Why I Chose a ‘Bad’ School for My Child: Diversity is More Important than Test Scores

“The Good Schools Project” #4
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image courtesy of wikimedia.org

How can I find a ‘good’ school for my son? The methods I’d seen so far of judging schools via test scores (the GreatSchools model) left me with the feeling that something was missing. I wanted to explore whether there were benefits of sending my son, “Adam” to a lower-ranked, more diverse school.

We were in the middle of house-hunting, and were priced out of North Seattle. The choices were either the (even whiter) suburbs or diverse South Seattle. Our realtor found us a townhouse that was perfect for us in South Beacon Hill. It was zoned for Van Asselt Elementary. Of course I immediately checked out Van Asselt on Greatschools:

  • summary ranking: 3/10 (mid-summer it was boosted to a 5/10)
  • 3% white
  • 80% free or reduced lunch, meaning it’s a Title 1 school

After touring the townhouse we drove by Van Asselt. The sign across the front read “The African American Academy.” The building was the former home of that school, a public school dreamed up by black education activists, which was closed due to declining enrollment and test scores. I stared at the facade and wondered whether my white kid would feel comfortable there.

I went to work, researching the pros and cons of sending my kid to a diverse school. I came across “The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools.” The first half of this book neatly lays out some good arguments both for and against sending your child to a diverse public school. (The second half of the book is problematic, in my opinion.) I drew on this book in developing my own, hypothetical list of pros and cons for sending Adam to a diverse, lower-ranked school like Van Asselt:

Pros:

  • children learn multicultural communication
  • children in diverse schools grow up to be less racist
  • homes in “diverse” areas are cheaper than homes in segregated areas

Cons:

  • diverse schools may be less academically rigorous
  • diverse schools may have more disciplinary issues
  • diverse schools may have less experienced teachers
  • diverse schools often have fewer resources/less parental involvement
  • Adam might be bullied or excluded as the only white kid in his class
  • by moving to a “diverse” area, we are contributing to gentrification

I pondered the arguments in “The Diverse Schools Dilemma” and became convinced that being exposed to diversity would be more helpful than harmful to Adam’s education. According to the research of James Coleman, a child’s family background is strongly correlated with that child’s educational achievement. Parents who didn’t go to college but want that for their children have to work a lot harder and perhaps should be pickier about their kids’ school. (Whether they can afford to be is a whole other discussion.) College-educated parents like myself have less to worry about. I expect Adam to go to college. He’s already got a 529 savings plan set up. My husband and I have the time and resources to ensure that his academic needs are met. Even if his school is not as rigorous as the whiter schools in Seattle, we will ensure that he is ready for college when the time comes.

Furthermore, there are benefits to diversity. Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Columbia University Teacher’s College, interviewed over 500 formerly-bused students now in their 30s and 40s. The students’ impression of their experience attending diverse schools was overwhelmingly positive. Wells summarized their attitudes this way: attending a diverse school was “essential to their success in a global economy and increasingly diverse society.” In fact, school is one of the few places we could expect our kids to be exposed to diversity,as according to polls, 75% of white people don’t have any non-white friends.

My own experience has shown me the importance of getting to know people outside my own “bubble.” I grew up in Missoula, Montana. It’s a beautiful little town and a great place to grow up, but it’s not very diverse. Most people I knew as a child were like me: white, middle-class, and Christian.

But when I was in the height of my awkward middle school years, I became friends with another middle-school outcast named Christina. Unlike me, Christina lived in a trailer park. The first time she invited me over was eye-opening. We sat down on plastic chairs to a dinner of Hamburger Helper. In the middle of the table sat a gallon of milk. I drained my plastic tumbler and reached to pour myself another glass.

“We’re not allowed seconds on milk,” Christina said.

“Shhh!” Her mother snapped. I was confused. Why was Christina’s mom mad? She composed herself and spent several minutes assuring me I could have more milk, it was absolutely no problem.

It dawned on me that Christina’s family could barely afford milk. My family ate steak around an immaculately set table. Christina’s parents struggled to buy Hamburger Helper and felt ashamed of their poverty when their daughter’s rich friend came to visit. At 12 years old, I thought I knew what poverty meant. That moment at Christina’s house changed those perceptions. Getting to know Christina was character-forming, it helped me to develop empathy and understanding towards those different from me. To this day, these kind of experiences influence how I spend my money and how I vote. If I had been cloistered in a private school with other wealthy kids, I would have never learned that lesson.

My son is already very privileged. He’s white, upper-middle class, (cis-) male, and Christian. I don’t doubt that he’ll grow up to be a very privileged man. To me, the question is not whether he’ll be successful, but what he will do with his success. Will he donate money to charity? Will he spend time volunteering to help others? Will he be the type of man who speaks up when a woman is being harassed? Will he be the one in the office who argues for hiring a black candidate?

I hope so. I hope that sending him to a diverse school will help develop that part of his character.

But I admit, it goes against conventional wisdom. We bought the townhouse in South Seattle and immediately started getting comments about what kind of things Adam would “learn” at a South Seattle Public School. I’d by lying if I said these reactions didn’t make me nervous. Let’s face it, I’m new to this whole school thing and all I know about is what I’ve read in books and a few hunches I have that diversity and empathy are good. It’s a gamble.

So, how’s it going so far?

Next week on “The Good Schools Project” we’ll check in on the first month of kindergarten, both for Adam, and for his friend who attends kindergarten in North Seattle.

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