--2 Mother Tongue: Hope On A Rope
Oct. 25, 2016

Mother Tongue: Hope On A Rope

Why our family is choosing public schools for now

February 10, 2014, 9:00 am
By Lauren Whitehurst

If I were to choose one word to describe my son’s public elementary school it would be “hopeful.” This is a wonderful description to voice. It makes me feel good walking Theo to kindergarten; it galvanizes my commitment to our neighborhood school; and it encourages optimism. It also makes me wonder how much of my children’s education I can support with hope.

Our K-8th-grade school is one of the more economically diverse schools in Santa Fe, a city of great wealth and great poverty in one of the poorest states. I like this about our school. I like that Theo learns and plays alongside a population roughly correlative to that of our town. I like seeing many lines of diversity at pick-up and drop-off: economic, ethnic and racial, cultural, family makeup, parent age—and not just in token numbers.

I am also aware that this school is currently graded a D in the New Mexico Public Education Department system, which includes some of the worst schools in the country. Academic achievement has long been correlated with economic status. This means that a school with 65 percent of its students qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program—which is close to the Santa Fe Public Schools District’s 71 percent poverty rate—has an academic flip side. It also means that many of our neighborhood’s families transfer to other public or private schools.

Before SFPS’s school transfer-request deadline, Sylvia’s preschool hosted an Elementary School Forum led by parents of current and former students. Santa Fe’s north-side elementaries and a number of private schools were represented. The conversations, like most about education these days, left me conflicted, confident, comforted, uncertain, frustrated, envious and indignant. Hopeful, too—and, also, concerned.

No clear path is ever revealed by such a jumble of responses—except that I will, undoubtedly, confirm myself as a hypocrite at least one time over in relation to the educational choices I make for my kids. But, hey, parenthood makes hypocrites out of all us, all the time!

A recent SFR column by Seth Biderman, “Safe and Sound,” addresses rising public-school violence by looking to the lessons of the Santa Fe School of Arts & Sciences.The SFSAS atmosphere Biderman describes is incredibly lovely: Classrooms imbued with emotional security, engaged students, supportive and rigorous learning. From what I know of SFSAS, it is all of this. Biderman advocates learning from schools like SFSAS and, presumably, applying their successful strategies to public classrooms. Who is doing this, though?

Parent reaction often is quite different—some social-media comments on Biderman’s piece smacked of, “Thank God I send my kid to private school!” In a city and state like ours, this is not unreasonable. Yet, I wonder how our parental responses to the educational dilemmas we face affect our kids and our schools.  

There are some great private schools in Santa Fe, but my husband, Adam, and I are not convinced at this point that Theo, 6 years old and in public kindergarten, would be getting a substantively better education there. We’re pleased with what and how he’s learning, for the most part. A newish book even argues that public schools are academically better than private ones.  My biggest concern is that, in opting out of our neighborhood school, we’d be removing ourselves from the complex issues that plague Santa Fe’s public education system exactly when we should be engaging them.

In September, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine named Santa Fe as one of “10 Great Places to Live” based on a metric of “good jobs, reasonably priced homes, decent schools, great health care and manageable size.” The mention of schools pegs this as a family-targeted story; Santa Fe makes Kiplinger’s list of best places to retire, too. Cultural resources, creativity, restaurants, climate, outdoor recreation opportunities and celebrity sightings trumped Kiplinger’s metrics for Santa Fe.  I mean, celebrity sightings! As if there was any doubt about why we live here.

“Many of the public schools are underperf­ormers,” Kiplinger’s reports, “so some families choose to live in districts with better schools or send kids to one of 43 private schools in Santa Fe County.” Of course: Every parent wants the best education possible for her children; and the truth should be spoken. But this does not seem like a recommendation for Santa Fe as a good city for families, even for the upper middle-class Kiplinger’s families whose first relocation step will be calling those 43 private schools.

What is family friendly about a community whose advertorials include an implicit caution to avoid its public education? Would the glaring footnote that Santa Fe’s public schools are underperformers be less relevant to Adam and me if we could afford and chose to send our kids to private school, or even transfer to a higher-performing public one?

A recent Southern Education Foundation study notes the swelling ranks of western and southern states in which the majority of public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. (The National Journal’s study review comments on the accompanying national trend: “Beware the impact on lifelong earnings, health, and democracy when 48 percent (and rising) of students in public schools are from low-income families.” New Mexico, unsurprisingly, is ahead of this curve: Our public schools already enroll primarily poor students—68 percent (second to Mississippi).

