We moved last September from a working-class/middle-class town (Town A) to a middle-class/upper-class town (Town B). There are some poorer kids in this town. There are a lot apartments and rentals. One of Jonah's friends has a whole family smuggled in the attic, so the kids can attend the school district. But for the most part, it is pretty affluent.
We moved for a variety of reasons. A slightly better commute for Steve. More opportunities for Ian. Town A made us feel guilty on a regular basis for the costs for Ian's education. Actually, they tortured us. Town A was destroyed by the economy and were planning on doing weird things to increase tax revenues, like building a cell phone town 100 feet from our house. It was time to go.
Jonah's middle school was also a big worry, but it wasn't the top problem. We loved our house and our neighbors so much that we would have just sent him to a private school, if that was the only problem. I didn't really think that a public school would be that much different in a different town. I was wrong.
The differences between Town A's schools and Town B's schools are stark.
In Town A, Jonah had an adequate education until third grade. He didn't get a stunningly great education, but it was adequate. He'll never thank his first grade teacher on a stage someday. He will probably never even remember her name. But he learned the basics and I didn't lose sleep over it.
Despite the fact that his test scores and his IQ tests were high enough, they didn't put him in the G & T program. I think it was because he is a laid back kid and was never the first to raise his hand in class and didn't really care if he got a B+ on a test. I didn't push for it, because I didn't think that a 30 minute, once a week program was worth fighting for. It was a mistake. Because he wasn't recognized as a smart kid in Kindergarten, he was invisible in the classroom for the rest of his time in Town A's schools. They don't like to add kids to those programs, so even after he received perfect scores on the state standardized math exams, they still refused to put him in the G & T program.
When he got to third grade, things began to unravel. Instead of an adequate teacher, he got a bad teacher who kept getting shuffled around the system. He would come home from school in a daze. I'm not sure what happened in the classroom, but it was certainly not learning. His handwriting became too sloppy to read, which was a sign of the un-learning that was happening in the school. Every day after school, I spent four hours reteaching him his lessons. (I was working a lot at the time, too.)
The next three years in Town A were more of the same. He got adequate to bad teachers. The adequate teachers were dispirited. Not enough writing happened in the schools. Talking to other parents in nearby towns, I would hear about the fantastic projects happening in their schools and I would be racked with jealousy. Why wasn't my kid doing that stuff?
I was a stressed-out mess in those three years. I knew that Jonah's school was inadequate and wouldn't stop talking about it with friends and family. I know that they thought I was crazy, until Christie released a ranking of school districts in the state this fall. Jonah's middle school was put on the list of troubled school districts, which put it on the level of poor urban schools. Luckily that list came out a few weeks after we sold our house, because we might not have been to sell our house after that information came out.
When we moved to Town B, lots of things changed in our lives. The most striking and obvious change happened with Jonah's education. After one week at the new school, he came home from school GLOWING. Glowing, I tell you. He loved school. He no longer needed urging to do his homework. He did it and did it brilliantly. He wrote fabulous essays that came home an A+ on the front. He couldn't stop talking about how happy he was. He shared information about things he learned at school. He was turned on to learning. Moving in 7th grade should have been a traumatic experience for him, but instead it was uplifting.
What was the difference?
It wasn't about money. The teachers in the two towns are paid roughly the same. They have the same facilities. Same books.
It wasn't about the natural intelligence of the kids. Some of Jonah's friends in Town A were off-the-charts smart. One of his friends was simply the smartest kid that I've ever met.
It wasn't about curriculum. Town B has a slightly different approach to math, but both towns cover the same material. He had science in the old school and he has it in this school. All towns are guided by state curriculum standards and they often use similar textbooks. He wasn't terribly behind or terribly ahead in any subject, when we moved. There is also no tracking or G&T program in Town B.
Administration was a big problem. When things started unraveling in third grade, I went to the principal to complain. I asked why isn't Jonah's teacher doing Project C. I told her that my neice was doing Project C in another town. Why isn't Jonah doing it? She whispered to me, "Laura, this is a Title 1 school." A Title 1 school is one where a certain percentage of the kids qualify for the free lunch program. In other words, her expectations for the kids were lower, because they were poor. (Many of the kids weren't actually poor. Their dads weren't declaring their incomes on their taxes.)
In middle school, I went to talk to that principal about all the problems that I was seeing. I asked her why the test scores were so bad for the town. She said that "there's not much you can do with the kids when they are dumb." She complained about the families in the town, who were not invested in education and their home life was in disarray. Again, expectation for the kids were low.
While the elementary school principal might have had low expectations, she was a smart, perky woman. After I made complaints, she made changes. She knew the kids by name and had a positive attitude.
The middle school principal was angry. She stalked through the hallways with a growl on her face. Even on Parents Night at the school, she never looked a parent in the eye or greated parents at the door of the school. And she really, really hated me.
School culture was a problem. The teachers were dispirited. I wonder if the administration's attitudes leaked down to the teachers or if they had their own bad thoughts about the kids. No smiles on Parents Night. Little evidence that they knew who my kid was.
In contrast, I was shocked by Parents Night at Town B. The teachers gushed. They grinned. A few even said, "this is my dream job." When I approached them to find out how Jonah was adjusting, they eyes widened when I said his name. "Oh, you're Jonah's parents!!? What a GREAT kid!" I also happen to think that Jonah is a great kid, but no teacher ever told us that before. They went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that Jonah was adjusting to the new school. His math teacher called me to get my impressions. No teacher ever called me before, and it took me a couple of seconds to get over the shock.
For the first time, Jonah feels special. He adores his teachers. He worships his social studies teacher. He is eager to please them and puts in extra effort on his homework and projects.
Parents are another big difference. They are a big part of the school system in Town B, especially in the elementary schools. In Town A, I was never allowed in the school beyond the front office. There were no opportunities to work in the classroom with teachers. Parents never came in to read a story to the kindergartners. There were no plays or choral productions. I was allowed in the school just twice a year for Parents Night and for one conference.
I knew that this No Parents Allowed policy was fishy and complained to other parents. They didn't care. When I saw that the kids weren't doing enough writing in English class, I complained to other parents. They didn't care. When I noticed that test scores in the town were terrible, I complained to other parents. They didn't care. When I noticed that we failed to make Adequately Yearly Progress, I complained to other parents. They didn't care.
What the parents did care about was sports. Jonah had to drop out of Little League in third grade, because the parents were too intense. Dads would go down on the field and berate their kids until they cried. The football team practiced six days a week. The kids on the football team sat at their own table in the cafeteria and refused to talk to other kids. Jonah was afraid of them. And Jonah is good at sports.
Before leaving for school this morning, I asked Jonah why he liked Town B so much better. He said that he could talk to any kid at all. In Town A, the football crowd didn't socialize with the other kids. He doesn't have to sit at the Nerd Social Outcast Table at lunchtime anymore. In this town, the smart kids have a higher social status.
I felt really guilty about moving. I felt like a quitter for giving up. Some friends stopped talking to me after I moved, because they thought I was a traitor. As a guilt-ridden liberal, I think that grouping ourselves by social class is one of the true evils in society. But one person can't change things. I tried. I met with teachers and administrators. I volunteered my time on committees. I attended Town Council meetings and wrote letters. One person can't change anything, and my kid is too precious to become a victim to my politics.
I spent years studying education policy, but I haven't written about it in a while. I'm not sure that I've entirely given up hope that change can happen, but I'm nearly there. The problems that I saw between the two schools – attitude, expectations, and culture - are very hard to change with any neat public policy. I'm not quite sure what to do.