A Tale of Two Kindergartens: Everyday Life in Segregated Schools

“The Good Schools Project” #5
← previous post

“KK” and “Adam” are alike in many ways. They are both five-year-old boys with summer birthdays, both bright and outgoing, both have a younger brother. They both come from middle-class homes with married, college-educated parents. Until last spring, they lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same church. They would’ve attended Greenwood Elementary together this fall, but we moved Adam to south Seattle last spring.

KK and Adam present an interesting opportunity for comparison. There is a commonly-held perception that north Seattle schools are “good” and south Seattle schools are “bad.” There is certainly a disparity in test scores, and there is a huge difference in the demographics of the schools, with the southern schools tending to be majority-minority and high poverty. But are these schools actually that different? What is everyday life like in each school?

I sat down with KK’s mom, Shannon, to discuss our kids’ experiences starting kindergarten at Greenwood and Van Asselt.

Facilities: Both Shannon and I were pleased with our kids’ school facilities. Shannon felt a pang of nostalgia when she saw Greenwood’s bright and cheerful interior. I thought Van Asselt’s building was in good shape; I liked the decorations and posters adorning the kindergarten wing. I toured Van Asselt’s playground, gym, cafeteria, and music room and found them perfectly adequate.

Communication: Starting kindergarten is a big transition. KK was previously in full-time daycare, Adam was in a private preschool four mornings a week. Both Shannon and I anxiously awaited information about our kids’ new schools over the summer break.

My first communication from VA was a postcard inviting me to a coffee morning in early July. During this coffee time, I was able to tour the building, meet the kindergarten teachers, get a school supply list, and sign up for Jump Start, a half-day kindergarten preview week in August. Having this information in advance put Adam and me at ease. Adam enjoyed Jump Start and got to know his new teacher and classmates. Two weeks after Jump Start, Adam and I met one-on-one with his teacher for his pre-kindergarten assessment. His teacher asked us about our family and answered questions I had about the bus, lunch, etc.

Greenwood doesn’t have Jump Start, unfortunately. Shannon didn’t hear much about kindergarten until it was almost time for the start of school, when her family was invited to an orientation meeting. The meeting consisted of a presentation from the Greenwood PTA while the kids did their pre-kindergarten assessment in a separate room. Shannon felt that she got all the information she needed, but receiving it sooner would have made the transition more comfortable.

Teachers: One of the things I’d read about in The Diverse Schools Dilemma was that lower-income schools typically get less experienced teachers. That is not the case at Van Asselt. Adam’s kindergarten teacher has over thirty years’ experience. When I met her in July, I immediately felt at ease. She prompts the kids gently and her patience beggars belief. She has an even-keeled demeanor and a quiet confidence that assured me there was nothing she couldn’t handle.

Shannon felt likewise pleased with KK’s teacher, who has also been in the classroom for around thirty years.

I’ve since learned that across our district teacher pay depends on seniority and is unrelated to which school a teacher works in. Salaries are capped at 12 years’ experience.

Academics: KK and Adam seem to be doing very similar classwork: drawing pictures to make stories, tracing and writing letters and numbers, and learning sight words.

Greenwood is a “no homework” school which Shannon really appreciates. Shannon and her husband both have demanding jobs and having relaxing family time in the evening is very important to them.

Van Asselt does have homework, which I wasn’t thrilled about. Adam struggles with handwriting and the first day’s homework involved frustration and tears and took over 45 minutes to finish. But his teacher noticed his difficulties and had him seen by an Occupational Therapist. We’re waiting for him to receive a full assessment from the OT, but in the meantime his teacher has adapted his homework so that it doesn’t take more than 5–10 minutes a night.

Social: Both Adam, who is white, and KK, who is Hawaiian/Chinese/white, are minorities in their schools. I had worried that Adam would feel excluded, especially if there were lots of other languages being spoken in the classroom. Luckily, both boys have easily made friends and neither Shannon nor I have any concerns about their social lives.

Parental Involvement: Here we come to a big difference between Greenwood and Van Asselt. Shannon got this advice from her friends before her son started kindergarten, “Bring your checkbook.” During kindergarten orientation, while the kids were being assessed by teachers, the parents watched a presentation by the Greenwood PTA. They learned about the PTA’s budget, what it funds, and its vigorous fundraising schedule.

Shannon sensed an expectation that all parents would support the PTA by volunteering and donating. On the one hand, it gives families a sense of ownership in the school and fills large gaps left by our legislature’s failure to adequately fund schools. On the other hand, Shannon felt unsure of what doing her “fair share” meant and felt guilty that she probably wouldn’t be able to volunteer due to her work schedule.

PTA at Van Asselt is very small. While I saw the untiring PTA president at every kindergarten event and curriculum night, I have yet to meet any other PTA volunteers. Van Asselt’s PTA currently does not do any fundraising. The PTA’s modest goals for the year are building community and helping parents connect with each other.

Due to the fact that we live in a very segregated city, wealthy kids go to school with other wealthy kids, and poor kids go to school with poor kids. Schools that serve predominately poor kids get little to no PTA help.

In affluent schools, parents tend to be white collar and have more money, time, and other resources to contribute to their kids’ education. Parents whose kids qualify for free or reduced lunch may be working multiple jobs, they may not have reliable childcare, or they may be experiencing housing difficulties. Parents living under the stress of chronic poverty do not necessarily have time, money, or resources to give to their kids’ school.

Those affluent PTAs do a lot for their schools. They chaperone field trips and volunteer in classrooms. They advocate for school policy changes to benefit their kids. For example, at Greenwood parents lobbied to move recess time to before lunch and extend lunch by 5 minutes when parents noticed full lunch boxes coming home.

But the biggest difference is that affluent PTAs fundraise. In Seattle, PTAs pay for everything from copier paper to building maintenance, to teacher salaries. Poor schools without fundraising ability have to make up that money from other sources or do without.

Summary: If you relied on GreatSchools alone, you’d get the idea that Greenwood and Van Asselt are very different schools. But Shannon and I found out that they are similar. We’re both confident that our kids’ needs are being met with challenging curriculum, quality teachers, and safe facilities.

There are gaps between the schools when it comes to things like field trips and extracurricular activities, with Greenwood having more offerings. Also the culture of parental involvement is quite different. But overall I would say that these schools are comparable.

Can we then breathe a sigh of relief, and assume that, in this case, our schools are “separate but equal”? Not so fast. There’s still a lingering question about the “achievement gap” also known as the “opportunity gap.” More on that next time…

Next time on The Good Schools Project: is school integration a non-starter in Seattle?

next post →