The Thought Evolution of a City Mom: Backstory (2010)

The most important book I read in 2010

I was minding my own business the other day when an African-American man – a critic – tweeted at me about the first line of this post: “‘I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011,'” he mocked, “are you serious?”

Well, yes. (Though me not giving something “much thought” is another man’s spending hours in quiet contemplation.) I live in Hampden, a notoriously white neighborhood in Baltimore City, the land of failed desegregation, redlining, and massive white flight. While the principal of my zoned elementary school is African American, when thinking (as I have done a whole lot) about how to make my neighborhood public school more attractive to parents like me – parents who prefer the farmers’ market to Royal Farms – race is not my primary concern. Class is.

Flashback to 2010

I started thinking about all this way before my son – my only child – turned one. It was the year To Kill a Mockingbird celebrated its 50th anniversary. And it was then, as I wondered if it might be easier to attract Hampden’s middle-class white parents to a predominantly poor black school in Charles Village than to our predominantly poor white one, that I made a literary parallel: We were Atticus Finch, enlightened defenders of equal rights under the law. Those other Hampden parents, they were Bob Ewell. Lucky for Atticus, he didn’t have to worry about the Ewell children’s bad habits rubbing off. Because after the first day, those cootie-ridden truants never showed up.

This is a caricature of immense proportions, I know. But when nouveau parents living in Hampden spot their first teenage girl with a cigarette between her fingertips and her adolescent palms around the handlebars of a hand-me-down stroller – time to check the listings in Roland Park. (Am I right?)

Sensing my mindset was warped, I decided to call the principal of Hampden Elementary and see the school for myself. We set up an appointment. I took the first hour of that morning off work. She didn’t show up.

At that point, I had ties to two fledgling parent-led charter start-ups with visions of organic lunches and Reggio Emilia-inspired ateliers. My allegiance was (as you might expect) teetering. I felt the urgency of what we/they were doing. I knew the tide was in our/their favor. But I couldn’t help feeling how selfish it seemed, how precious, how entitled, how gentry.

Determined to persist at Hampden Elementary – by 1) reading the charter school chapters of a high-priced sociology text that my boss had handed to me (pictured), 2) a tenuous email relationship I had struck up with the acting chair of the Hampden Community Council’s Education Committee, and 3) a few conversations with neighborhood parents who were thinking along the same lines I was – I cut ties with the charter efforts. “I’ve decided to take my energy for improving Baltimore schools and commit it to Hampden,” I explained in an email to one founder. That was May 4, 2010. (The other tie would prove a bit more complicated to sever.)

For the rest of the year I ratcheted down my intensity in the school department. I noticed when Diane Ravitch came to town, giving a voice to thoughts I’d had about the charter movement and sparking some new ones. I kept in touch with my new friend at the HCC. I went to some panel discussions at Margaret Brent that parents in Charles Village set up. I held onto my vision of sending my son to the neighborhood public school. A school that kept parents like me in the neighborhood well after their kids turned four. A school he could walk to.

My son started to walk that September. And that was the greatest excitement of 2010.

2011 was a different story…

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11 Responses to “The Thought Evolution of a City Mom: Backstory (2010)”

  1. White people not giving “lot of thought to the racial dimension of education” underscores the broad scope of white privilege. To be sure, this is not a criticism of you or what you have written (which I think is great, btw), but something that I see all around me, and a big part of the problem when it comes to “reform.” So many of my white friends are leaving the public school system for pseudo-public charters—the “good” ones with lots of other people who look like them (and, too, for private school or for home schooling). This privilege allows many of the pro-charter folks to still argue with me in favor of the abundant testing and accompanying curriculum that their kids no longer have to endure, but which is the poison served up to the poor and the brown; to those who haven’t “won” the charter lottery and who suffer in a public school system decimated by NCLB, and “reformers” who send their kids to Waldorf and Montessori and Sidwell. And it is difficult, to say the least, to try to convince people to think/care about that racial dimension when it’s every man for himself.

