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

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.