The Judgment You Face When You Choose an Urban Public School (#PPS)

After school one day 
“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Thomas Jefferson

I am an attorney and I live in an urban setting. Some people think that makes me sound hip and trendy. However, when they hear that I send my school aged child to public school, my colleagues tend to look at me with pity or act like I let her use crack in her spare time. You see, generally speaking, in my city, the cool people live in the urban center until they have school aged kids, then they flee to the suburbs or send their kids to private school. That is an unspoken, but commonly known rule.

By breaking it, I sometimes feel as if I am one of the last people on the Titanic who refused to take a life raft because I believe that the rescue boats are coming…

Indeed, I work with a physician who has made a similar choice and our bond as friends has strengthened simply because we have both decided to take the road less traveled and send our relatively privileged children to public school.

I have been working on this post for some time in my head. Just as I was putting my words to paper there was late breaking news about my school district:

Police: Teacher Violently Assaulted After School, Hit With Brick To Face

This news was followed by a great deal of Facebook commentary. People said things like, "they left the city because they didn't want their kids to be guinea pigs in an experiment." and "Private school is the ONLY option!" I have to say I was a bit surprised that people were attributing the acts of crazy parents (those are the ones that hit the teacher in the above article) to the school district. While I have lots of comments about how to improve the Pittsburgh School District, when I first heard the story on the news, I dismissed it as the acts of crazy parents. Now I realize better. Some people who have chosen different neighborhoods or schools for their kids believe it's reflective of the entire neighborhood and the school district. What that means it that they think it's reflective of me any my family as well.

Below is my response to the Facebook posts Judging the Northside and Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

I agree that this is senseless and deplorable. However, I think it's a stretch to say that it is characteristic of the neighborhood or all PPS schools. We live on the N. Side and send our daughter to a PPS school. In this case, the school did the right thing and the parents were crazy. Crazy does not respect boundaries or neighborhoods. I grew up in NYS in the suburbs and there were shouting matches and fights among parents in the neighborhood. My daughter attends a PPS school and I have lots of thoughts about how they can improve. That said, this event does not make me as concerned for the district as it does make me concerned about this child being raised by these crazy parents!
 Also, I didn't see anybody coming out and saying that Franklin Regional was unsafe or dangerous and that everybody should move after that troubled student stabbed all of those people. And wasn't it a local suburban district where several teachers were indicted because one was having a sexual relationship with a student and other teachers intimidated that student? I don't recall there being this massive outrage about the "neighborhood". Rather, in those instances, people recognized that those incidents weren't representative of those communities and involved some troubled people. I don't judge anybody who makes choices based on what they believe is best for their children. Indeed, that is our job. Still, let's be fair on all accounts. Also, let's be respectful and know that most parents are doing the same thing, even if they make different choices.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Can Improve, Even If The Actions of a Crazy Mother Ain't Its Fault

Don't get me wrong. The Pittsburgh Public School system is in need of a lot of improvement. On the whole, it is failing Black boys, fails to provide enough resources, and in my experience does not seem to focus on igniting a love of learning in students. It can also be painfully hard to obtain relevant responses to questions or the goals of the curriculum. It is also not clear to me that there is a comprehensive plan for students that to ensure that there is a cumulative benefit to lessons with each grade level. Instead it appears that teachers are permitted to teach in silos, which is problematic and imposes an extra burden on parents.  Because of this, I spend a great deal of time locating and providing supplemental education (that is actually published by other districts for parents that cover the same curriculum) for my daughter.

In a word, Pittsburgh Public Schools can and should do better by our kids. 

That said, our daughter's school is diverse in every respect, which was extremely important to me. I didn't want her to be in a school where Black kids were so rare that they were like endangered species and she would have to bare her personal burdens and be the voice of her race as well--at five years old. Our daughter's school has a foreign language emphasis, which is infused into the curriculum and has been since Kindergarten. Living in our neighborhood affords me a short commute, which allows me to be present and available for our kids more often and because our daughter's schooling is covered by our taxes, we have money to provide her with a wealth of extracurricular activities and vacations. 

Despite the above, my decision to choose Pittsburgh Public Schools is something that I reconsider often--not because I am concerned about safety or because I am concerned about the educators commitment to adhering to the curriculum. Also, there is a philosophy that  goes along with private schooling that is built in to the way they operate because of competition. 

At a recent PTO meeting our daughter's principal said, "there is nothing that can be given at another school that we can't give."

I agree with him wholeheartedly. However, I would also said that there are things freely given at other schools that they don't give.  Our preschool son attends a private school and the teacher is responsive, understanding and committed to ensuring that our son masters his lessons. I also like the small class sizes and the philosophy that the student is the ultimate teacher. For that reason, there is a lot of time spent at the preschool level and early elementary years to spark the students interest in learning.

So, in some respects, I live in two worlds the public school world and the private school world. When the parents of my son's friends learn that I have another child, they ask about the upper school at the private school. When I tell them where she attends school. They ask, "Where is that?" When I tell them it's a PPS school, they simply say, "Oh." Then, to fill the silence, I start mentioning various things about the school like I'm a paid advertisement. Eventually, I stop because I realize that I doth protest a little too much. Constantly justifying my decision is hard and I sometimes have doubts.

Still, if I didn't believe that ultimately our daughter was thriving, I'd be making different decisions. I also hope that by sticking with my decision I will help to improve the system. I have been vocal about the changes I'd like to see and I will share them with you.

There is really no reason public schools can't engage parents, communicate the goals of the curriculum, and have continuity between the grades. There is no reason that public schools can't start the day with a meeting where the students are told that they are valued, explained the goals of class that day, and greet one another to start the day. There is also no reason why parents who choose public schools can't have the same level of confidence in the product that are purchasing (with their tax dollars) as those choosing private school.

After all, my mother has devoted her entire career to educating students, primarily in the urban setting. I can tell you that nobody had a greater commitment than she did and that my expectations of the system are things that she tells me can and should be expected by parents. I shall continue to communicate my expectations. And, I remain optimistic that these expectations shall be met in our current school. If they aren't we are fortunate enough to be able to continue to evaluate our options.