“Education is the avenue to meaningful careers, adequate wages, participation in our democracy, and safe, healthy lives,” the National Journal reports. But, “significant learning gaps between low-income students and their higher-income peers” remain. The article cites New York University education professor Pedro Noguera: “[W]e cannot expect families to break the cycle of poverty without quality education.”

Many private and public school leaders would agree with both Noguera’s exhortation and the National Journal’s warning. Indeed, a local private school’s mission statement starts with: “Quality education has long been recognized as a primary ingredient in maintaining a free and peaceful society.”

But this school is expensive. So its very mission statement begs the question: To whom are you speaking? And how are we maintaining this essential ingredient of a free and peaceful society if the income-achievement gap has widened more and more over the past half century—and shows no signs of narrowing? How do we do this in a high-poverty state like New Mexico?

A 2011 report by Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University professor of education and sociology, finds that “[t]he relationship between parental education and children’s achievement has remained relatively stable during the last 50 years, whereas the relationship between income and achievement has grown sharply. Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement.”

Reardon offers no an easy answer for this widening income achievement gap. (He defines the achievement gap as the average achievement difference between a child at the 90th percentile of income distribution and one at the 10th percentile). Instead, he offers broad possible explanations:

  • After 40 years of growing income inequality, family income has become a stronger indicator of academic achievement, and a family’s education levels have become more predictive of its earning potential.
  • High-income families invest more time and resources in their children’s cognitive development, and they have increasingly greater social and economic resources to do so.
  • Increased income segregation has resulted in marked differences in school quality and the academic opportunities available to rich and poor students.

“As the children of the rich do better in school, and those who do better in school are more likely to become rich, we risk producing an even more unequal and economically polarized society,” Reardon observes.

Knowing this is the case—on a national level and, acutely, locally—affects how Adam and I make educational decisions for our kids, as it likely does for other parents. Given that my own brain absorbs this information with directly opposing reactions, I suspect it pushes different families in completely opposite directions from each other. (I didn’t mean to say that my brain is like having diametrically opposed families in constant discussion, but it is kind of like that sometimes.) I struggle with how to answer what’s best for my children, what’s best for my community, where and how I can make a difference, and how exactly I want to be the hypocrite I’m bound to become.

Because of our educational attainment and modest but relatively secure resources, Theo and Sylvia are already on one side of the income achievement gap. They likely will be part of this demographic regardless of where we send them to school. So I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of further removing them from the fabric of a society that is increasingly polarized according to income and education. 

By taking our family out of the public system, we wouldn’t experience the good and bad of public schools. We would be less involved in advocating for the systemic changes required to improve our public education situation. We wouldn’t contribute to an individual public school, where I know that parent engagement and leadership can make long-lasting impacts.

I certainly don’t think everyone has a moral imperative to send their kids to the local public. There’s a big middle ground between educational Marxism and a zero-mobility society defined by income-achievement classism: It’s a complicated landscape with no clear answers.

I want the best opportunities for my kids. I don’t want to place them in an exclusive realm of privilege, sameness and remove. I want them to be challenged and prepared for college and beyond. I’d like them to appreciate the values of public education and the richness of its many lines of diversity. Public education here sucks by most measures. Amazing teachers, leaders and students populate every Santa Fe public school. I’m concerned that schools are so segregated by economics and achievement. I’m angry that our public ones are defined by mediocrity, if they achieve even that. As a parent and teacher, I want student opportunities led by curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, academic rigor and individualized attention. No one demographic should have a monopoly on these things.

What I want to know is, do my family’s choices matter in a nation whose educational landscape is increasingly defined by income inequality and the income achievement gap? They do for my kids in an immediate way. But, do we have a societal obligation to consider our educational choices beyond our family’s sphere? I think we do, but I don’t know to what degree, or how that obligation might change with time and Theo and Sylvia’s needs.

Much of our children’s education comes from our example. At this point, Adam and I think that engaging our children and ourselves in public schools is a valuable part of their education and our choice to live in Santa Fe. That said, if a time comes when their educational opportunities at a private school diverge significantly from what is available to them publically, then, if we have the means, we will re-evaluate our options as holistically and responsibly as we can.

These choices are personal, like the standards by which we judge their pros and cons. They differ according to individual kids’ needs and ages, family background and financial resources. Just attending public schools doesn’t mean we’re improving them: We can enroll our kids and be utterly disengaged from trying to make anything better. We can attend private or more exclusive public schools and still be involved in our broader community in meaningful ways. We’re instructing our kids all the time; and our kids are instructing us. So even though I sometimes feel like a hopeless parent caught in hopeless internal dialogues, I think I’ll keep hope in the decision-making process for now.


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