Why Poor Schools Might Actually Be Good for Middle Class Kids

By Integrated Schools | March 8, 2016

We know segregated schools are pretty crappy for poor kids.

We know that integrating schools is really hard policy to implement.

So then, if we really actually care about integrating schools, it would seem that the only long-lasting way to do this is through parents. We parents will have to CHOOSE integrated (or, in fact, impoverished-until-they-become integrated) schools.

But as much as we might deeply care about social justice, we care about our children just a little more. So this ends up feels like a choice between doing good for the country and doing good for our kids.

But is it?

Could it be that poor schools might actually be GOOD for middle class kids??

I am setting aside, for now, the discomfort I have with talking about what’s good for kids who already have the most advantages. Ringing through my ears is the statement of one of our high-up district officials who said that as much as she wants greatness for all kids, she “had to prioritize the needs of those who need the most.” I get that. Truly. But… well … … This is a thorny issue and requires more attention: I am tabling this for another post.

To return: Can poor schools (on their way to being truly integrated) be GOOD for middle class kids? A super complicated question. I struggle with answering it (even for myself) in a way that doesn’t sound steeped in some easily dismissable kumbaya academic liberal pudding.

For me, it became a question of priorities.

Most important is the matter of academics. Mine are average-smart kids, curious and largely interested in learning. I am really not worried about them academically. I believe that they will be just fine (this begs another post topic, to be sure. The profound and completely understandable sense of parental concern has made us just a little bit crazy).

I am not, however, just sticking my head in the sand or abdicating my parental responsibility. The national research on test scores largely supports this. For the most part, middle class kids test like middle class kids whether they attend a middle class school or not.

And it has worked for us: our 7th grader and 5th grader are both testing very well. And if that starts to slide, I will reexamine. But why fix what has yet proven broken?

For many of the reasons that poor schools are crappy for poor kids, they are also crappy for middle class kids. But not AS crappy. Hardly a compelling sales pitch, I know.

Despite what our education system seems to care about, however, test scores are not the sum total of the school experience. School is certainly about teaching stuff like math and reading and the life cycle of the nematode, but is also about how to be in the world. Children are in class and on the playground with lots of other kids upwards of thirty-some hours a week. They are learning a lot about other people, other lives, their own ways of thinking and acting, etc.

I grew up in the middle class bubble. I went to many different schools (my family moved around quite a bit) and the schools were pretty much the same. It was a very homogenous, even comfortable landscape. I generally knew how to navigate my way around, and I was carried along in its inertia. But the problem was that I became the inertia and far too late realized the value of deliberation, of conscious and thoughtful decision-making. The bubble had defined me.

For a while in grad school, I taught at an elite university. My students were largely middle/upper middle class kids, many of whom truly cared about the world and wanted to be good, broad-minded people. These kids would try, would use socially acceptable, “politically correct” terms (often terrified of coming across racist, classist, sexist, etc.,) to talk about other cultures in our anthropology class, but struggled to truly appreciate different ways of thinking. The bubble of their homogenous lives made “difference” an academic problem rather than an experience.

In a school outside of that bubble, my kids have to negotiate difference every day. Mostly, they are unfazed by it. Their reality is filled with such varied experiences with home life, school, and extracurricular activities (primarily with kids from middle class and private schools), that “difference” has become almost immaterial. Instead, my kids tend to find much more value in similarity. In the ways that most matter, their friends are similar: funny, smart, and willing to talk about horses or minecraft ad nauseam.

Though it seems shockingly easy for them sometimes (like when my daughter came home in second grade begging us to move to an apartment because it seemed so fun to live with so many people in the same building and to not have to rake the lawn), the difference can be messy, too.

My son, not prone to unprompted sharing, came to me the day he discovered that his best friend sleeps on the floor beside his grandmother. He was close to tears at the thought of “Anthony” in a sleeping bag while he had his very own bedroom. Together we lamented the unfairness of the world. He wondered why he gets to be just “a kid” whereas “Anthony” is a “Mexican kid” or “Denise” is the “black kid.” Why is the world, he asked, set up that he and Anthony and Denise are all the same but treated so differently?

We talked for almost an hour sitting in the car in the driveway. We talked about how to be grateful for what we have without feeling guilty for what others might not. We talked about how to use our advantages to make the world a better place for everyone. We talked about the difference between compassion and pity. And we talked about how Anthony is not defined by where he sleeps (“Right. I mean, that guy kicks my butt all the time in Destiny”). And we still talk about it. And that is a good thing.

I could spout on about how I want my kids to be prepared for the coming America in which white folks will be the minority (projected to be true by 2044) and that the adaptive capacities gained through this experience will help them in the Board Room. But that feels distant and a little weird; I just want them to grow up to be thoughtful, deliberate, kind, and with a deep understanding of the complexities of the world. A school outside the bubble makes this much more accessible.

So while my kids haven’t had musical theater in school, they know that there are nice kids and mean kids, smart kids and struggling kids with parents who ride the bus and parents who drive Audi’s. They never had computer animation classes but neither have they learned to care about brand name clothes. And even without musical theater, their creative, curious souls have not been crushed. They have, however, come to understand privilege and difference and sameness in a visceral way. And because of this, they have the tools to become adults who will make reflective choices about their lives because they have known and loved people who have different lives. And that means something – something more than test scores.  (Oh, but also their test scores are excellent.)

So maybe, to answer the question of whether poor schools might actually be good for middle class kids, we need to rethink a little what makes a school good and what makes a good adult.

Integrated Schools is growing a grassroots movement of, by and for parents who are intentionally, joyfully and humbly enrolling their children in integrating schools. Learn more >

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