Monday, November 18, 2013

White Parent's Burden

I've said before that I don't want this to become a "daddy blog" because parenting blogs are basically the worst kind of blog in the world. But it looks like I'll be spending the next four months or so obsessing about where my daughter will be going to school next year. So this is what's on my mind right now.

We got back from our SE Asia trip last week and pretty much immediately leapt in to the beginning of our kindergarten odyssey. Applications submitted and first school open house visited.

Four years ago my wife was weighing job offers and it came down to us staying in New York at the institution she had just spent three years in a research training program or accept an attending physician/faculty appointment in Chicago. Moving to Chicago would involve more money and a lower cost of living so those were certainly factors to consider. But we loved living in New York so those things alone did not really sway us. A likely bigger factor was that we were new parents and we knew we were only a few year away from having to navigate the New York school situation. To hear New York parents talk about what it was like dealing with the school choice situation it seemed that they would have preferred being water-boarded.

So off to Chicago we went.

And now it's time to deal with the Chicago schools. One plus from the move already has been that we were able to delay this for a year since New York has a later birthday cutoff date for starting school. Our daughter would already be in kindergarten in NYC. There are a lot of conflicting opinions about whether it's better to start school earlier or later, I just know I'm happy I got an extra year before I had to deal with this shit.

Our first school open house was an experience with mixed feelings.

Excited, because this school looks to be fantastic. We fell in love with the principal, the kindergarten teacher we met, the curriculum, the percentile where the students test scores sit, and the amazingly high percentage of their students who move on to "selective" high schools in he city. It is also not that far from our apartment.

Then it was time to get depressed. This fantastic school is a citywide magnet school. They have two classes per grade of about 30 students each. So there will be 60 slots for next year's kindergarten. Siblings of current students at the school get first dibs and the principal said that they will take around 30 of the slots on average. So that leaves around 30 slots to be filled by completely random lottery. And every year about 1,500 kids or more apply to kindergarten at this school. So my daughter has about a 1-in-50 chance at this school, at best. I won't be holding my breath.

I remember the parent giving us our tour saying that when her kid got the spot at the school it was "like we won the lottery." I'm not sure how she didn't seem to get that she literally won the lottery.

We still have other magnet schools to visit as well as a couple of selective elementary schools. Selective meaning that your kid has to test in to it. How exactly they test a 5-year-old to see if they are super smart I'm not really sure, and no other parents seem to know either, even if they have had their kids do it already. At some point we will be given a time to take our daughter down to where they do the testing and someone will take her in to a room while we wait. And that's pretty much all we know from other parents. It seems the test involves giving your child a memory-erasing mind sweep at the end of it because they're not telling their parents what went on in there.

We haven't visited the selective school close to us yet but we're in love with it on paper. Chicago Magazine calls it one of the best schools in the city and their test scores are though the roof (as someone who despises standardized testing it is weird to be looking at this data, but they don't give you much else to consider). But of course they are starting with the kids they've deemed to be smarty pants anyway. Unlike he magnet schools I have no idea what my daughter's chances are to get in to this school. Sure, I assume she's a genius, as does her mother and her grandparents. But we might be a little more biased than the testing person will be about her.

All of this has causes my wife and I to have conversations about what we will do if she doesn't get in to any of these schools. The elementary school that is our default neighborhood school (the one you are guaranteed a spot in based on where you live) is a decent one, not considered one of the best in the city but certainly solid. And it is in a brand new building that we can walk to in ten minutes.

But in trying to figure out what is best for our kid my wife and I chatted about another option: moving. We rent, so picking up and moving is no problem for us. And it turns out that the school considered the best neighborhood school in the city is just north of us. All we have to do to be in the boundary for that school is move slightly more than 1/2-mile. Not the drastic move to the 'burbs like many middle-class white people make - we are dedicated urbanites, the suburbs suck out your spirit and crush it like a paper cup - but still. I don't think it was that long ago that my friends who became parents at a younger age than me would ask about schools in our neighborhood and my response would be, "how should I know." I didn't imagine I would become this parent. Of course it wasn't that long before I became a parent that I didn't even imagine I would become one at all. And now I'm not only a father but a stay-at-home variety at that.

Whether this is something we will actually do (move for a better school) I'm not sure but I can't believe this is where my life is now.

As stressful as this is turning out to be for me I can't even begin to imagine what it is like for a resident of this city who does not have the socioeconomic status that we do. If we don't get in to one of the test-in or magnet schools our fallback is still pretty good, and if we don't like that we have the resources to make a change. A low-income black parent in a crappy neighborhood has very few options if they want a better life for their kid. If they don't test-in to one of the gifted or classical schools then they count on the luck of the draw for a magnet school, with its long odds. Failing that they are left with a shitty neighborhood school with such a high population of impoverished kids that it is impossible for the school to succeed.

No matter what happens to us my daughter will not walk to school through a gang-infested, high-crime neighborhood. She'll be in a solid school even if we don't win a lottery or test-in spot. She does not have parents who have to work two jobs each to make ends meet and would have no time to help with homework or be involved in her school. She has a stay-at-home parent who will be able to pick her up every day and not even have to do after school programs. It is something I'm trying to keep in mind as I stress about this.

Like any parent I want to try to do the best for my kid but not lose sight of how bad it is not. Too many parents in the situation we are in like to complain as if they are being shoved aside in favor of under-performing minority kids. Without explaining too much how it works, Chicago has a tier system to be sure of diversity in the test-in and magnet schools, grouping students in four different socioeconomic groups based on zip code (we're in the highest one) so, yes, kids from a lower tier can get in to a test-in school with a lower score than some kids from the higher tier. Many upper and upper-middle class white parents howl about this as being unfair. I call them assholes.

These are people who live in an area with good neighborhood schools and many of them can afford to send their kids to a great private school if they so choose. Poor people have to win a long-shot lottery or their kids' futures are statistically fucked and these wealthier people want to bitch about fair?

When you make a choice to live in the city one of those reasons should be for the diversity. Without a system in place for the schools to achieve a diverse population then our kids will grow up around just a bunch of other well-off white kids. I would move to the suburbs if I wanted that. A big reason for wanting my daughter to get in to one of the magnet/test-in schools is that they are more diverse than our neighborhood school options.

I understand wanting to do the best for your kid as much as anybody. My school life growing up was awful all the way from first grade through high school graduation and almost every adult in my life failed me along the way. I want my kid to have it better than that.

I imagine that most poor minority parents want the same. They should have just as good a chance as me to achieve it.