Sunlit Water

September 8, 2006

School Days

Filed under: Culture,Personal — by teofilo @ 12:34 am

Welcome Bitch readers! I haven’t written much about education here, but it’s a subject I think about a lot and I have some strong opinions on it. Foremost among these is the idea that people should send their kids to their local public school unless there is a very compelling reason not to (hence my comment that prompted B’s post). The reasons I feel this way are closely tied to my personal background, and I’d like to go into a bit of detail on that.

I grew up in a fairly large city in the Southwest, and went to my neighborhood public schools for all 12 years. (Kindergarten was before we moved there.) My elementary school was largely (though not exclusively) white and middle-class, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood it was in. It’s near a university, so there were lots of children of professors and people of similar status and educational background. The quality of the education was quite good, and it was a generally pleasant experience.

Middle school was less fun, although I suspect middle school is rarely fun. My middle school wasn’t particularly good academically as a whole, although it had some excellent teachers and a good reputation; lots of kids transferred in from all over the city. Demographically, it was split roughly 50-50 between Anglo and Hispanic. I didn’t enjoy middle school much, and I learned very little, but I doubt that had much to do with my particular school.

High school, on the other hand, was great. My school had originally been the only one in the city, so it was located centrally and its district was remarkably diverse. The student body was about 70% Hispanic, 20% Anglo, 5% black, with the rest mostly Native American and Vietnamese. The school had something of a bad reputation among the white middle-class parents in my neighborhood, who often sent their kids to private school or to other, more suburban high schools elsewhere in the city. That reputation was undeserved, though; I’m sure I got just as good an education there as I would have at any other public school in the city, and better than most of the private schools. The honors track was robust and quite challenging (although mainly white and middle-class, which is always a problem), and there were quite a few AP classes available. Although most of the graduates who attended college (not that many) ended up at the local public university, there were always a few who went on to Ivys or similarly elite institutions, including me.

Because my own experience has shown that the reputations urban public schools have can be wildly inaccurate, I’m deeply suspicious of people who move to the suburbs for the schools or send their kids to private school because they just don’t trust their local schools. Obviously there are exceptions; some schools truly are terrible, and sometimes kids have serious problems that necessitate extra attention or special programs not available at their neighborhood school. But I don’t see any reason for people to dismiss their local schools, the ones in the the neighborhoods they live in, without even giving them a chance.



  1. Teofilo — my experience matches yours. What’s more, once in college I found out I’d consistently had had more background material already taught to me in high school that virtually no one else in the classes had had. And I was public education from second grade onward…

    Comment by anon — September 8, 2006 @ 1:12 am |Reply

  2. I think another important point to bring up in thinking about where children should be educated is political. Growing up in Minneapolis, and going to centrally located public schools (except for 3rd grade when I got stuck way out on the outskirts of town), I think the best part of my school experience was having teachers, administrators and classmates who had reasonably good politics. Not all of them did of course, but compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from suburban-raised friends about psycho Xtians, unreconstructed racists and really messed up gender dynamics in their various schools, I’m very glad that I only had to deal with a few jerks and wingnuts, instead of whole schools full of them.

    Another thing to consider is the homogenizing effect of even very good suburban schools (even those that are more racially integrated than the stereotype.) I attended schools with students from a very wide array of racial, class, ethnic, religious and social-political backgrounds. It wasn’t uncommon to be in classes which included Jews, Muslims, children of ex-hippies, upper-middle class kids, kids from families on welfare, recent immigrants, kids with a disability and plenty of interesting misfits. There was rarely a strong pressure to conform to any standard of dress or speech or appearance, even in jr. high (although I did go to a small, vaguely alternative jr. high, so that helped a lot). From my experience visiting suburban schools for debate meets and the reports of friends and others, the subtle pressure to conform in those schools can often be unbearable. And when you leave, you have far less experience at dealing with a diverse array of people and perspectives than kids who went to city schools.

    It seems to me that if parents really want their children to excell in academia and in life, they’d do better to focus on building early literacy skills and encouraging critical thinking than to obsess over test scores or extracurricular programs.

    Comment by minneapolitan — September 8, 2006 @ 11:11 am |Reply

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