People loosely use the term “good schools and diversity” without looking into it or researching what that means. When you get below the surface, it means achievement for the white kids, but not for everybody else. That’s not good enough for me.
Currently, my husband and I live in Broadview, a western suburb of Chicago, with our two daughters. Our older daughter has attended a diverse Catholic school since preschool, but it is closing due to low enrollment. So we have been on a school hunt. We wanted a good school—public or private—with a diverse population. Broadview is a majority not as diverse as nearby Oak Park, and we were looking at schools there because of their diversity.
I wanted to find a school that had at least 10 percent Black students (to mirror national demographics) and achievement gaps of no more than 10 percentage points by race or 15 percentage points by income. The elementary school we looked at in Oak Park met the demographic requirement, but had wide achievement gaps by both race and income. When I talked with middle-class, well-educated white people—people just like me in all but race—they were unaware this gap existed.
Even worse, historical data showed the gap had been closed at one time, but later re-opened.
Though the numbers were disappointing, the feeling we got from talking to people about the numbers was even worse. I walked away with the sense that there is a presumption that black kids who go to Oak Park schools should feel lucky because they’re safe. The thinking seemed to be: they’re probably poor, so the issue with their achievement is about economics and not about race.
Meanwhile, my middle-class Black friends shared my reservations about too-easy explanations for racial achievement gaps being really about economics. We heard horror stories from folks of color in Oak Park, of all income levels, about tracking, excessive discipline issues for students of color, inadequate services for students with special needs, and lack of almost any Black or Latino kids in honors programming in the district.
I didn’t get a feeling there was an inward mirror about what’s going on to examine teachers’ unconscious biases or placement of Black students in gifted programs—issues we know are real and contribute to achievement gaps.
When I asked to speak with administrators about their plans to reduce achievement gaps, they were very dismissive of me. When I asked about their trainings for teachers on issues of race and ethnicity, honestly, they appeared to be offended by the question.
In the end, I just couldn’t trust them with my children’s education.
For now, we have chosen another Catholic school in a different suburb that that has less racial and economic diversity than the Oak Park public schools. Fewer than 10 percent of my daughter’s new classmates are children of color. But academically, all the kids are testing on the same level. My husband and I decided it is better for our kids’ racial identity and social relationships to be in a school where everyone is high achieving. Our impression is this school holds the same expectations for academic excellence for all its students.
We will take on the task of teaching Black history and culture at home. We will also stay in our majority-Black neighborhood and stay engaged so our daughters develop a sense of community there. We would rather do that than let our kids attend a school that supports diversity in theory but not in practice.
I know I am incredibly blessed to know how to access the schools’ report cards and set up meetings with administrators to talk about my concerns. We are also able to choose another school if we aren’t satisfied with the one we have chosen. It is a blessing to be able to make these decisions for my children.
But I worry for all the other parents who may not have the same time or know-how to make these things happen for their children.