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

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.