A personal tale of frustration, regret and, ultimately, white flight from Seattle Schools.
Our broad, broken system of public education has always reminded me of the book Animal Farm. Not because I read Orwell’s work in school — though, of course, I did — but because every brilliant new plan that’s supposed to fix schools in America only succeeds in making them worse.
Take desegregation. I’m a huge fan of desegregation on a community-wide level. But even as teary-eyed as I get watching black-and-white footage of little black girls being escorted into historically white schools under armed guard, I believe deeply that integration does not work when it’s practiced only by 8-year-olds. It must (why is this such a hard concept?) be practiced by their parents as well.
Brown v. Board of Education led to widespread busing, which led to sky-high transportation costs, which led to untold damage to the environment and children being snatched out of their own cozy neighborhoods before dawn so they could be driven to schools dozens of miles away. It led to riots and white flight and — according to several educators I know — a higher level of segregation within each school building. It turns out that in forcibly integrated schools, kids are even more prone to cluster with their color. Thus far, no legislation has been able to change this.
Then, of course, there was the epic disaster that was No Child Left Behind, a blighted government initiative that purported to use benchmarks in order to educated kids equally but resulted in kids being tested rather than taught.
Worse, the system began rewarding schools and teachers financially if they could prove success, on the head of a child. This, in turn, caused teachers to tell their underperforming students to stay home on test days. Seasoned pros who once went in Sidney Poitier-style to “save” at-risk kids began trading them. I’ll take your ADHD if you’ll take the behavior problem with the meth-addicted mom. And teachers who once dreamed of working in the inner city began clawing their way toward upscale and suburban schools because the pay rate was better. They could buy nicer cars.
It’s a common problem. The New York Times, in an editorial last month, called it the Highly Qualified Teacher Dodge.
And who could blame them, these educated workers who want to better themselves and live well? Certainly not I. Yet, when my life and decision were affected by the broken education system, I was — and remain — furious and confused.
It was July. My husband and I had been living in Seattle for three weeks, in a temporary home provided by his brand-new employer, looking for a house to rent. We toured neighborhoods and looked at schools, measuring the distance. Our daughter, nearly 15, would be joining us in August. She was timid and frightened, moving across the country and away from her brothers, so we wanted to be sure we chose an environment that was good for her.
Finally, after scouring every niche and corner we could afford, we found a little two-bedroom in Green Lake and were ready to write a check. Luckily, someone at John’s company had recommended we sign our girl up for high school, using our future address, before making any decisions. Her registration went through quickly and we received her assignment: It was a school on the south side of Seattle, at least an hour away by bus.
That the school was largely minority didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I was pleased. My daughter was coming from a Minneapolis school more Jewish and black than Caucasian. But it was also the highest-rated in the city — one of the top-performing public high schools in the country. There, she’d been about to enter the International Baccalaureate program, along with a handful of multiracial friends.
But this, the Seattle school to which she’d been assigned, was, I discovered, notorious for two things: crime and a graduation rate of 44 percent. There were no AP classes. And the materials I received from the school — including emails and the official welcome packet — were riddled with grammatical errors.
Worse, there was no school bus. And working with the online Metro trip planner, I calculated that on the first day of school I would have to put my daughter on a bus in an unfamiliar city at 6:30 in the morning, with instructions to transfer twice. Her daily commute for six hours of school: 2 hours and 7 minutes all told.
Who would do this to their child? It seemed insane to me. So I started asking around.
“Oh, Lord, you don’t want to send her there!” I was told by the receptionist at the high school near our putative new home. “Here’s what you do: Just keep her home for the first month. See how things shake out. We might have a spot open up.”
“But what if you don’t?” I asked, wondering how my daughter — shy and new to town — was going to meet people if I kept her home with me.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. But anything’s better than sending your daughter south.”
To her credit, a counselor at the widely vilified school to which we’d been assigned made time to meet with me. She was wonderful: blunt, street smart, and unbelievably cool. “Your daughter does not belong here,” she said, leaning over her desk. “Not only is that bus ride ridiculous, she’ll get eaten alive.”
