I just couldn’t trust a diverse suburb with my Black daughter’s education

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.

What do you think?
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ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott Dawson currently resides in the west suburbs of Chicago with her two girls, ages 8 and 4, and her husband, Brian. She received her masters degree from The University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration, with an emphasis on management and public policy. ShaRhonda also has over 15 years experience in nonprofit program management. She also has worked over 20 years as a political organizer, focusing on engaging youth, and people of color.

  8 comments for “I just couldn’t trust a diverse suburb with my Black daughter’s education

  1. Avatar
    Paul Grajnert
    September 17, 2016 at 8:00 am

    It’s sad to me that unreliable testing was the only criterion that seemed important to this family. I understand this bias, but it’s such a narrow way to understand a child’s development.

    • Avatar
      September 17, 2016 at 7:36 pm

      Hi Paul! Thanks for reading and commenting! I actually looked a variety of factors, test scores being one. The other areas were number of black children in advanced/gifted programs, disciplinary discrepancies by race, and, most important, an awareness and plan by the administration to address these inequities. The decision to not go to the public schools was way more than just test scores. Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Avatar
    September 17, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Very well said ShaRhonda. I have lived in Oak Park for 7 years and paid the taxes and send my child to private school. My philosophy is that until the figure out the reason for the disparity I will entrust my child’s future to somewhere that requires the same of all students.

    • Avatar
      September 17, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      OMG, exactly! I would have settled for an “achievement gap” committee. Something!

  3. Avatar
    Andrea in Vermont
    September 17, 2016 at 9:51 am

    Thank you for this article on a topic many families and schools seem unwilling or unable to address. Do you have any insights about how/why the gaps in OP closed and then re-opened?

    • Avatar
      September 17, 2016 at 7:44 pm

      When I initially started our school search, Longfellow in 2011-2011(?) had erased the achievement gap in both race and income. Then when I started look in 2015, it was back and bigger. I was super impressed and thought that Longfellow had figured out some magic educational formula. But, no, the achievement gap is back.

  4. Avatar
    September 17, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Providence St Mel School
    119 So Central Park Blvd.
    Chicago, 60624

    Pre – School through 12 grades

    • Avatar
      September 17, 2016 at 7:47 pm

      Providence St. Mel came highly recommended! It was one of our top contenders. We still might go there for high school.

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