Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hello, 1954

While I was listening to NPR on the way to work this morning, I heard the news that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that race can not be a factor in assigning where children go to public school.


I need a minute to get my head together.


Race is something that I think about A LOT when it comes to school.  When I was looking for a preschool for Viva, I was looking for one that had a lot of ethnic and racial diversity.  I didn't want her to feel "different," to be the only brown face in a sea of sameness.  But I didn't look for a predominantly black preschool, because I wouldn't be comfortable with that either.  I think there is inherent value in spending your days with people of a variety of backgrounds, to get different perspectives and yet to see how very similar you are.  As she gets older, I want Viva to be able to operate effectively in any situation she might find herself in, and part of that is learning how to interact with different types of people.


I have been looking at public schools now for, oh, at least a year. I am troubled by my local public elementary school's mediocre test scores, and by the miniscule black population in the school, which echoes the small black population of our neighborhood (our neighborhood skews pretty much white urban hipster/Latino middle-class/second-generation Asian-American/smattering of Armenian and the occasional black person-I won't even say black family because I have yet to see one).  I have looked into charter schools, which there is no guarantee I can get her into.  I have looked into other private schools, and there's no economic diversity there. (That, I think, is fodder for a whole different post about growing up privileged and not having a realistic view of the world.)


When I look at the "best" public schools in mid-city Los Angeles – the schools with great reputations, great test scores, high rates of parent involvement, great extracurricular programs – I can't help but feel defeated. We don't live within the boundaries we'd need to in order for Viva to go there.  Here's the ethnic/racial breakdown on each:


HC School is 58% Asian, 23% white, 9% Latino, 7% black, 2% Filipino, and 1% unspecified. 

SL School is 47% white, 28% Latino, 10% Filipino, 9% Asian, 5% black, and 1% unspecified.

LC School is 56% white, 21% Asian, 14% Latino, and 10% black.


I would say each of these has to some degree a fairly good mix.  The public school where we live, and where Viva would go to kindergarten if she went through the LA Unified School District, rates a "C" academically.  Its ethnic breakdown is 75% Latino, 11% Filipino, 7% white, 4% Asian, 2% black.  Also diverse, but you see? Hardly any black children. 


In contrast, Viva's current school, which costs us upwards of $15,000 per year – note well, she is now in Pre-K, not even elementary school – breaks down as follows:  28% black, 28% white, 28% Asian, 11% Latino, 3% American Indian, and 2 % unspecified.  It's not perfect, but it's pretty damn good.


Yes, I know, I live in a dream world.  But apparently I'm not the only one (hello, Justice Roberts!). The Supreme Court decision pisses me off, and let me tell you why:  it completely ignores the reality of race and education in America.  Does anyone honestly believe that schools in minority neighborhoods are as well-funded and well-run and well-staffed as those in predominantly white areas?  Seriously?  It's not a level playing field.  If it were, we wouldn't have needed Brown vs. the Board of Education in the first place. Separate but equal, my ass.


I don't think it's a coincidence that my local school has a population that is predominantly minority, one-third bilingual (one-third of kids in the school do not speak English as their first language) and low-income (85% of kids are getting free or reduced price lunch) and has such shitty test scores. Is this because I think minority kids are inherently deficient? No. I think it's because they have parents who can't help with homework and can't be involved with the school and advocate on the kids' behalf. And I think they can't do this because they're concentrating on basic survival -- getting food on the table and paying the rent and doing all this in another language, in a strange place. It's not that they care any less about their kids than Jane in Bel Air does about hers.


I am fortunate to be in the position where I feel I have some choice about where my child goes to school. Sweet Dub and I have been discussing whether or not we should move, and if so, where, in order to get Viva into a "good" public school.  The fact that we have to do this in the first place, before even considering race as a factor, shows you how horrendous the Los Angeles public school system is.  It's extremely hit or miss; some schools happen to have good principals and parents who have the time and energy and money to assist with leadership and building a strong school for their neighborhood.  And some just don't.  If the public schools were uniformly good, I wouldn't be pissed off. 


If we had to, we could continue to send Viva to private school. But a lot of folks don't have that option. And the Supreme Court decision, in my mind, paves the way for a lot of children of color to miss out on getting a quality education.


Whew. I'm worn out. 


And still pissed.

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E. said...

It's indeed depressing that you're forced to grapple with these issues as your child gets ready to begin kindergarten. It's a reflection of the deplorable state of not only education but economic and social opportunity in our messed up land. I'm currently reading Jonathan Kozol's Shame of the Nation, so I've been learning much more about the details of resegregation in US schools. Of course, it's even worse than I previously understood.

By the way, I see you've got Last Child in the Woods over on the side there. I read that over the winter. Very good book. When I received it as a gift I thought "sounds like a great book, but I probably won't read it b/c I know I already agree with it." But I actually learned so much, and it really made me think. Every parent should read it, and every educator.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

Ooh, I haven't read that yet. I'll have to pick it up.

I'm actually reading Last Child in the Woods for work. That is the cool part of working at a social services organization. I'm also plugging away through a report called "Poverty, Welfare, Child Abuse, and the Juvenile Delinquent Syndrome." Really interesting, although certainly not light reading.