Conflicting Paths Forward in Education: Increasing Parent Engagement vs. Integrating Schools

Yesterday my wife and I attended an open house for our neighborhood elementary school, where potentially my oldest daughter may attend pre-k this fall.  I say potentially because we have yet to make the decision to enroll her.  Actually, she’s still currently enrolled at a pretty good private school less than 5 miles from our home.  And to boot, this school boasts one of the most diverse student populations of schools in our region (it was the number one thing we loved about the school).  Sure, the academics at her current private school are great (it’s a language immersion school, so each day she’s taught in either French, Spanish, or Mandarin) and they focus on project based experiential learning rather than route memorization for testing sake.  So, you know, kids actually enjoy the learning experience.  And, for the year that my daughter’s been attending this school she’s had the opportunity to develop socially, explore her interests as a learner, and generally seems to enjoy the process of inquiry based learning.  

All in all, my wife and I have loved the program.  We’ve been fairly involved as well, attending PTO meetings, I served as a class parent aide for half the year, attending a few field trips as a chaperone, helping out with the spring festival…I even considered a run for the PTO chair.  

But, as I mentioned earlier…we’re exploring the possibility of public schools in our neighborhood.  And with this comes a new set of challenges, chief among them is the lack of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity.  Not to mention the focus on academics is drastically different at the two schools.  Last night I must have heard the principal mention several times how our goal is to have the best school scores in the district, and become one of the few STEM elementary schools in the state.  That all sounds great…if you believe that a focus on increasing test scores actually equates to students learning.  Or if you believe that STEM education is more important for cultivating students passions and desires over exposure to arts, humanities, literature, etc.  

Yet even this isn’t my fundamental issue with the school.  The principal seems well intentioned (she’s the school’s 3rd principal in it’s 4 year history), and as we walked around talking to other parents about the school, we were impressed with both the turnout of parents to the event and high degree of involvement.  But there’s something about the school that won’t change that easily: the demographics.  Given our society’s proclivity towards social segregation (we’re guilty of it too, my wife and I choose to live on the south side of the city, near our family, church, and friends, and not coincidentally, near folks who look like us), it’ll be hard to change this trend anytime soon.  The real losers though are families who’s children get trapped in low income communities with no access and exposure to folks different from them, or their accompanying social capital.  

In the education reform debate today we focus on a few topics ad nausea.  Accountability and standards (as if anyone truly believes that high expectations and goals alone create change).  More recently, we’ve been talking about parent engagement.  I read about The Kellogg Foundation’s recent summit at the White House to focus on increased parent engagement.  I’m a huge proponent of increased parent engagement, I’m actually working on a partnership with a local school to foster more of it.  But, how much good can more parent engagement do without increased access to social capital that extends beyond a community’s network?  Particularly, if that community has a monolithic social network?  I think there’s always going to be a ceiling on school level change for students without full integration because guess what, we’re always going to be comparing our students to someone else…and that’s always been a part of the problem.

The Huffington Post writes in a recent article:

A new study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, used previously compiled data from the Department of Education to track how first-grade students’ reading abilities change over time, depending upon whether they attend a racially segregated or integrated school. It found that black students in segregated schools tended to make smaller gains in reading than their black counterparts in more integrated schools. This held true even when researchers accounted for black students’ backgrounds.

I just hope that in all the recent talk about increasing parent engagement, we don’t forget the impetus for discussing education reform and opportunity gaps in this country: the Brown v Board of Education landmark decision that brought the issue of integration to the forefront. Integration, not simply parent engagement, was supposed to be at the forefront of increasing access for all students.  Perhaps it’s time we start talking about both together.  



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