Where Do We Draw the Lines? Guest Post by Abby Norman

Abby is the real deal. She has done the inner-city teacher thing. She is a mom. She has her feet in several different worlds, and I am so grateful for the perspective she gives to these conversations. Kids and schools are a difficult topic, but Abby comes at it full force. I love her brave, love-filled voice (and can’t wait to read that book she is writing). 

 

 

Where do we draw the lines?

by Abby Norman

Last year in Atlanta, the most prestigious middle school needed to be redistricted. It was overflowing with kids while the next closest school was half empty. One of the largest neighborhoods, which pushed the school to overflowing, was actually closer to the half-empty school. It was a no brainer –except it wasn’t. The overflowing neighborhood was also one of the most affluent. Many of the parents had moved into that neighborhood before their thirteen and fourteen year olds were even born because it was districted for the prestigious middle school. Those lines would not be redrawn without a fight.

The parents from the affluent neighborhood took it upon themselves to draw their own lines. Curved and zig-zagged, these lines kept the same number of kids at each school, but managed to put all the richer (and mostly white) kids in the already prestigious school, and move all the poorer, (mostly black) kids into the school with the bad reputation. When the school-board pointed out that these lines caused kids within walking distance of one schools to be bussed to the other school, the parents feigned shock.

Things got ugly from there. The local news was called, signs posted in the front yard, Facebook statuses and tweets were posted all proclaiming the need to protect our kids! Protect our future! We’ve invested in this school and we deserve to stay here!

The solution that the parents wanted simply made no sense, but re-districting the affluent neighborhood would likely cost time and money as the affluent parents were threatening to get an injunction against moving the lines. Plus, a school board seat is an elected position and pissing off your mostly likely voters is in general a bad idea. So, the school board shut down the half empty school, erected portable classrooms in the parking lot of the already overcrowded school, and bussed everyone to the prestigious building. It was a solution where the most affluent get what they want and no problems are actually solved. Welcome to education in America.

Often, people who are down with downward mobility draw the line at the education of their children. Hanging out with homeless people, mingling with immigrants, all of that is fine. But going to the neighborhood school? Sorry–Kindergarten marks the moment people go screaming for the suburbs.

Who can blame them? Shouldn’t we want what is best for our children? Of course we do. But best, in the conversation about schools often means the least amount of poor people problems. It does not take into consideration the value of a racially and socioeconomically diverse social group.

The situation with these two Atlanta middle schools was particularly heartbreaking because there was a viable option. If the parents of the kids from the large affluent neighborhood had moved to the new school, it would have been just as good in a matter of months. The brand new PTA would have made sure of that. This solution would have taken some investment, it would have taken some summer time, but no more time and energy than the campaign to keep their children out of the school in the first place. In order for this solution to work, the affluent parents had to believe in it.

This behavior is not unique. When it comes to loving our neighbor, the buck stops at the classroom. We feel we have to protect our children, even at the expense of our neighbor’s kid. We have to protect our kids from the conditions we readily accept for other children. The redistricting battles are never about making all the schools good. They are about who gets stuck with the bad school, and how it sure won’t be me and my kid.

But you have to draw the line somewhere! Isn’t that always the cry? And you do, I suppose, at least as far a school districting is concerned. My concern is the way we draw those lines. Are we drawing the lines out of fear? Are we drawing those lines to keep what we have to ourselves and those with less, out? Or are we drawing those lines after carefully considering what is best for everyone in the city? The lines need to be drawn only after looking into the faces of our neighbors and prayerfully considering how to love their children.

I suppose all of this is easy for me to write right now. With my oldest only three-years-old, school decisions are two solid years away and there is a lot up in the air. I have my eye on a charter school for the arts and the public elementary school. There is a rumor the rich district next door is looking to incorporate. This would mean amazing schools, but also my neighbors being pushed out of their homes by sky-high property taxes. Clearly, it is complicated.

The less affluent parents in my neighborhood are going to send their kid to the local school. They don’t have a choice; the busses don’t run to charter schools and public schools out of district. Parents with the ability to drive their kid to school are choosing very carefully and they get their information almost exclusively from other parents. Perfectly serviceable schools are branded as “bad” and none of the parents who have other options send their kids there. Thus, the school loses its PTA and volunteer parents, and all the other privileges that come with servicing a more affluent population. School boards, local businesses, parents, no one wants to invest in a school with a bad reputation.

I live in a pocket of the city that is in one school district and less than two miles away from two others. In conversation with a mom at the gym I mentioned what district my house is zoned for. She immediately told me the entire district was terrible. She would highly recommend that I not send my kids to any of the more than 100 schools in my district. All of them were horrible, none of them were good. I am sure she was just repeating what she heard. But what she heard and said is damaging, and a lie.

If we do decide the local elementary school isn’t the best choice for us, I am going to make sure that is all that I volunteer if asked about my decision. “It wasn’t the right choice for my girls.” If I wouldn’t say it in front of a teacher who works there, I will not say it about that school. I will recognize my ability to navigate the educational system for what it is, a privilege that most people don’t have.

Like much of the decisions in life, I don’t know that the Bible spells out any one right answer, but I do know there are wrong ways to go about making those decisions. Here are a few things we can do when thinking about education and our kids:

 

Pray about it

Consider how it affects your neighbor

Don’t spread rumors

Recognize your own privilege

Respect others decisions

 

As Christians, we should be drawing lines with a deep-seated belief that there is enough to go around. We should be invested in a positive outcome for all. Loving our neighbors as ourselves should extend to our neighboring schools.

