But would you send your kids there…?
After my recent blog about the history of segregation in San Francisco and the school lottery I got a great response, as well as heartfelt questions from friends, mostly this: Would you send your kids to a school in __________ (insert rumored “bad” neighborhood/school here)? It’s a genuine question here that any parent understands in our gut. Regardless of our background or politics, as parents, we want the best for our kids. We secretly (or not so secretly wonder) “Can they get the best at a school where most of the kids are poor and not White?”
There are a lot of myths about that question that lead parents to take drastic action. When the city set up an integration strategy that involved bussing in 1971, 40% of kids missed school while parents boycotted the effort. That’s a critical mass worthy of any southern school integration backlash. Frankly, I was embarrassed for our city when I read that statistic, and wondered what those kids missed as a result.
The short answer to my friends’ question is yes. Maybe no. But probably yes. I don’t say that lightly. I went to the “bad” high school in the wrong neighborhood – people literally cringed when I told them I went to Valley. Our school didn’t look good when it came to test scores, since many students were just learning English, and many were poor (including my family, though we were middle class culturally). The first week of school, my new blonde friend pointed at a hallway and warned me, “We can’t go over there, we’re white, those cholos will kick our ass.” Curious and not one to be intimidated, I walked through the hall where some Latino kids were hanging out, head up and with a ready smile. It was really anti-climatic. No one could have cared less that I was there, and no one was the least bit interested in kicking my ass. My friend just said aloud the bias so many of us had, but once I tested it, I saw for myself that it failed.
That wasn’t the only expectation that my school defied. We had the best teachers, who were committed to our neighborhood and our community. Private schools paid more but couldn’t recruit them away. Mr. Paco gave me a handshake and named me an “Honorary Chicano” when I figured out a shorter proof than the one that our Calculus book listed as an answer. Ms. Plumber, who I thought was boring and old fashioned taught us a complex picture of history that most people don’t get until college. She invited a Vietnam Vet to talk about his experience in the war. We learned about the various motivations of different colonizers and the history of the Native Americans that were there long before they came. I tested her by trying to get a better grade by writing a long rant and never got away with it. Only when I wrote a short, tightly argued paper, did I get extra points. We learned about the history of mining company towns through a role play — she made me the union busting boss (a little ironic – while my family listened to right wing talk radio constantly and was politically pretty libertarian, I grew up to be an organizer). Mr. Perea led our tiny marching band to championships nearly every year with his creative ideas. In college, a professor from Harvard asked me where I went to school, looking pleasantly puzzled. “You seem…very well prepared” she said.
And it wasn’t just me. Charles Duhigg, a writer for the New York Times and the best selling author of “Power of Habit Why We Do What We Do in Life & Business” graduated from my high school. A Slate writer recently wrote about how she did fine despite her experience at a scrappy public school. Another successful professional friend making 6 figures a year told me that she learned nothing academic in her under-resourced public school for many years, what she experienced and learned about race helped to lead to her current success. A Stanford student and Mission High School graduate came out to a recent school board meeting to share that he managed to make it at Stanford, though he didn’t go to Lowell and never got tracked into Algebra in 7th grade. How can that be?
First, middle class kids tend to do fine regardless of where we go to school. Our parents are orientated to provide outside enrichment, regardless of our actual income. My parents bought encyclopedias for us, and while we literally had no toys, they bought us books to reward us for doing chores. Middle class isn’t determined by your bank account balance today, if you go back a few generations and someone in your family has a college degree or was well off, you’re probably middle class. Many immigrant families who come to America with nothing are middle class in the same way that my poor family was. If we didn’t have actual cash/capital, we did have the cultural capital of knowing how to get into the middle class.
Second, there’s research showing that going to a diverse school has educational benefits, not just for Black and Latino or Asian immigrant students, but also for White students.(1) It increases creative problem solving and critical thinking skills, emotional intelligence, participatory citizenship and the ability to work on teams with people from different backgrounds. Going to a diverse school increases a person’s ability to be comfortable in any social setting, improves your ability to recognize inequity and you are more likely to have diverse relationships long into your future. If you want your kid to grow up with great problem solving skills to be a successful entrepreneur (or successful in whatever realm), you might want to skip the alternative maker school where most the kids come from the same background, and instead send your child to a diverse public school where your race is in the minority.
