By Amanda Rose Adams
For the past seven years, my kids have attended our neighborhood elementary school. The school was recently classified as a Title One institution. According to the US Department of Education, “Schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs that serve all children in the school.”
For many years well over 50% of our school’s students have been eligible for free or reduced lunch, but my children are not part of that 50%+ percent. At our elementary school, we’ve been the minority of families who are decidedly and comfortably middle class.
My daughter only has nine more school days before she leaves our Title One school to join her brother in middle school next fall. Our middle school has the lowest percentage of at-risk need funding of any school in our district, less than 2%. We are going from a school where most of the school directory addresses are in one of the biggest trailer parks in our state to a school where we’ve seen kids picked up in Lamborghinis and limousines.
According to the principal at the middle school, close to one hundred percent of the students have smart phones. I can assure you it’s not fully one hundred percent because my son does not have a cell phone of any sort, smart or not. We simply cannot afford to arm a sixth grader with a telephone for his convenience or ours. Once again we are in the minority, still middle class but closer to the margins than many families at this school.
My husband and I look back over our children’s tenure at the lower income school with mixed feelings. We are glad we didn’t try to “choice” out of our neighborhood school because we wanted our kids to understand that not everyone has the same advantages and possessions. We’re glad that they had so many English-learning classmates. We are glad that we had the school’s social worker translate birthday party invitations to be inclusive. Diversity is one of the values the school celebrates.
We did “choice” our son out of the middle school he would have been bussed to because we wanted him to have a chance to make new friends. He was never athletic enough to blend in with his peers in elementary school and a new crowd seemed the right choice for him. Where we live if a family wants to opt out of their default school, they must submit a request in writing by the January before the next school year begins, and even then a change of school is not guaranteed. The middle school he’s at now was actually third on our list of three alternatives. We knew little about it before he was assigned, but it’s the one the school district chose for us.
In elementary school, our kids were getting easy As for years. They’ve been coasting, which we learned this year when our sixth grade son was buried in homework and struggled to legitimately earn solid Bs. We’ve not only seen him work harder, we’ve seen his writing and math skills improve dramatically. At his old school we never pushed him to join the gifted and talented program because we knew he wouldn’t push himself. In this new school, whether it’s his age, his teachers, or his peers, he’s found his drive.
We expect our daughter to really take off in middle school and are hoping to see her communication skills blossom like her brother’s have. We are so happy with the academic rigor middle school that we wonder if we did wrongly by our kids by not trying to “choice” them into a more challenging school sooner.
For the past several years we were stubbornly loyal to our neighborhood elementary school, volunteering regularly and donating supplies and hosting classroom parties. We didn’t want to be those people who thought their kids were too good to go to school with the poor kids. This was especially important to me because I actually lived in a trailer park from kindergarten until sixth grade. My siblings and I were the kids who got free and reduced lunch. My family ate government cheese and drank canned pineapple juice from the USDA Commodities program. It seemed like a betrayal of my family of origin and an enormous hypocrisy of self to segregate my own children from other kids just because the other kids lacked money. What I didn’t understand until later is how hard the teachers have to work to make up for other gaps that many kids without money also possess, like never attending preschool or not having books at home and often not having a parent at home.
By doing right by our neighbors and our values, I do sometimes wonder if we did right by kids? Our son seems to be catching up quickly, and I expect no different from our daughter. If we created a gap by indulging our values of equality and fairness ahead of our value of education, it is our responsibility and our great privilege to close it with the myriad of resources at our disposal. One of those privileges is sending our kids to a middle school that challenges them. It’s now up to our kids to reach their full potential and for us to support that. I wonder about our choices, but I don’t regret them. In raising children, I would far rather error on the side of compassion over competition because that’s the lesson I most want them to take into the future.
Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at www.amandaroseadams.com.