As sure as it’s the New Year, it’s also school selection season in Oakland. Obsessing about kindergarten is one of those things almost every middle-class parent here does, as normal as buying a family membership at the zoo. So, parents are touring private school after private school.
“It’s a nightmare,” sighed one mom to me in the library, lamenting her packed schedule. A well-meaning dad in the grocery store explained, “Well, we only have one, so we can do it. What are you going to do? You have two! That’s going to cost twice as much!” Some are taking on additional jobs in order to afford it all. Many are planning moves to different districts, or scheming to fake their addresses. But I love my child so much, they say. She’s sensitive, smart, gets bored easily, loves art, is so good at numbers, can’t sit still, is young for her age, is old for her grade, needs small classes, will be a GATE student, has to play sports…I just want what’s best for her, the best. And, despite all of this expense and angst, many are freely dismissing Oakland public schools without ever stepping inside of one.
Why is this? I’ve participated in (and, I’ll confess, eavesdropped on) many conversations about local schools, and this talk almost always has a certain Oakland flavor––sheer panic. But is it justified?
I will readily admit that as the mom of a four-and-a-half-year-old, I have had many sleepless nights considering the Kindergarten Question. I love my son just as much as anyone could love a child, so of course I want what’s right for him. And I know that there are problems with Oakland schools…lots and lots of problems, probably infinity problems, to quote said four-and-a-half-year-old. As a particularly honest principal told me the very first time we met, “If you aren’t concerned about Oakland schools, then you don’t have your eyes wide open.”
I agree. As a former Oakland teacher, I have my stories. But I’m also a former Piedmont teacher, and I have troubling tales from that district as well. In fact, I know teachers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Lafayette, Alameda, San Leandro, Hayward, Fremont, Pleasanton, Los Altos, and Santa Cruz, and they all have concerns and worries about their schools.
This is because public schools and school districts here are complicated, largely because they serve the amazingly varied public of the Bay Area and make do with less than what they need. Oakland appears to have more diversity and problems than most districts. But just because there are difficulties in Oakland schools doesn’t mean that there is nothing here worth exploring or investing in; still, many parents don’t, partly because it’s just so easy to bash Oakland schools as a whole.
My own school research began four years ago. It started with my dream of a nice little neighborhood school: short commute, easy-to-find playmates, and a sense of community close to home. I come from a family of teachers that believes in public schools in a way that borders on the religious––we think society benefits in every way from having a well-educated public, not just a well-educated privileged few. We believe that if families with wealth and power stay in public schools, the schools will be better for everyone.
Besides my overall aversion to private schools on principle, there’s the money. Neither my husband nor I want to work a whole lot more to pay for private school. Our family benefits from the time we spend with each other instead of at work. (Even if we did have the money, we can think of a lot of things we’d rather do together, as a family, with the $100,000–$150,000 it would cost just to get our first son through the fifth grade.)
So, knowing that my children only need one good elementary school, I started with the Oakland public school closest to my home. It’s not one of the coveted “hills” schools. Many of the kids receive free or reduced-fee lunch. Most of the kids are not white (mine are). And the API scores are not terribly impressive (if you’re into that kind of thing). Chances are, unless you’ve talked to me, you may not have even heard of it.
My search ended at that school. Four years later, it’s the one I name when people ask, “So, where’s your kid going to kindergarten?” And maybe because I’m white, maybe because my kid goes to a preschool where most of the families seem to have more than enough money, maybe because the people asking me know I don’t live in a “good” attendance area, it is nearly always assumed that my family is on the private school circuit. So, when the questioner hears my answer, the first reaction is usually, “Oh really? Where is that?” followed by a pause, where I can almost hear the unspoken thought...How did I miss that one? When I say, “Oh, it’s the neighborhood school closest to my house. You know, a public school,” a certain look often crosses the other parent’s face. It’s the one I might get if I casually told someone I was breeding and raising cobras in the comfort of my own home––a clearly fascinated yet horrified look that says, Oh my God. Why?
By now you may be thinking, surely, she’s a little too sensitive. Maybe I am. But here are some of the unsolicited comments I’ve gotten (all from people who’ve never had a child enrolled at the school):
“That’s a horrible school!” was nearly spat at me at a birthday party (prior to the spitter learning that’s where my child would likely go).
“Have you seen that school? It’s a sea of black heads!” whispered a neighbor (about three months before moving to a homogeneous, wealthy nearby town).
“I go by that playground and what I see there scares me.” (I too go by the playground almost every day and have yet to find anything scary about elementary kids playing basketball or planting seeds in the garden.)
“Kids don’t learn there!”
Were I made of weaker stuff, I would take these comments as an indictment of my parenting. And, they are so wrong in so many ways that I would like to say I was surprised by them. But I wasn’t.
Privileged white people make up a lot of things about disadvantaged people of color. And everyone can be good at making up all kinds of things about the unknown. So really, is race the reason people are rejecting Oakland schools? I can’t know for sure.
What I do know is that unlike the people quoted above, I have, through a combination of luck and persistence, spent considerable time gathering real information about my child’s future school. What I have found is caring, creative, top-notch teaching amidst challenging conditions. The principal is young, smart, energetic, and working hard to meet the needs of a diverse community, which has arrived at her school’s doorstep from all over the world, speaking eleven different languages at last count. There are also loads of down-to-earth parents who love their kids, are proud of them, and appreciate the environment their kids get to be a part of each day. I’ve watched adorable kindergarteners perform plays and had fifth graders earnestly tell me about inspiring women they have researched. I’ve heard beautiful music the students have practiced and performed. And I’ve witnessed the frustrations of adults who struggle with getting these kids what they deserve.
In short, I have found a diverse urban public school that is neither wholly perfect nor entirely terrible. Yes, I still have questions and fears. It’s a school that could use more volunteers and funding, and there are things I hope will change for the better. But it’s a school where I think my child will learn great things about the real world and how it works, where he will meet some people who are both like and unlike him, and where teachers will care about him and help him become a better person. This, all very close to my home, in the community my family lives in and is a part of each day, is what I want for my child. So when I say he’s going to our local public school, it’s not because I don’t care about my child. It’s because I do.
Annelisa Hedgecock has lived in Oakland with her husband for over 12 years. She is now the proud parent of a thriving second grader and an almost-kindergartener. Due to increased family and neighborhood involvement, dedicated teachers, and improved test scores, it is entirely likely that now more people have heard of Sequoia Elementary School than when this was written in 2008.
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