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In Defense Of Poor Public Schools

I’m from New York, and though I am by no means from a family that had an abundance of cash, I spent quite a bit of time as an adult around people with money, privilege, and access, which means I’m quite fluent in snob—can see it coming five miles away, hear it all up and in between the lines, feel its hot sting sear like fire.

Occasionally, shamefully, I employ it, too. Sometimes when a snob gets on my nerves. Definitely when it comes to my getting what my girls need and deserve.

Such was the case when my husband and I moved our family from New Jersey, where we were zoned for one of the best school districts in one of the best education states in the union, to Georgia, notorious for being average, at best, when it comes to its schools. We knew from the second we decided to move here that we would move Heaven and Earth to keep our kids out of public school.

And for our first two years here, we did just that—sent our girls to an expensive Montessori school, turning our nose up at the public schools in our neighborhood. Test scores played a part in the decision. So did the trailer park some two miles from our house. And honestly, we’re African American northerners living in a conservative southern state where bumper stickers with Confederate flags seem to far outnumber those that read, “My Kid Is On the Honor Roll.” Sending my smart, chocolate, Yankee girls into what we thought would be a backwoods, Deliverance-styled educational experience wasn’t an option. Like, at all.

But you know what? That Montessori school that I thought would save my kids from educational mediocrity (which in our house equals education disaster), had issues. Our hefty tuition check and my work as room mom and on the PTA board didn’t stop my kid from being bullied, the teacher from sucking or the administration from being woefully unresponsive to my concerns. And when I started searching around for alternatives, a few of my friends insisted I look into my neighborhood school.

We did. And we were amazed by what we found.

No, the test scores weren’t the best in our area; they fell on average about 15 points below the schools across town. And the numbers of kids getting free lunch, in special education, and speaking English as a second language were high for our standards.

But when we visited the school, we got a much different picture from the one painted by statistics we gleaned from the internet; the stats hid the gem. Classes were racially, ethnically and economically diverse; the school wasn’t some drab, dreary, gray affair but a bright, warm place that felt like kids could be happy there; teachers, staff and principal were friendly and accommodating and eager to show us that they could hang with our girls; and everyone welcomed me to become a part of the fabric of their vibrant school. 

A few months later, our girls were sitting in their desks with teachers who were willing to give them work that challenged them, kept them excited, and was creative. They were fast-tracked into the school’s gifted program, where they could get extra academic attention. I worked as the room mom in both classes, volunteered in the library, made nice with the administration and happily helped my babies foster class friendships outside the school. 

In other words, our school ended up being quite a jewel. Not a perfect jewel. But a jewel nonetheless—one that we would have never embraced had we not showed up, pitched in and squeezed out every ounce of opportunity there for the taking.

Are there crappy public schools? Of course there are. But not all of them are broken. Not every test is horrible. Not every teacher is phoning it in. Not every rich district is better than the not-so-rich districts. And, despite the prevailing notion of people who gentrify the 'hoods with their mini vans and Starbucks lattes, not every family who doesn’t look like, speak like or come from the same background and circumstances as yours is educationally-challenged and blissfully ignorant about their kids' grades, test scores and ability to achieve. The non-snob in me knows this deep down in my gut. 

Public schools are what we parents make them.

And I’m glad we opened our eyes to this.