I’m a Black Mother Considering a Failing Elementary School For My Son


Since the public schools here are failing, I never considered them until some friends toured and liked what they saw. Intrigued, I signed up for my own tour.

The school wasn’t what I expected.

The tour was led by parents of current students. We met teachers, interacted with students, saw the facilities, and asked lots of questions. The teachers seemed kind, compassionate, and knowledgeable. The students were engaged.This school takes Montessori principles and so there’s lots of individual hands-on work.

Had I not known the school was failing, I would have thought it was just fine.

There were computers, playgrounds, gardens, libraries, gym class, music, art, and most importantly I saw happiness at that school. Happiness and pride beamed with the children, the teachers, and the parents giving the tour.

I learned the school is currently in its 4th year as a Montessori, and technically it’s not failing anymore. It’s D-rated with continued improvements.

I had judged the concept, not the reality.

After the tour, I had a hard time reconciling what I saw with its rating. The standard for so long here seems to be that anyone who could opt out of the public school system did, so those remaining were with the lowest resources. Yet during the tour, I saw that with the younger grades they’ve really pulled more of the community in. This was especially apparent with the types of parents I saw touring the school with me.

There was such a disconnect from what I expected it to be like and what I saw. I realized I was thinking in the abstract about “failing schools” and not evaluating the real school in front of me. As this mom brilliantly explains in her essay Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools, school rankings shouldn’t be the only way to assess quality. It’s too often used as an excuse to avoid schools with “too many” black students.

Low test scores don’t mean the teachers are bad.

A letter grade on a school can only tell how students performed on that particular test that particular day. Students from certain homes are always going to do better on those tests. That doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t good.

When many of the students come in without basic letter recognition and when all of the middle class and above abandon the public schools, it leaves them in a near impossible position. We know the word gap. We know how much parental attainment impacts children’s success. We know the effects poverty has on learning. When we automatically opt out of failing schools without ever even visiting, we’re mostly just avoiding low-income children. I know I wouldn’t want to be judged by statistics about my whole race, so I can’t judge a school this way. Moreover, how are these schools ever to improve if the families with the resources to make the biggest difference never try?

Private schools aren’t an easy answer either.

Recently I was talking to some homeschooling parents. Originally, they had enrolled their children in a local parochial school, but their children had quickly advanced beyond the curriculum. Having four kids, they couldn’t rationalize paying money to still have the bulk of their learning going on at home.

From that discussion I saw even private schools here might not meet our needs. The conversation reinforced my desire to try the public school.

It’s only Pre-K, so why not?

I figure Pre-K is a great time to put my school choice where my liberal mouth is. If it doesn’t work out, I can pull him out at any time with few consequences and work on our plan for kindergarten.

Regardless of the school, I will never fully hand over the responsibility to educate my son. As parents, we must be involved at the school with volunteering and helping to see he, his classmates, and his teachers have the resources they need. We must also keep our home a learning environment.

Don’t get me wrong, if he’s ever in a situation that’s damaging his love of learning, we will remove him regardless of whether this happens at an A-rated or a D-rated school.

I do have some real concerns with the school

I worry the schedule is too rigid and the day is too long. I worry there will not be enough time devoted to free play since so many of the students need help academically. I worry that being in a class with students who come in so far behind my son may not receive the attention he needs since he’ll already be performing above grade level. I worry that my son may become bored if the school can’t meet him where he is.

While these worries are valid, I don’t want them to be an excuse to deny my son a potential positive experience. At the tour, my son didn’t want to leave the classrooms. He loved being around the other children. Since he’s so eager to learn, so we’ll fill out the application. While I’d still prefer to send my son to a higher rated school, I’m now open to try other options and help make the existing schools somewhere we’re happy to be.

Would you enroll your child in a low-rated school? What concerns would you have?

About Alicia B

Alicia lives and took a semester of photography in a small college town that often challenges her resolve to live as simply and as stress-free as possible. When she’s not working, rereading the same children’s books, cooking, or wondering how crunchy she’s become, she’s busy updating her site, liciabobesha.com. You can follow her on facebook.

  • Nicole A

    I would be willing to enroll my children in a low-rated school and I would hesitate to enroll at a high-performing school because I would think that school focused on tests and had little recess or free play time. I live in California and the school policies are the reason we’ve opted out of public schools. I would love to send my kids to a neighborhood school and be the active volunteer parent.

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  • JC Malone

    We enrolled our daughter in a low-rated school because when we toured it I had the same thoughts: the staff and teachers were warm and welcoming, the kids looked happy and secure, they had computers, and a library, etc, etc.

    The reality was both good and bad. I’ll start with the bad. Too structured and not enough time to play outside or to even have free play inside. When I went to a volunteer orientation we were told by not one, but two admins that we volunteers were there to basically do office work for the teacher so that she could stay on task because the curriculum was so rigorous there was no extra time to deviate from the schedule. For kindergarten.

    When I volunteered in my daughter’s class my job was basically what they said and keeping a crowded classroom full of kids corralled. Over the course of the semester I got to know the teacher and she was everything you’d want in a kindy teacher: kind, loving but firm, funny, and respectful. But she was also stressed because of the guidelines the district had put on her. Her day was timed to the minute. My daughter LOVES her, and the aide who came in a few days a week (the aide was utilized by two other classes too).

    The recess issue really bothered me, especially because the school was letting teachers take it away for “bad” behavior…for the whole class. Mainly that discipline technique was for the first 6 weeks, because after that my daughter was reporting less and less that recess had been cancelled, but some kids still had to sit out. Which is RIDICULOUS.

    Bullying. The bus was a daily struggle. Older kids picking on younger kids. Fights. My kid got hit twice, and was the aggressor once. Same in the classroom. My VERY open, sweet, and empathetic kid was coming home emotionally wrecked every day. She was learning to pick on the weaker kids, but she was also sensitive enough to realize that what she was doing was wrong. Very much a dog eat dog existence.

    The Good: great teachers and staff. I mean really, every time I went in there the staff was so cheerful and kind and loving. The principal is excellent. The school counselor is amazing, and the kids flock to her. My daughter was lagging in her alphabet skills and was getting extra help in a small group. The kids were really sweet, and many of them starved for attention and affection. The first day I volunteered I must have tied about 50 pairs of little shoes when I realized the kids were undoing their laces so I would help them.

    Because of all the bad, and seeing how it was affecting my girl, and how she hated going to school we had to start looking at private. When I told her teacher I expected her to be offended but she surprised me and said she was happy for us. As much as they loved my daughter and would miss her, the understood.

    This week my daughter started at a private Episcopal school. It’s amazing. It’s what EVERY child should have access to. They have recess 3 times a day. They have free play built into their day. Learning is child-led, following a Reggio-Emilia method. Emphasis on character and social justice work. Small classes…11 kids with 2 full time teachers in the classroom.

    What made the choice for me was how the school was affecting my daughter’s outlook about school. My kid is also very high energy and she wasn’t getting her physical needs met. No kid should be relegated to a single 25 minute recess. This is not to say I don’t miss her old school and teachers, and her little friends. I feel super guilty about leaving, but ultimately I am responsible for one little girl.

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    • Alicia B

      Thank you so much for the insightful comment. It’s so important to hear from parents who have been there. I am so on the same page with you. I think first off the school day is really just too long and not enough time devoted to recess. I have serious doubts about how my son will respond to that sort of schedule and I will not hesitate to unenroll him if it’s just not working out for us.

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