My neighborhood wasn’t “up and coming” when we bought our little house. It is now, but then it was what my husband and I could afford, close to the city and therefore easy to get to our various work and school places. And our neighborhood was cute, in that slightly dilapidated but quaint architecture kind of way. It had, we thought as we double-checked the locks on our doors each night, “character.”
But our neighbors were nice, the tacos were amazing and we could finally have a dog after too long in a small apartment. We were years away from thinking about having kids and close to a decade away before school would matter.
And then, because a decade is shockingly fast, it mattered. And by then, we had really grown to love our community and didn’t want to leave (and couldn’t have afforded to move even if we did).
With a toddler in a stroller and an infant strapped to my chest, I walked the neighborhood for hours upon hours with another young mom friend. We talked about all the usual baby things (oh, really, you’re making your own baby food?!, No, he hasn’t stopped spitting up all over my clothes! Yes, she cried for the entire day and I might be going entirely crazy…). But Friend, because it is her nature to worry especially about big LIFE things, kept redirecting my concerns-of-the-moment to concerns about school.
“Up and coming” neighborhoods are “up and coming” for their architecture and proximities and house prices but not usually for their schools. And ours was no different.
The local elementary schools were low-performing in terms of their test scores and the middle school was notorious for being one of the worst in our huge metropolitan district. High poverty schools with upwards of 95% Free and Reduced Lunch, they were festooned only with security bars at every window and sweltering black asphalt. They lacked everything lovely that the middle class school in the next community over had in abundance: a garden, posters advertising movie nights and pancake breakfasts, child-painted murals, and, yes, if we are being honest, white people.
I was adamant that I didn’t want to drive my kids all over the city to go to school; I wanted my kids to walk to school and play with neighborhood friends. Partly, I was hoping to create the little idyllic town I never had and to give my kids a real sense of belonging in their community. This would mean that they would be able, eventually, to get around it on their own, without a mommy-chauffeur. And partly I really REALLY hate driving and knew that committing to driving to the charter school 10 miles away meant not only driving to and from school every day but also to and from kids’ friends houses twenty minutes in the opposite direction. Life is chaotic enough; why go to school in a different zip code?
Friend and I were also both committed to public school in principle. We thought that if we used the time we would otherwise spend driving to the “better” school, we could help support our local school enough that it would feel okay to send our kids.
Friend knew a few families in the neighborhood, I knew a few families in the neighborhood and soon we had a snowballing group of parents who were nervous but interested in sending their little bundles of joy to our local schools. After many meetings in the park (house meetings meant too many hummussy carrots smeared on the walls), we had a semi-organized group of parents.
The general fear about our local schools was deep – and understandable. It was decided that we would have to offer something “extra,” something meaningful but doable to get middle class parents to commit to sending their kids (more about this “extra” to come… because, in part, I am a bit embarrassed of it now….).
We half-stumbled onto the idea of Dual Language. It seemed to fit everything we were hoping for: our kids would be learning the language of many of our neighbors, the classrooms would HAVE to be inclusive of all kids in the area (stories of magnets and special programs where the white/middle class kids had one side of campus and the non-white, working-class kids had the other made us queasy), and there would be that extra challenge. And Dual Language would give us that cool thing that would help ease our sense that we were sacrificing our kid for our principles and keep our coworkers from looking at us askance as we admitted to sending our kids to public school in our poor area (yes, much more to come on that…. ).
Long and annoying story short, we were able to lobby our giant school district to start a Spanish-English Dual Language (also known as Dual Immersion) program at a local school.
Of course we knew that the hard work would come after… Of course we knew that the work of getting it started wouldn’t simply result in lots of kumbaya-camaraderie. Of course we knew that there would be struggles ahead. Of course.
I have just been shocked at how hard it has been and where the real struggles arose.