DSC_0529Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She has two hilarious children and a husband that doubles as her copy editor and biggest fan. If two in diapers and a full-time job teaching English at a local high school don’t keep her busy, you can find her blogging at accidentaldevotional. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies, and carries a dream of one day writing a book about teaching in her heart

 

 

 

 

 

For more posts in the Downward Mobility series, click here.

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13 thoughts on “Where Do We Draw the Lines? Guest Post by Abby Norman

  1. Mary Hoyt says:

    I live in Atlanta and just now was walking/talking with a friend going through this agonizing decision-making – love that you’re writing about this – I homeschool but stay connected to our local elementary school in giving, volunteering, and encouraging our teachers and our community that even though the stats say it’s second from the bottom in the state in test scores, it’s still a “great school!” No one at my local school is questioning me on my decision not to put my kids there – we all agree that they are overwhelmed with struggling students/families – but I try to let my community know how hard they are working over there and how amazing the staff and students are and that investing in our local schools is a key way to address their biggest complaints – crime and plummeting property values.

  2. hopefulleigh says:

    So, so good. I cannot wait to visit and discuss this sort of thing further, Abby!

  3. I had recently asked DL about this very topic – raising kids in this downward mobility lifestyle. Thanks for raising it, I wish we could talk in person because I have so many more questions and thoughts. I really like your list at the end of how to go about making and dealing with decisions. I’d also add: be careful in what you communicate to your kids about the schools they don’t go to, and the kids who attend those schools. But still, it seems, the bottom line is that you might not choose the local school option. I haven’t chosen the local option either. So even though our hearts might be in a different place, our kids are in the same place as those other types of parents…what does this mean? what are the implications of it? I don’t know, and it is hard to leave a comment that encompasses all my back-and-forthing. But thank you for writing it so well, honestly, and for simply putting it out there for us to think about, this is important.

    • Mary Hoyt says:

      Rachel, I agree. How we talk to our kids and how we talk in front of our kids is huge in “loving our neighbor” in this…

    • I teach in the suburbs but live in the city. The things my own students say to me about my neighborhood are horrendous. And they have never been to my neighborhood! How do they know? What they were told. SUCH a good point. And I have know idea. Just a lot more questions. I too would like to talk to you about this!

  4. AustinMum says:

    Good post, but not all that realistic. The fact is, even with highly motivated parents, if the school’s administration has bad priorities or fosters a poor corporate culture, the school will not provide a good education. Often teacher’s unions do not permit any form of discipline for teachers who are not good communicators, are vindictive towards students who question them, or who are just burned out. There is another choice: homeschool. More and more low income families (such as ours) are opting to homeschool their children. My husband and I both worked, but we worked different shifts and did some work from home so that one of us was always around. Homeschooling does not require much money (an internet connection is pretty much enough) and it takes surprising little time as well.

    • First, I think your post unfairly puts the blame for school success/failure on teachers. Your only example of “poor corporate culture” (a term that I will get to later) is that we can’t fire teachers because of unions. Well, in this particular case, that was definitely not a problem because there is no teacher’s union of any practical power in the state. This means teachers get abused by administrators. If a principal wants to call a meeting five minutes before your contracted hours for the day are up and hold that meeting for two and a half hours, well, just be glad you have a job. Many of the teachers in these “failing” schools are doing their best and getting burnt out due to increasing work loads and class sizes with little to no support. Further, you immediately discount the role parental involvement can make with no real support other than saying it is “not all that realistic.”

      Second, I find the term “corporate culture” in reference to schools to be troubling. Trying to fit children and their education into a corporate metaphor (or a manufacturing metaphor, which happens frequently) is problematic because they are not products. Nor are they employees the boss can “fire” if they are unproductive. There are plenty of examples of schools and school systems using non-competitive, non-corporate, and non-privatized models with successful outcomes.

      Finally, while I would never denigrate anyone for choosing to home-school their children, I think you are not quite engaging the conversation here nor are you accurately portraying the cost. If my family wanted to home school, either my wife or I would likely have to quit our job since we don’t have the benefit of such complementary schedules. This is a considerably large cost to homeschooling. Further, choosing to pull a child from local school systems to homeschool can perpetuate the same “us vs. them” mentality as the above example. It doesn’t have to if handled well by the parent (see for example the first comment above). But simply saying that homeschooling is a fix to this problem doesn’t seem to address the issue at hand.

  5. […] had two guest posts on two really hard subjects. I wrote about education, downward mobility, and where we draw the lines for D.L. Mayfield and I wrote about extreme poverty and why we think it is okay for us and not them for […]

  6. dianeemiller says:

    I have many thoughts about this after sending my child to 2 different Title 1, 60% poverty schools and now finishing in a mixed cultural & socio-economic high school setting.

    First, this looks different for everyone and you have to pray about what God is leading you to do as a family… what will your choices around education model to others? Second, relating to that, you really have to understand your personal/family heritage and His calling on your life. What makes the most sense and how will this effect your sense of belonging within your geographic community where you base life and other destination communities you choose to be part of? And 3, let’s get real… you might feel like you’re sacrificing your child by your choices – I have. But, that happens even if you choose a great-rated, private school – sin just manifests in a different way! You have to ebb & flow with life choices and constantly seek God!! Nothing is ever easy or comfortable, though we always want it to be in America.

    I think we also need to value core character development and community development skills in education with our fast-changing globalized world. Academic performance is just one baseline(very idolized at times!). It does not trump everything; though, we have a tendency to be gripped by it as parents! And, yes, we do need core values/standards… for ALL kids.

    I must add, as a parent, you will learn, too… i have learned much about my own marred identity as a privileged, white-dominant culture person with many choices in this urban education arena… It is all a journey, friends; and, again, it looks different for everyone… what is God calling you to do?

thoughts?

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