The fate of education in America greets me every morning when I wake up, because I am a parent. I have mixed feelings about what's happening in the world of education, in part because I feel that I stand as one of the privileged few in this discussion. At least for now, my husband and I have enrolled our 6-year-old daughter in private school. And we thank God we are able to afford keeping her there (if by the skin of our teeth). I get that I am part of that community of parents who have a choice because we have the means to explore options for the education of our child.
But it angers me to the point of fury that any parent would feel the need to spend in one year what it cost for my entire college education just to send a child to a good first grade. It wasn't like this when I grew up in Baltimore what seems like a thousand years ago. My parents were great believers in public education, and my sisters and I went all the way public, from elementary through high school. We went to integrated schools that had top-notch scores, including an academic-entry, all-girls high school, Western, which remains a feeder to excellent colleges across the country. True, we lived in a "good" — i.e., suburban — neighborhood. That counts for a lot when you are considering public schools for your children. And there's the rub for me now.
My family lives in Harlem. Yes, it's become highly gentrified, with the high rents and big-ticket mortgages to prove it. But it does not boast a bevy of academic institutions at the ready to prepare our children for excellence. Yes, there are a number of good charter schools. As the recent documentary Waiting for Superman points out, entering the lottery to gain entry to those schools is akin to playing the $10 million lotto.
When we began our search for schools for our daughter, we looked at the neighborhood options, took the prerequisite tests required for 3-year-olds for the gifted and talented public school all-city programs, and shopped the private institutions. We tried for the lottery for Hunter College's elementary program, one that is considered primo in the city. And only about 2,000 other families had the same idea. In order to be considered for that program, which welcomes 24 boys and 24 girls each year, your child has to score 99 percent (remember, at age 3). Our daughter scored a whopping 92 percent. (I refused to believe she was not excellent because she didn't score perfectly years before she could even read!)
We contemplated leaving the city, as so many other families do when they have kids. But we figured we had a golden opportunity to shepherd our child through the world by exposing her to a true multicultural gathering of people. Manhattan is, after all, the melting pot of America. Finally, our daughter got into a good private school, one known for its racial diversity and inclusion. Yet, in her kindergarten class, hers was the only brown face in the room other than her teacher's. Many of the brown-skinned families (and others) who had been there the year before had left because one parent — or both — had lost a job in the Great Recession.
And so last summer we enrolled her in a neighborhood camp, intent upon also immersing her in her own culture. Sure enough, she did spend the day with children whose hair curls just like hers. We did also save money. Her school's camp cost about $4,000 for the summer. This Harlem camp — which, interestingly, was staffed in part by young people who received some of that stimulus money that President Obama worked so hard to harness last year — cost just $600.
Remember the saying, "You get what you pay for"? Well. The camp administrators had sold us on promises of computer labs, swimming and art classes. Instead, there was extended Disney Channel viewing, precious little swimming (because the counselors hadn't been screened to find out if they could even swim), infrequent art and lots of listening to hip-hop radio stations. My daughter learned every popular song played that summer, poor grammar and a slew of curse words.
I know I sound like a bourgie chick, but as an African-American parent, I want the very best for my child. I want her to have the best teachers, the most precise lessons, the greatest exploration of the classroom, the city, the world. I want her to experience the best that our country has to offer. Not one side, but many facets.
I get that there is a cost attached to that. I just hate that the cost comes with caveats. Either the price tag is so high that I can barely afford it, or the price of going public in an urban neighborhood means that my child will likely be faced with substandard teachers, schoolbooks and exposure to the world. The option of gifted and talented programs is largely inaccessible. More often than not, those prized classrooms are mostly white, thanks to the reality of economics and access. Privileged kids tend to test higher to get into those classes in the first place.
Isn't it depressing that in the end, it all comes down to economics and class, which ultimately lead to race? Few black folks have the wherewithal to navigate beyond the boundaries of race and class. And even for them, for us, there is the challenge of educating our children in the ways of our people, too. I didn't put my child in private school so that she would want to be white.
Finding balance in the disparities between a good education and an abysmal one — while fortifying a child's self-identity — feels like walking a tightrope over a lava pit. Even if you have the luxury of choice where many parents don't, what choice will you make?
For my family, we are praying that we will be able to keep footing the private-school bill as we spend evenings, weekends and summers in search of the essential supplementary Jack and Jill-type community that I grew up in. (Jack and Jill of America is an organization founded in 1938 to ensure that black families could establish community and build strong relationships with one another no matter where they lived.)
But honestly, I worry about my child. And I worry about all children in our country. Just as my parents taught me, my daughter's job is to be better than her parents. Her job is to learn all that she can and apply it for the good of future generations. Our job as her parents is to ensure that she has all the tools she needs to achieve that. We need to ensure that all of our children are ready to take the baton and run with it. As one educator recently told me, even though it appears that white children are getting a better break, many of them are just being pushed through the system, too. Most of our children are merely getting by. And that, my friends, represents the promise of disaster when it's their turn to take over our world.
Harriette Cole is a nationally syndicated advice columnist, best-selling author and contributing editor of The Root.