Lastly, learning how to get along with people of a different race from yourself is part of being a good human and a good American, but it turns out it also is a very marketable skill in our global and increasingly diverse national economy. In 2040 the US is projected to be a ‘majority minority’ nation. California’s demographics today match that future. Statistically there is no group that is in the majority. That means that our kids have a competitive advantage now – if we don’t segregate them in our neighborhoods and schools – to learn how to work with people from different backgrounds and cultures. In the business world, companies are tripping over each other to ‘figure out diversity’ because they know it is critical to their bottom line. In the ill fated Starbucks “#racetogether” incident, pundits noted that the company that “figures out diversity” first in their industry will have a competitive advantage going forward.
For me personally, I’ve seen how my high school experience made me a better manager. I built diverse and award winning teams in my various managerial roles, and saw firsthand where other managers who shared my values but grew up in more racially isolated communities missed opportunities as a result of their blind spots.
My high school experience wasn’t all roses of course. Our school didn’t have the resources that my friends across town did, and our students had higher needs. We barely fielded varsity teams in some sports. Honors classes were great, but many regular classes had rotating subs and my friends told me that they were just learning what a ‘verb’ was. We had a big drop out/push out rate – I remember 400 people being in my high school class, with only 300 graduating (a peek at the statistics today show about 50% of kids leave before 12th great, SMH). There were fights between classes. A few kids died, some from gun violence off campus, some from car accidents.
Honestly, the upsides and the downsides of the neighborhood and the school weren’t shared equally. I started school with no records and it took about a month before I was moved into the honors English track. I’m sure I was a smart cookie, but I also looked like my teacher’s idea of a gifted kid – White, with a middle class background. I never felt unsafe at the school, and always felt isolated from any violence, which wasn’t true for all kids. My family didn’t need me to work for us to survive, so one year I jumped on a bus each night and went to an enrichment center where I could take an AP biology class.
I also got life lessons that no amount of outside enrichment can buy. My experiences and the positive role models I met counteracted many of the negative biases that we all get from our society about Latino culture. On our public school listserv there are a few people that regularly argue for equity. As I’ve gotten to know them, it turns out we have in common that we went to schools where we were in the numeric minority. Research shows this awareness and ability to speak up about inequity is a common result of attending a diverse school.
My school experience made me a better human being too, with an eye tuned to inequity. I make my share of mistakes, and I share the same racist biases we all have. However, I have experience that helps me notice when something is off, and I have plenty of experience in course correcting my mistakes. I’ve seen firsthand what value different backgrounds bring to a community. This is part of why I worry about how San Francisco is changing as we make it harder for anyone making under $65,000/year (including teachers) to live here. We are losing much of what has made our city a creative and resilient place with international impact.
Last year, I visited preschools, and loved most of them. At one school, I witnessed a poorly timed temper tantrum and thought to myself, “Ugh, I don’t need my kids bringing that behavior home!” Each family has its own needs, and while I’ll advocate fiercely for great public schools for all our kids in every neighborhood, I respect each parent’s choice for their family. Frankly, if you end up at a private school or a mostly middle class White & Asian school, there’s still plenty (probably even more) work for you to do to help all our children to grow up with the skills they need to succeed in a global economy and be decent humans. I know that from personal experience since we couldn’t get into the public preschools and ended up in a private preschool ourselves – where (shocker) even our middle class toddlers have tantrums.
My challenge to you is to seriously consider public schools in neighborhoods where the numbers look bad, rumors fly and the kids look different from yours. Give it a shot – no one is saying that you have to keep your child in a school if it’s a terrible experience for them, you can always switch. But if you’re like me, you and your children might find that a school where your child is in the (numerical) minority is one of the best educational experiences money can’t buy.
If you liked this piece, you might also like the first in this series on segregation and schools: Why do we have this d@mned school lottery anyway?
Julie Roberts-Phung is a longtime community organizer, a fan of STEAM education, and a career and leadership coach. She has two multiracial kids ages 1.5 and 4.5 who are Vietnamese and White (Irish and Russian). They are exhausting, they are at maximum cuteness, and raising them to be good human beings challenges me daily to deepen the way I work for a more just world in both my personal and professional lives. If you’re interested in exploring coaching with me, you can learn more here: http://empowertogetherconsulting.com/about/
1) “ Debunking the Middle Class Myth Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids” by Eileen Gale Kugler is a good quick read with some more information about this research.