Parents and Schools

Imagine you are a child whose single mother works two jobs to support you and your siblings.

If your mother tells you that the neighborhood school is terrible (based on standardized test scores) but you’re stuck because she can’t afford the rent in a nicer neighborhood, you will arrive at that school insulted and angry. Not surprisingly, you will be more likely to misbehave.

If your mother tells you that your grandparents are going to pay the tuition for you to attend the Catholic school in your town, you will feel valued by your family, and you will arrive at the school eager to cooperate with the teachers. (This happens more than you might think. I have donated for years to a too-small scholarship fund in my archdiocese.)

If your mother tells you that you have been admitted to a charter school that she chose because she thought it would be a good place for you to learn, you also will be a motivated student.


Last year I read a book, “How the Other Half Learns,” about NYC’s Success Academies, a charter network founded by a former city council member who enrolled her own children there. The mostly minority parents LOVE her and the schools, and the students score very, very well on standardized tests. Personally, I never would enroll a child of mine in such a rigid place — one kid got sent home once for showing up wearing black socks instead of the required navy blue ones, for instance — but the teachers are true believers and the parent support is absolute.


When we were transferred to NY, our son was midway through first grade, and all the city parents had arranged to enroll their kids into their preferred schools several years earlier. So we moved to a pricey suburb with a “good” school district. The principal at his elementary school then was awful in several ways that affected our son directly, and so we transferred him into a private prep that cost a lot but worked better. Plus, we learned later, that prep school went to some lengths to enroll minority students and to make sure they succeeded.

(Okay, the first year at the new school was not great. Our son’s girl-focused teacher organized class projects that included making soup, writing to ask governors’ wives for recipes to assemble a cookbook, and sewing a quilt. We still have a picture of the class and its quilt; the look on our son’s face would curdle milk.)

He came out fine, but it was more of a slog than he deserved.


I’m all for school vouchers. I’m also all for requiring “good” school districts to admit a certain percentage of poor children and requiring those children’s ineffective home districts to send full per-student funding ($10,000 or more — per kid, per year — above the average spent in the “good” schools around here) with the transferring students. The money could go to transportation, tutoring or whatever helps those students thrive.


Our state now requires suburbs like ours to provide “affordable” housing, for parents who cannot take advantage of our “good” schools. Our town deferred this project as long as it could, but a deadline is coming, finally, in a few years.

So our leaders have rezoned several commercial properties for really dense rental housing construction in exchange for a few “affordable” units in each.

The majority of the “affordable” new housing requirement — 75 units — will be satisfied by a new, 100 percent “affordable” housing complex on city property near downtown and far from the really nice, leafy neighborhoods.

I wonder what a single mother who moves her children into the new “affordable” complex will think. She will understand immediately that she and the other new tenants have been isolated, deliberately, from the rest of the town. How long will it be before she and her neighbors start describing where they live as the “our new ghetto?”

How will this affect the attitude their children bring when they enroll in their new “good” schools? How eager will they be to take advantage of what is offered? I know neighbors who will be welcoming — but will their welcomes ameliorate the city’s effective hostility to impoverished residents’ families after all these years?

I worry about these things.

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