Parents of high schoolers here in New York have been following the recent events at Hunter High School with interest and some anxiety.
The student who gave the school’s graduation address this year (Hunter does not select a valedictorian) stated that he felt guilty about having been selected for this elite educational experience based solely on his score on a challenging written test. The student, who identifies as black and Hispanic, pointed out that the vast majority of Hunter students are from middle-class white and Asian neighborhoods who have had the benefit of good elementary schools and access to tutors (and, I would add, the luxuries of proper nutrition and supervision, whether by parents or by responsible caregivers). He stated, “If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights.”
The speech had repercussions for the school and possibly for the city’s educational system in general. What is of primary interest for this blog, though, I think, is the issue the speech confronts, of equality vs. elitism in education.
It is impossible to debate this calmly, at least in my neighborhood. We’re all sensitive about our choices. So I’m just going to describe our family’s experience.
When my son was a baby, I stayed home with him and worked from home; I traveled into my office one day a week, and left him with a babysitter — a neighborhood stay-at-home mom who babysat for extra money and companionship for her child.
When he turned three, I returned to work full-time. We put him in a reasonably-priced daycare center. The facility was clean, and the teachers were well educated and kind. There were a lot of kids, some of whom played more roughly than we liked, but the price was right, and we had no worries about Ben’s safety.
He hated it. He was and is a considerate, easygoing child, who had never really gone through the “terrible twos.” But suddenly he was having tantrums and meltdowns. Well-meaning friends advised us that he was “too attached” to me and I needed to get tough with him in re separation.
One evening at dinner, when he was once again behaving impossibly, I said to him, “What, did you have a rough day, too?” And he told us about how the older kids picked on him, pushing him down repeatedly and taking away his toys. He hadn’t told us before because he didn’t like to think about it, much less talk about it.
When we investigated, we learned that because the center was shorthanded, all of the preschool kids — from barely three, as Ben was, to five-year-olds — were being warehoused in one huge room, with the teachers “supervising” to the extent of putting out the fires they saw, but not able to do much else. “If it was my son,” one of the teachers advised me, “I’d pull him out of here. Tomorrow.”
We immediately contacted a “good” private school in the area and begged them to consider Ben for their preschool, even though the year was underway. We’d rejected the school before because the price was prohibitive, but now I would gladly have handed over my whole paycheck (which I practically had to do) to ensure a better experience for Ben. We were lucky — another family was moving away; they liked Ben; he was in. And so we sold our car, lived in a shoebox of an apartment, and said goodbye to vacations for the next eight years, until he was able to get into a “good” public middle/high school. And it was well worth it.
At the time of the daycare debacle, I was operating a satellite counseling center in an inner-city elementary school. Most of the students were from very poor families. There were a lot of bright, creative kids, but they were not being taught — either manners or socially appropriate behavior. Most of the parents worked at several low-paying jobs, leaving the children basically on their own, often in the care of a barely older sibling, when they were not in school. Most of the children depended on the free breakfast and lunch programs at the school, which meant that they were stuffed with simple carbohydrates and additives, then expected to sit still for seven hours (the gym and recess programs had been cut for budgetary reasons).
The school was overcrowded and understaffed, uncomfortable and smelly. There often weren’t enough textbooks to go around. Some of the teachers were dedicated idealists, but many were burned out after years of trying to keep order among 35 screaming, physically disruptive students, and were reduced to screaming, and sometimes verbal abuse, themselves. (“You’re no good. You’ve been nothing but trouble since the first day of kindergarten,” I heard one teacher yell, in front of the assembled third-grade class. When I reported this to the guidance counselor, he shrugged. “It gets so much worse than that,” he said sadly.)
I was fond of many of the students I worked with, and did what I could for them. But the system was stacked against them. One very smart little girl confided that she wanted to be a doctor. I think she would have made a fine doctor — but she wasn’t getting enough math or science to get her into a decent high school. When I observed her classroom, she was usually sitting quietly, taking copious notes, but there was a lot she couldn’t hear or understand because of all the screaming and pencil throwing, and the teacher didn’t have time for individual tutoring.
I felt for these kids — but at the same time, I didn’t want my son going to school with them. And we had choices.
The question is, should we have had a choice?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there should be private schools in a democracy. I don’t think that rich school districts should get more money than poor ones, either. But since I’m not in charge, I did the best I could for my own child.
Ben never took the Hunter qualifying exam. If he had gotten in (and he would have had a good chance — he’s a wiz at standardized tests, and he had very good private-school preparation) he would not have thrived there. He excels in subjects that catch his imagination and tends to coast through the rest. We didn’t consider any of the highly competitive NYC public schools for him. His academically solid, friendly, musically sophisticated and ethnically and economically diverse school is perfect for him.
But I’m glad those other schools are there. We need the kids who are going to run the country, cure cancer and AIDS, and develop ways to stop global warming and ensure world peace to have the best possible preparation, whether public or private. We need them not to have to attend schools like the ones I worked in, or even preschools like the one Ben first attended, which could have turned him off of school forever. They need up-to-date materials and facilities, and space and quiet to think. They need to pursue their studies unimpeded by screaming kids and teachers and flying pencils and spitballs.
So did the little girl I worked with who wanted to be a doctor, though. Maybe she would have been the one to cure AIDS. We’ll never know.