In part 1, I discussed the decision to pull Sula from her all-white preschool and send her elsewhere for next year. Unlike Sula, Dawit’s school is not entirely white. He’s one of five or six students of color in his class this year. Last year we were pretty happy, overall, with the services he was receiving at public school. He had five or six hours a week with an ESL teacher by his side in his classroom, along with one-on-one time with a reading specialist every morning.
But a curious thing happened this year. Classroom assignments are dictated by the principal of the school, with no input from the teachers who know the students best. And these assignments are a closely guarded secret, posted on the doors of the school on the Friday afternoon before classes begin the following Monday to ensure that there is no time for parents’ concerns to be aired or rearrangements to take place. The weekend before school started, I drove up to school to find out who Dawit’s teacher would be. I was stunned to discover that all of his (academically successful) friends from the previous year were in the smallest class, with the most experienced fourth-grade teacher, who we had hoped Dawit would get. Dawit was dumped into the largest class- larger than the class with the “smart” kids and the experienced teacher by FOUR students!- with…wait for it…most of the students of color in his grade. Not a good start to the year, in my opinion. And my calls to the school and attempts to get an explanation from ANYONE as to why classes would be so radically different in size, especially given that the kids with MORE needs were in the larger class, were unsuccessful.
Dawit’s teacher is nice, but frazzled. I take Sula to physical therapy at the elementary school every week, and often pass Dawit’s teacher in the hall during her planning time. She sometimes recognizes me. It’s taken about…let’s see, it’s now March…six months for her to start making the connection that I’m Dawit’s mother. There aren’t many other black kids in his fourth-grade class with 27-year-old white mothers with a three-year-old sister who looks like Sula in tow. Or any, actually. So it’s kind of weird that she doesn’t remember/recognize me, or ever take a minute to discuss how he’s doing in class.
Her attitude reflects that of the school overall: don’t worry, we’re in charge here, you let us do the educating. Which would be fine IF Dawit had been speaking English since he started talking, gone to school continuously starting in preschool, and learned to read at age 5. But he didn’t, and we have some very real academic (and sometimes behavioral) concerns that we feel aren’t always addressed. I think that the bar is sometimes set too low for him; that he is highly praised for work that isn’t his best, and that everyone is getting a little too complacent now that Dawit’s test scores are catching up to those of his peers.
Another big, no HUGE, issue for us is the fact that this would be Dawit’s last year in elementary school. Some genius thought it would be a superb idea to herd fifth through eighth grade into the town’s centralized middle school. So Dawit would go from having one primary teacher overseeing his education to five or six. I can’t think of a better way to set this child of ours up for failure. And I had this nagging feeling, too, that if he’s already in the less-academically-rigorous class with most of the kids of color in fourth grade, then he is going to be tracked into lower-level classes with other kids like him, who “require frequent intervention” as we are always reminded on his report cards, for middle school. The possibility that Dawit would ever truly catch up to (or better yet, surpass) his peers seemed to be getting ever more remote.
We talked about private school. Our kids will all be able to go to the elite prep school where Adam teaches for grades 6-12, but they need to be prepared, academically, and Dawit simply isn’t ready yet. Private school’s a funny beast; it costs money, and sometimes provides less services. The super fancy-shmancy schools were out for the money reason. Catholic schools are relatively inexpensive, but we’re not Catholic. We’re not even Christian. However, several months ago, while at the doctor getting Dawit and Sula their flu shots we ran into an acquaintance whose daughter is also Ethiopian. She mentioned that her older daughter was attending Catholic school, which I found surprising. They’re Unitarians who sent that same daughter to a Jewish preschool, so I was intrigued by their choice. She laughed, and said, “Oh, no, it’s not what you’d think. It’s really diverse, very open, people of all kinds send their kids there.” The wheels started turning; we went home and researched it.
We took Dawit for a visit there, with Sula in tow, and fell in love. The school is kindergarten through eight grade, housed in a beautiful old building in the middle of the city. A warm, homey feeling emanated from the school. Every adult knew every child’s name. The school is incredibly racially diverse; better yet, a significant portion of the population is made up of African immigrants. Dawit was immediately comfortable, which we expected because he is friendly and profoundly UN-shy. But it was more than that: we could tell that this was a community in which he genuinely wanted to participate. He spent the whole day shadowing a current student and left feeling that he had made friends.
The principal seemed well-educated about the needs of children like ours, and unafraid to take on the challenges that those needs entail. The school has a special reading curriculum (Wilson) that Dawit so desperately needs. And they have students who have faced similar hardships to ours: children who have had inconsistent schooling, who have immigrated away from everything they’ve known, or who have been separated from loved ones for any number of reasons. A nice bonus? We went there seeking a school for Dawit and ended up finding a school for Sula as well. I was sold the minute we walked into the preschool room and not only saw curious little brown faces and box braids staring up at us, but a no-nonsense teacher with a West African accent. Sula would blend in easily.
We applied for Dawit and Sula and kept our fingers crossed. The school wasn’t sure if they would have space for Dawit in the fall; we needed to wait until they had completed enrollment for their current students. We were excited but terrified that we had no plan B for Dawit. It was either Catholic school or public middle school for next year. The day we came home from picking up Bo at preschool and saw the fat manila envelope that I just knew couldn’t be a rejection notice bulging out of the mailbox, I felt like we won the lottery.
To be honest, this change might end up being a logistical nightmare. Instead of having three kids in schools in our town either a ten minute drive or a yellow school bus stop away, we’ll have one kid at public school in town, and two kids at a school twenty minutes away. We haven’t quite figured that part out yet. I may need to spend my mornings commuting into the city to get Sula and Dawit to school, returning once mid-day to get Sula and then again to get Dawit in the afternoons in the fall when Adam has soccer practice. We did discover a wonderfully diverse Boys and Girls Club nearby that we signed up Dawit for. For $25 a year (yes, you read that right!), he can walk there after school and swim in the indoor pool, shoot hoops in the gym, play foosball in the game room, do his homework with assistance in the computer lab, or train with a fabled boxing coach in the boxing ring upstairs. (No, adults are not allowed to join. I asked.) Dawit is going to have to work hard in his new environment, but he’s going to get to play hard, too.
I feel at peace with our decisions for Sula’s and Dawit’s education next year. There is a racial element underlying these moves that I accept others won’t necessarily understand. Recently, in an online adoption community I belong to, someone shared a story of their African American son being harassed and humiliated and falsely accused of stealing in a department store. Most of us were horrified, our hearts hurting as the images of our own black sons in the same situation swirling in our minds. Even then, though, one or two parents threw out questions: Was the boy acting suspiciously? How do you know that this is racism, and not just plain old rudeness? I’m sure that others feel the same way about Sula and her preschool: how do we really know that the other children don’t want to play with her or hold her hand or be her friend because of her skin color? Or Dawit: how do we know that he’s in a larger class because he’s black? He has friends in public school, why move him if he’s happy where he is?
Obviously, I can’t know the answers to all of these questions. But there is research and a wealth of experiences of fellow parents to children of color that back up our choices. Read Kristen’s post about “Bigotry, blindness, and basketball.” Or the article in Newsweek that explored how racial discrimination occurs even among babies. Or any of the myriad of studies that reveal grim outcomes for black students in public school settings. I can’t say for sure that the things my children have experienced are simply because they are black. But as parents, we want our children to be in an environment where they are embraced and encouraged, and give them the best opportunities to succeed academically and socially because we KNOW they can.
Now, we’re walking the walk.