The recent National School Choice week, and the controversial nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, got me thinking about my own adventures with school choice as a teenager.
I attended a high school in a notorious inner-city region. Shootings were not unheard of. My 10th grade science teacher recruited me to attend to a brand new high school he thought would better suit my academic potential.
On the first day, my mother and I waited in the dark at the bus stop at 5am for a bus that never arrived. Eventually, a neighbor drove me over an hour away to my new school. We only had one car, and my mother had to get to work. I was late and a little overwhelmed.
It took me 2 hours to get home that evening, but my 5am bus did show up the next morning. By the end of the week, I was exhausted from my 4-hour journey to and from school.
I was a pretty resilient kid and knew that things would get better…which they did. The school was, and still is, predominantly Hispanic and white students, with only a 2% black enrollment. The classes were challenging and the students were friendly. But, after 2 weeks, I returned to my old school, and to my honors and AP friends, with a new appreciation.
It was just too much: too much traveling, too much acclimating, too much explaining where I lived, where I came from and why I was there. My proud Jamaican accent was still pretty thick then.
Truth be told, I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t stick it out. It was a good school. But in the end, the “choice” to change schools was much more complicated than I thought.
Who’s Considering the Human Factor?
In all this talk of school choice I hope we remember the human factor. Schools are more than walls. This is evident by the fact that 90% of American children attend their neighborhood public school.
People crave a sense of community. We have pride in our neighborhoods, including our neighborhood schools. Kids walk to school together and build lifelong friendships. Neighbors look out for each other when our homes are empty and heal together when there is tragedy.
Some of us have relationships with the teachers who taught our older kids, and now teach our younger kids. We fund-raise and paint walls, serve on PTA’s and volunteer on field trips.
That’s not to say all this can’t be done at a non-neighborhood school of choice, but the convenience of proximity should not be downplayed. Yes, in some cases there are buses to get students to and from choice schools. But what about family nights and teacher conferences, or sporting events? Not to mention when kids get sick in the middle of the day.
These are real challenges for all working families, who may already feel disconnected from their child’s school experience. And it’s further compounded for poor families who may rely on public transportation and work back-to-back hourly jobs.
Make School Choice a Real Choice
I love having options. These is nothing worse than feeling trapped and taken advantage of. But, let’s be very aware that not all choices can be chosen. And, the pledge is to serve all children, not just some. It is, therefore, wholly irresponsible to deflect support from the choice of the vast majority. It’s just not logical.
If you support school choice then you must also support accountability for all schools, as well as quality public schools, in that choice network.
I will not be putting my kid on a bus to drive hours across town. And, I don’t think any parent should have to leave their neighborhood to have quality education options.