I’ve been working in urban public school systems for 14 years. When my children were ready for kindergarten, 3 years ago, there was no question – they went straight into our neighborhood urban public school, here in New York City. At my children’s school, there is an active PTA that holds lots of creative and expensive fundraisers. My kids have music and art and yoga. Their teachers are beautifully trained in Readers and Writers Workshop. They have extensive, leveled classroom libraries, they walk to Prospect Park to engage in “tree studies,” and they contribute to an annual school-wide poetry anthology called Pandemonium that’s hundreds of pages long, bound, and printed on really fancy card stock. And one afternoon a year they march down to their school lobby to spend my hard-earned money at the portable Scholastic Book Fair where they stock up on books that I would never buy them myself, but that make them super duper happy.
Yep. Public School 321 is a pretty great neighborhood elementary school. But don’t even think about it for your kids. Unless you’re rich. And mostly white. And happen to live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Specifically, in “the zone.”
The kids I’ve worked for for the last 14 years are high school kids. They went to shitty elementary schools. They grew up in shitty neighborhoods. They live “stop and frisk” every day. They have little access to green spaces. Some of them have been on welfare their whole lives. They’ve seen their brothers and cousins and neighbors get shot. Many of them read at a 4th, 5th or 6th grade reading level. Many of them can’t add fractions. They tell me their voices don’t matter. They’re mostly black. And Dominican. And Caribbean.
I’m bringing this up because yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Lily Eskelsen García, president-elect of the National Education Association. (Thanks again for arranging that Christine!) In case you were wondering, she’ll be the first female president of the NEA in 20 years. It’s also worth noting that’s she’s the first Latina president the NEA has ever had. She was lovely. She said all the right things about how testing and accountability have created a culture of fear among teachers, and how the Common Core Standards are actually very good (I totally agree) but that standards have been conflated with high stakes tests and we need to find more authentic ways to assess standards. She talked about how cool it would be to encourage people in the community to become teachers by offering grad school scholarships – a sort of grassroots model of teacher recruitment and retention. And she talked about the peer evaluation model that the school system in Montgomery County, Maryland has developed to make evaluations opportunities for professional development and collaboration as opposed to “gotchas.”
What she didn’t talk about explicitly was how to close the achievement gap.
I’ve been doing this work for a long time and I still cry every time I walk into my kids’ elementary school. All of our children deserve well-trained teachers and schools that are safe. All of our children should be reading at or above grade level. All of our children should have the chance to cultivate their curiosity and their desire to learn how to learn.
Tackling a segregated school system and all of the inequity that goes along with that in a country that “desegregated” schools in 1954 is not something that Lily Eskelsen Garcia can fix. At least, not alone. But I figure it’s an issue worth raising and studying if indeed we believe the children are our future.