I like to think I keep Reflective Parenting in the driver's seat. But a rotating cast of characters rides shotgun: Mom Guilt, Civic Anxiety, Shame of Privilege, Indignation and Foot-in-Mouth are frequent passengers. It's been crowded up here in the front seat recently.
Our family decided to send our daughter, almost 10, to a small private school a few days after Santa Fe Public Schools decided to move the first nine weeks of school online. This was the same day I read a social media re-post by the SFPS board president on how such decisions exacerbate the racial and economic inequities and achievement gaps that already dog our public schools, locally and nationally.
Her post and pandemic-pod opinions and articles—in the Washington Post and New York Times, for two examples—target parent-organized microschools and study-support pods comprised of the children of a few like-minded parents. The problem is that these microschools and pods are more likely to be made up of like-resourced and like-raced families, as well. Pod-parent criticism can be scathing.
And I'm sure we'll hear more this week, as the local board has planned a special meeting on Thursday, July 30 with two agenda items for discussion and possible action labeled "facilitating integrated pods" and "using outdoor space."
Pandemic pods have been spearheaded by families with money to hire private teachers and tutors. And, as Rebekah Bastian reviews in Forbes, correlations between race and wealth, and between race and the best-off schools in any district perpetuate America's educational inequalities. Similarly, parents with the means to choose a private school in the face of COVID-19-compromised education are not reflective of American and New Mexican racial diversity. Based on conversations I've been privy to, Santa Fe is in line with these trends and their threats of further entrenching segregation.
We should be wary of choices and conditions that further segregation and deplete public schools.
Six years ago, Mother Tongue wrote about such influencers in deciding to send our kids to public school. Rereading this old post, I notice that I included a caveat: "If a time comes when their educational opportunities at a private school diverge significantly from what is available to them publicly, then […] we will re-evaluate our options." Perhaps I anticipated our son's 6th grade year, when we moved him to a tiny, unconventional alternative. Yes, privilege made this move possible. And, my son's quick shift from hating to loving school validated it: He went from being overlooked to being valued as individual learner.
My shotgun riders and I maintain endless, pitched battles about making a decision in the best interest of my community or making a decision in the best interest of my particular kids. When these are mostly aligned, the drive is relatively smooth. When they're not, who wins? Do I make a civically responsible choice knowing that I'm actively acting against the best interest of my child's emotional, psychological and academic future? Or do I make a choice that gives my child the best chance for lifelong curiosity and engagement, at the expense of participating in a more diverse public school community?
I envy those who come down unquestionably on one side or the other of this question. I'm also suspicious of unquestioned conclusions. If public schools are to move forward successfully, questions will be infinitely more fruitful than finger-pointing. The "yes…and" construction is helpful.
Yes, families leaving public education accelerate rising inequities in public education… and—what can we learn by looking at why they're leaving, what they're seeking, and how they're organizing resources to better meet kids' needs?
Likely, some families actively seek a school community that looks and lives uniformly like them. Some families of certain means may feel better with exclusivity and endowments. Many families organize around specific points of philosophy or religious dogma.
Most, though, are just trying to find the fit that will keep their kid engaged in learning and where she or he feels embraced as a whole person. That's pretty much what parents and students of all ages, races, cultures, socio-economic classes and geographies want: To be seen, to be valued, to enjoy learning.
So why are so many kids not getting it in our public schools? How can public schools better serve students and teachers? That's the more productive question for public schools, not, "What are these families doing wrong?" For our whole community, the question is: How will we fund it?
Take parent-organized microschools and tutoring pods. In the face of COVID-19, guess who's spending more time supporting school-aged kids and less time working on careers? Yep, let's hear it for moms, those idealized do-it-alls whom we love to cheer on and loathe to meaningfully support. Links to this phenomenon feel rhetorical right now, but you can read more here, here, and here—or just ask your nearest mom.
From this angle, microschools and tutoring pods are critical solutions for women who, unless they're committed homeschool teachers, need and want to keep their work on the rails. Pooling resources to create such pods is a practical response for families that can't single-handedly hire a private governess (incidental nod to Bronte heroines). This is a real dilemma for moms, whether they're working in drive-throughs, hospitals, or via corporate Zoom, and it's hardly an extreme response.
In fact, it should be an opportunity for public schools. There is obvious need for supporting students through online learning. This is not specific to race or income-level, and it's well within the purview of public education. Help us, NM Public Education Department, Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education and administration!
Basic ingredients already exist and could be assembled in myriad ways: unused outdoor and indoor space and the willingness to use it for small numbers of mask-wearing participants according to CDC and state guidelines; teachers comfortable meeting students in person who are available, much like those who help run after-school programs; meals for families who rely on schools' free lunches; reliable Internet access; a district website platform and family mailing/calling lists; Google Suite calendar and spreadsheets; a high-school contest for a pod-forming app; book exchanges; a SFPS time bank.
