The weight, as it were, given to the importance of statistics in parts I and II of this series can so easily be misinterpreted. Statistical analysis has its place in rational decision making it is true, but demographics are not destiny for the individual and the most important decisions about teaching and learning are fine grained and personal.
When my oldest daughter started kindergarten in the Springfield Public Schools some 17 years ago, I was not a militant urbanist fighting against anti urban bias, I was a nervous twenty-something with a precious little girl whose future I saw as inextricably intertwined with the education she was going to receive. As such I became involved as completely as I could therewith. As I mentioned in part I, I had seen numerous residents in my condo complex leave as their children reached school age. I was told by many colleagues that I needed to get out of the city or the impact on my daughters would be life-long and horribly damaging. One co-worker went so far as to say that I would rue the day I decided to stay in Springfield as it meant inevitably that my daughters would become involved in a drug/gang centered life (I kid you the fuck not!!!).
As both of my daughters entered elementary school my wife and I kept looking for evidence of these negatives. What we actually saw was interesting for sure, but it bore no relationship to the predictions which were made.
Academically my oldest daughter ended up blowing the doors off the school, metaphorically of course, doing so well that by all measures she was testing at a high school level when she left elementary school, and on some she was considered to be at the level of a student in college. My younger daughter struggled just a little at first in elementary school, testing below grade level just once on the very first reading test she ever took. After receiving immediate intervention because of the developmental delay she famously ( in our house anyway!) advanced over 2 years in reading in just 8 months and never looked back.
So two children, one for whom it came easily right from the start, and one who needed a kick start, were both clearly well served by the same urban public school (one which, by the way, is always on the verge of NCLB chastisement!).
In middle school and high school both girls did extremely well across the board academically, but had to deal with what I would call NOT the usual social issues, but more on that very important subject later. They attended the same middle school (junior high) that I did during my years in the Springfield Public Schools, and I was pleased to learn that it was a much better school when they attended it than when I did.
In the mid 70’s Springfield’s schools were still overwhelmingly white, and as such were assumed to be good. While I would take my high school education at Classical and gladly compare the quality thereof to that of any school anywhere at the time, Forest Park Junior High was another matter altogether. It is true that if I could return for one day to any school from my past a la “Ebeneezer and the Ghost of Christmas Past” it would be a day at FPJH, it would be because of how out of control and entertaining it was. There was not a single day when I didn’t smell pot, a friend of mine literally crawled down the hallway one day he was so drunk (and no one noticed), and in one Spanish class I remember passing money and “dime bags” back and forth as if it were hot dogs at Fenway Park! I recall a Social Studies teacher with a crew cut and a desire to talk hockey. Always. In one English class we spent weeks grouped with other classes watching Louis Jordan as Dracula climb “up” a floor dressed up as a wall!
When I returned 20 years later my former gym teacher was principal and she had that school running like a Swiss watch: “Pick any classroom, you will see that learning is going on in every room, all the time.” It was. I don’t think my daughters would exchange what they got from FPMS for anything, but their experience was nothing like mine. (The most interesting thing, again, being that the school’s reputation was bad when the school was good, but good when it was bad!)
At the high school level my daughters took classes mostly in the “I.B.” (International Baccalaureate) and pre I.B. programs at Commerce High School and so in many ways attended a school within a school. My oldest daughter is one to take challenges set before her, and she ended up as both salutatorian and the recipient of a full International Baccalaureate diploma. My youngest is a bit more self directed, and earned IB certificates in her areas of greatest interest, but wasn’t at all interested in putting forth extra effort in things she found less fulfilling just to be recognized by others.
Xela, my oldest daughter, received the most generous academic scholarship offered by Smith College and just graduated with a degree in Art History and Philosophy. Mckenzie, my youngest, actually outperformed her older sister on the MCAS and SATs and earned(among other awards) the Abigail Adams scholarship (an award given on the basis of results on the MCAS). The payoff (literally) being that I have never paid a nickel in tuition for either girl, and the approximate worth of their combined academic scholarships was (is) around $200,000.
Purely academic awards, nothing needs based at all.
(“Hey Meredith, put that in your “inevitable” crack pipe, and smoke it!!!!!” Yeah, that was personal.)
Socially, though, things were not always rainbows and lollipops. Being one of the only, sometimes the only, white kid in the class wasn’t easy. To give my daughters’ perspective I hope to interview them for an upcoming podcast, from a parental perspective I can tell you that there were always obvious pluses and minuses, as I know there are with all schools.
The girls were absolutely given priority treatment by their teachers and by administration. I’m sure that was both a blessing and a curse. They developed the self confidence which comes from excelling in comparison to peers, without the understanding that some of that had more to do with the types of obstacles their classmates had to overcome than with any exceptional innate ability. They were able to participate in soccer for example, as stars of the team and captains (three straight years) where at a suburban school, in this area at least, they might have struggled to make the varsity team. On the other hand there were other places, activities, and circumstances where the make up of the school limited their involvement or their interest.
Would they be different if they had gone to schools more typical of their demographics? Absolutely I think. That some of those differences might be changes for the better and others for the worse seems clear as with any decision involving opportunity cost, but I don’t think anyone of us regrets the decision. I know that I don’t.