how we got here

When our dream school had no space for my son, I panicked. Then I confronted prejudice I didn’t know I had

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
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This is the second entry in a new series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

Even before my children were born, I spent hours envisioning them in a kindergarten classroom, smelling of crayons, Tempera paint, and Elmer’s glue. Little scissors, blocks, and dress-up clothes completed the Norman Rockwell picture.

Once my son was born, I spent years thinking about how to move to an area with a good school. We worked hard and eventually bought our way into Brooklyn Heights, a sought-after neighborhood that is home to the coveted, and overcrowded, P.S. 8. By the time I filled out my son’s kindergarten application, it was a moment more than five years in the making.

I waited with anticipation to receive our acceptance letter. When it came, I opened the envelope and read, “We are pleased to announce that your son will be attending P.S. 307.”

Waves of panic washed over me. P.S. 307, while also nearby, is not P.S. 8. Most of its students live in poverty. I sat awake at night envisioning my precious little blond boy going to a school with a towering housing project in its shadow. In that moment, I wondered: How could this happen?

Months later, I wonder more about how I could I have reacted that way. I want to take you on my journey as I faced my own ignorance — as “choosing” a school taught me about my own prejudice.

During those first panicked weeks after receiving the letter, I desperately looked for other options for my child. Then I got a phone call with a cheery female voice on the other line. “We are inviting all of the families who were accepted to P.S. 307 to the school this Saturday to welcome you,” she said. “Would you be able to attend?”

And so I went. When I arrived, a friendly security officer said hello. I heard trickling water and turned to see two handsome turtles in an aquarium.

I learned that the turtles are a result of a recent grant to boost science education. The school has on-site STEM director who helps the teachers write highly engaging, rigorous, hands-on, project-based units connecting science, technology, and math. Each class has an animal, insect, or plant in the classroom. Literacy lessons connect to the science content.

I also learned how much Principal Roberta Davenport cares about her students. She grew up in the public housing across the street, and drove in every day from Connecticut to serve the community where she grew up.

When I visited again later, students were on task and engaged. It was a quiet and peaceful environment. A pre-kindergarten class was testing out vehicles in the hallway that they had created in the science lab. One class was singing as a teacher played guitar, while another was reading and playing music on keyboards.

The pre-K classrooms were inviting, with lots of nooks and cozy corners. I learned that the pre-K and kindergarten classes get 20 minutes of playground time in addition to regular recess. I learned that the school has a band, a chorus, and even offers violin lessons.

I was stunned by this little school, which I had so harshly judged. I felt energized and full of hope for my son, and I was angry with myself for making assumptions that this school would be unimpressive because it served poor students.

But while I felt hopeful, the other parents on the tour with me had more negative reactions.

“Why are test scores are so bad? Explain that to me.”

“It is just such a long walk to the school. It is too far.”

“The kids have to wait outside in the rain when they get picked up. I can’t have my nanny wait in the snow and rain like that.”

I felt like these parents were finding reasons to discredit the school before learning more. Why couldn’t they see what I was seeing?

This started my effort to try to understand what we were all looking for. What messages have we internalized? How do those ideas come out in ugly ways when our children are at stake?

One parent told me she has to consider the people her child will meet in school. “He could make some great connections that could help him later on,” she said. I guessed that she meant that she wants him to get a good job. I also think she meant that she wants him to be part of upper middle-class society.

I remember another conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee in Brooklyn Heights. I asked, what kind of school do you want your child to go to? It was a heated discussion with lots of words dropped: safe, nurturing, inquiry, project-based.

The more I dug into my soul, the more I come back to the idea that choosing a school is essentially about choosing the class you want to belong to and not about education at all. The truth that nobody wants to talk about is they want their white child to go to a white school. They want to go to a school where everyone eats Pirate Booty instead of Cheetos, where parents send their kids to New York Kids Club instead of Chuck E. Cheese’s.

I bring my own desires and biases to this, too. I am an educated, white, privileged woman. I am also a teacher.

I know from experience in my classrooms that upper-middle-class kids who come from educated backgrounds do well. They test well. They go to college. They get jobs. They do fine. As a teacher, I’ve also learned that the more diverse a classroom, the richer the discussions are, the more empathy is grown, the deeper we go into content knowledge.

And yet, even after deeply thinking about this — even after acknowledging these impulses — I did not happily send my child to P.S. 307. It was a complicated decision that followed many fraught conversations.

Ultimately, I decided that I wasn’t ready to take such a dramatic step. I wanted my son to have an educational environment like the one I saw at P.S. 307, but I couldn’t get past the idea that the level of need that most of its current students had was too different from my child’s. I also worried that, with Principal Davenport leaving, I wouldn’t be able to count on the quality I saw being sustained. And maybe the final decision was also rooted in a deep need to belong in my own whiteness.

But my son’s offer to P.S. 307, and my months of thinking on this issue, also led me somewhere surprising. Just a week before school began, my son did receive a seat at P.S. 8 — my dream scenario from the start.

We declined it. I knew that going to P.S. 8 would only further the institutionalized segregation in the city. I had become too uncomfortable with what the school’s relative homogeneity would mean for my son, despite the school’s enviable partnerships with Lincoln Center and the Guggenheim Museum.

Instead, I chose to send my son to P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, a school with a more even mix of white students and students of color. It felt like a school where my son would be exposed to classmates truly different from him, but without the worries I couldn’t shake about P.S. 307. There, he could choose between chess or double dutch, gardening or African drumming, ballet/tap or hip-hop dance. It felt right.

The online review of P.S. 261 notes that “It has an active parent body that includes lawyers, hairdressers, writers and maintenance workers. This frank-talking community embraces the friction ethnic and economic diversity can sometimes bring, believing that kids coming together from different backgrounds creates a better world.”

This feels like a glimmer of hope. When we push past our neighborhood and visit each other’s schools, we can see into another world of possibility. And maybe when we do, we start to block those covert messages that are sent to us when we only attend white, upper-class schools.

Maybe those messages are born from segregation. And just maybe, sending my son to a more integrated school can start to break the cycle.

Interested in contributing to How We Got Here? Email us.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.