    I believe in the public school system as you do, and want to see it work for all children. It is part of why I stay in it. Of course, my view is particularly unique from that of most white people I know because I’m raising a brown child, so among the many reasons she is in public school is perhaps one of the most important: I want her to be in a school where she is reflected. I would like to think I’d take the exact same stance were I raising a white child, but were it not for my immersion in the topic of Race in America over the past six years, I admittedly wouldn’t be as enlightened to the greater issues of race, and have a personal understanding of them. I would hope that I’d be equally as invested in contributing to change and working toward racial equality in not just education, but in all aspects of American life. But with respect to school, if I’m being completely honest, I have to say that I don’t know whether I wouldn’t be choosing one of those other paths. I’m so glad that is not something I will ever find out.

  2. I would offer; part II is practically writing itself. I love your honesty. My husband and I started our children in a Catholic setting and were dissatisfied with the progressiveness. We didn’t want to be the types who loved living in the city, but who snubbed the public schools so we tried public schools for about six months. Eventually we opted to home school our children. It wasn’t until our daughter insisted on applying for The Ingenuity Project at Roland Park did we return to the public school system. I say this to offer that it is not a matter of race; it’s a matter of class. While I applaud the dedication of Hampden’s principle, I would say that she is in the minority (pardon the pun). The population at Hampden comes from a primarily poor background and most of the parents I’ve observed there, lack social skills necessary to ensure their children’s academic development. I attended Roland Park in the 80’s and Hampden still has a negative racial feel about it. The neighborhood has not grown social-economically and thus fails in its potential. That being said, I think the BCPS system caters too much to the disenfranchised and impoverished. We do our children no favor by lowering academic standards to suit the social class of the parent. We should insist that parent play an active role in ensuring students reach their true potential by achieving high standards. There shouldn’t be a need for charter schools; they all should have high standards. I actually started an after-school club at MT Washington Elementary whereby I taught kids Singapore math because I believed they could learn if unencumbered by the foolish limits of “no child left behind”. The class was an overwhelming success because the students had a vested interest in what they were learning. The administrators were vexed when I insisted that I should not be paid, as it was the students who made the sacrifice and I believed society would yield the reward. I wish more parents would take a greater interest in our public schools. Recapturing the learning environment goes a long way toward ensuring the future of our kids and this planet.

    • Thanks for writing, Shereese. Your comment on Hampden parents’ who “lack social skills” is exactly the perception I’ve been pushing against all year. (More on that in the next post). Of the 15 schools in Baltimore City that made AYP last year, Hampden was one. (Roland Park wasn’t, despite high scores on the MSA.) As much as I think test scores are a bogus way to evaluate teacher effectiveness, the teachers — and parents — at Hampden Elementary are doing something right.

      • Let me preface by saying; I don’t believe all Hampden parents lack social skills. I hope I didn’t give that impression. That being said, I do look forward to your next post. I have long held to the opinion that schools could act as a cadre to improve social skills of parents who may lack them. More partnerships between communities and schools could only benefit our children greatly. Children, regardless of background have an incredible capacity to learn and soak up information. If that learning can be enhanced by improving the social skills of the parent, all of society benefits. Just my two cents .

  3. A refreshingly honest post.

    It’s fairly easy to limit the conversation on education reform to class when your neighborhood school is Hampden Elementary, a school largely attended by poor and middle-income whites, particularly if you’re advocating for changes at individual schools.

    Of course, once you look at things at a district-wide level, the intersection of race and class is grossly apparent: while Baltimore is only 64 percent black, the schools are disproportionately black, with approximately 87 percent identifying themselves as black. And the students are poor as well: 84 percent of Baltimore City Public School students are classified as “low-income,” based on free or reduced priced meal eligibility. Essentially, you have a school system that by and large, serves Baltimore’s most disenfranchised and vulnerable youth-and while there have been incremental improvements, the system fails the majority of them. This is an all too familiar narrative.

    The racial and class dynamics at play in education reform cannot be ignored or undermined. They must be addressed. I look forward to Part II of this post.

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