Beyond COVID-19, approaching the pod issue with ingenuity might also open doors to considering the value of small class size. I'd wager a majority of families leaving or augmenting public schooling do so in search of smaller classes. I'd bet even more teachers would prefer a class of 15-20 instead of 25-30. Think of the individual attention, relationship building, academic engagement and true differentiation that could happen with such class sizes!
SFPS already knows because it provides this education, but only to a select group of students: the so-called "gifted" cohorts, those school-precocious children who begin their academic peaks between 2nd and 4th grades. I benefitted from such a program as a kid, and I know many children who do now. If you're among the anointed, you get engaging, personalized, project-based instruction from teachers convinced they're dealing with the best and brightest. But what about everyone else?
One of the things precipitating our choice of a private school for our son was his sad confusion when his friends got pulled out of class for gifted programming: "Why do they get a better education than I do?" he asked me.
The heartbreaking thing about "gifted" programming is that it chooses the kids who are already really good at public school and offers them the kind of enrichment that would benefit all kids, perhaps especially the kids left behind in general classes—those kids for whom public education is not working particularly well. Perhaps especially the families unable to afford extracurricular enrichments.
The current model seeds an academic caste system, denying the potential of countless kids—and then further denying them the very resources they need to achieve. It may be under the umbrella of public education, but it's about as merit-based as college legacy admissions. Notably, the educational attainment, zip codes, race and income levels of "gifted" families are hardly reflective of their larger school districts.
This is not to say we should scrap high-bar enrichments, but rather to challenge why they're only permitted for some. If you want to talk about equity, ask why public schools are satisfied to have checked the box of enriched education without making repeated, concerted efforts to apply its proven benefits—small groups with lower teacher:student ratios and creative, responsive, hands-on learning—to all of its students
Many families choose private school just for this—and their kids feel a lot more engaged in far less stratified learning environments. Public education needs to note what is working well at the highest levels—whether private, charter, supplemented or "gifted" education—and set its standard accordingly. Maybe SFPS-facilitated pandemic pod-support offers a chance to try some of this out.
This is a fundamentally different approach than leading with a general track for the masses. It does away with targeting masses altogether because you can't effectively teach masses. You only effectively teach individuals. And individuals learn better when they feel seen and known, which calls up the issue of smaller, more nimble schools.
Think New Mexico has done extensive research on the benefits of small schools. They've also pointed out how top-heavy the SFPS administration is versus its classroom allocations, so there's a place to start rethinking funding models. Certain SFPS departments already assemble creative, community-minded funding sources to keep valuable programs going. Public-private-civic partnerships are important in community schools models—and could play significant roles righting COVID19-deepened inequities.
None of this is new, any more than are outdoor classrooms during epidemics—see New York City schools in the early 20th Century and current Santa Fe privates. We could just start with exhaustive research on the health and academic benefits of recess and outdoor education, which this column has addressed in SFPS applications.
Unfortunately, our district seems bent on ignoring this research and ingenuity and, instead, stuffing more and more students into bigger and bigger schools with the most cookie-cutter, uninviting outdoor spaces imaginable. Most teachers and staff make extraordinary efforts to connect with students, but this model makes it harder to build the deep relationships that might keep more kids engaged when they're 100% online.
Why do we keep pursuing this? What data shows this supporting the best outcomes for publicly educated kids and communities?
It is easy to call out the relative wealth and whiteness of Acequia Madre parents advocating against shutting down their small school last fall—and plenty do. Truth is, that reaction is far too easy.
A more productive, progressive response would be not only to listen to what these parents and students are advocating for—but also to figure out how to give those benefits to more kids instead of simply taking them away from the few who enjoy them now.
In the redirected words of my then-11-year-old, "Why do they get a better education?" Don't kids on Santa Fe's Southside deserve small-school, smaller class education, too?
Yes, small schools are more expensive—and, we are doing something terribly wrong if our primary approach to equitable education is based on industrial efficiencies. Offering this as the only option to families and students is a dim way forward. It pretty much guarantees more families jumping ship.
Certain achievement-gap contributors we cannot change: Some public school kids have parents with college and advanced degrees and many more do not; some families pay for extra lessons and camps and many more can't; some kids were read to as infants and others weren't; kids live in homes with lots of books, or with televisions on all day, or that are scary and unstable; some families have enough food and others are hungry.
It is true that the varying degrees of American kids' opportunities are built on historically racist, discriminatory foundations. It is critical to acknowledge these conditions and advocate for equity, even when we're scrambling to accommodate COVID-19.
But calling foul on parents' individual decisions in the best interest of their children, as is happening around the country, is not the way to do this—especially given how far we need to go in adopting an equitable, healthy, creative and high-bar paradigm for all our students.