 2010 data posted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (the most recent). The NMVC KIDS COUNT report lists 67 percent of SFPS elementary-schoolers as eligible for the federal/state free or reduced-price lunch program (FRL), a regular indicator of both poverty and school performance.
In individual local schools, the FRL rate ranges from 17 percent to 98 percent. So, is it disingenuous of me to prioritize the elementary schools where 30 or 50 percent of students qualify for FRL because their halls “look more like Santa Fe”? Of course it is: I am not even considering the schools with 70- to 90-something percent FRL.
Theo has been in great preschool and pre-K/K programs for three years; they have enriched his life and directed his future education. Like Theo, kids who have had solid pre-K experiences will enter Santa Fe Public Schools at an entirely different place than the kids who have never been in a preschool environment. Both populations will be part of the student make-up wherever Theo goes.
Regardless of this particular breakdown, each of his peers will bring to the classroom something different. I will worry about some of these contributions and be buoyed by others—I will worry and be buoyed like this for years—and Theo will learn to navigate the mix. He will discover and apply social and academic navigation skills throughout his life. This is part of what education is all about. Education is a relationship—or, rather, it is many.
There is no perfect relationship, just like there’s no perfect school. They all require investment, take work and, hopefully, give us back something unquantifiable. I’m ready to roll up my proverbial sleeves and offer what I can, though I don’t yet know exactly what’s needed. Since I also don’t know where or how Theo’s public-elementary-school adventure will begin, the prospects are daunting and exciting. How like love.