The choice of a school can be excruciating to make—it was for my family. Part of the pressure comes from living inside an enormous, interconnected school system that is vastly uneven in quality. In a suburb, the critical educational choice a parent makes is to move to a town, which is equivalent to choosing its school system. Chances are that the quality will be fairly even across all schools in the district. Choice is rarely an issue—children usually will go to the nearest school to home.
But in the city, the choice of a school is an individual family’s decision that can become entangled with future health of the school system itself. Students are guaranteed admission to the elementary school in their neighborhood, but families can apply to other schools within their larger district or to a handful citywide programs, most of which serve children identified by testing as “gifted.” I want to choose what is best for my child. But if I choose to forsake my struggling neighborhood elementary school, with its low reading and math scores and scant parent engagement, in favor of one with higher assessment scores and an active PTA that raises lots of money for supplies and extracurricular activities, I could be helping to doom it to failure.
Parents might debate whether the condition of my neighborhood school is necessarily my business when I can choose to send my daughter elsewhere. But I am an active parent; I go to school meetings, help with fundraising, engage with teachers and administrators. And I know that research by the National Center for Partnership Schools and many others shows that engaged parents are one of the building blocks of a high-performing school. If the active parents keep going to the established “better” school, the rich school gets richer, and the poorer one stays poor. Multiply the decision to go to the high-performing school by thousands, and if the weakest-performing schools serve mostly poorer minorities (as they usually do), it's possible to see the beginning of the chain of educational events that leads to the absence of children of color at Stuyvesant.
Today, when I hear the news about elite high school admissions, I am torn over the wisdom and moral correctness of our family’s choice of an elementary school for our daughter nearly a decade ago. We turned our backs on a troubled neighborhood school after having been given an opportunity to join a small crusade among fellow middle-class white families to help improve it.
In the fall of 2006, when my daughter was 5, my wife and I visited public elementary schools on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in search of kindergarten programs to which we might apply. At PS 84, on West 92nd Street, the principal led the tour herself. We stopped at a showcase on an African-drumming program, were told about a close relationship with Ballet Hispanico, and visited a humongous garden that covered virtually the entire rooftop. By her very presence as a tour guide, the principal was communicating an unspoken plea to our group, which was comprised of seemingly well educated, well-off, mostly white families: We want you badly to come here.