I left messages for the superintendent’s office and the school board members in my area (who, I noticed as I scrolled through the website, all had children in the nearby, top-ranked city schools), asking for advice. I explained our situation and said I was looking for options. Not a single one returned my call.
“You can push this through,” said a woman I met through a friend of a friend. “All you need to do is call and lobby the principal at one of the better schools. Tell them your daughter is an honors student. I guarantee, they’ll switch things around and find a way to fit her in.”
So the truth is, I started. I found a principal willing to take my call and started to make my case. But I just couldn’t stomach it. Here I was, selling my daughter to this man on the basis that she was high-achieving and middle-class. Wasn’t this the reason the south side school was in trouble, because all the families in need were clustered there? And who, exactly, would be ejected to make room for my child?
It’s no secret that in this era of rewards and raises tied to rising standardized test scores, educators nationwide have an incentive to “shop” for good students. Not only do the principals of affluent schools compete for talented teachers, they also compete to draw the best-prepared, least needy kids. And this is a pattern that leaves poor, minority, and troubled students even further behind.
We all have our strange and wobbly ethical lines, and this — it turned out — was mine. I simply could not capitalize on this perverse twist in the system and “win” my daughter's spot in a choice school by waving around her WISC score. But neither did I want to sacrifice her for the sake of my moral code.
My husband asked around at the high-tech company where he’d just been hired. “Public school?” his colleagues remonstrated. “Are you crazy? No one does that here.” Most of them reported that they sent their children to religious, mostly Catholic, high schools. We’re Jewish, so this was not a great option. We checked into private, nondenominational schools, such as University Prep. The annual tuition for a 10th-grade student? $24,400 a year — undoable for us. We already have a son attending college, back in the Midwest, for whom we pay slightly less.
We returned again and again to the idea of taking that place that had “magically” been made for our daughter. But neither of us could live with the idea of wedging our daughter into a good school at the cost of some other, probably far less fortunate, child. This went against everything we’d taught her. It made us feel soiled.
Briefly, we considered not moving at all. Either my husband would leave his wonderful new job in Seattle. Or we would live apart with him here and the two of us in Minnesota.
Finally, we found what we thought would be a workable compromise: Bainbridge Island. It has a single high school that every student in the area is welcome to attend. It’s safe, well run, and offers a better-than-average academic program. In a supremely stupid act of faith, we found a townhouse to rent and moved.
The irony is that we’re probably as much a part of the problem as we would have been taking that Seattle principal up on his offer: We’re officially participating in white flight. My daughter referred to one of her classmates as “the black guy,” and what she meant was he was the black guy. She later clarified: There are three African-American students in her school of more than 1,400. But there is only one in her grade.
Don’t worry. We got ours: We’re now stuck on an island, which is beautiful in the way of a Thomas Kinkade painting — all soft watercolors, completely devoid of grit. We’re dependent on the ferries; our movie and restaurant options are extremely limited; we must rent a hotel room in Seattle if we want to attend a party that goes past 1 a.m. And we’re paying that island premium (I think of it as tuition) in the form of higher water, gas, and food prices.
But most disappointing, we’re sending our daughter to a school where she is learning about books but not — at least to our way of thinking — about real life. And the outcome is that my husband and I, after only five months in the Pacific Northwest, have decided we must leave.
We’re taking our daughter back to Minnesota where she can live and attend classes among a racially mixed population while getting an education of the quality we want her to have. This will mean living apart and maintaining two residences; we’ll trade our condo on Bainbridge for a studio apartment in the city. It will mean my single parenting back home while my husband works here.
Eventually, unless we find a better solution, it may mean my husband’s giving up the job he loves so he can be with his family.
But it will also mean adhering to our principles without making our daughter pay the price — and, conversely, doing right by her without becoming a part of a school system that is, despite hardworking people and well-intentioned policies, inherently corrupt.