Monday, September 16, 2013

How Sending Our Kids to A Poor School Saves All of Us

I may have mentioned, I've been on a bit of a reading bender lately. Like for the past 30 years.
It gets even worse in waves.

I ran through my beloved public library a couple weeks ago and found this book on a special display. It had me at the cover art, like most books do. Also, the title.

Then I got it home and became obsessed with it.

Then it started to make me feel really slimy, but we'll get to that in a moment.

The concept is compelling - 2 moms attempt to reclaim their neighborhood public school, one that is failing across every metric, one that is, to put it bluntly, on life support.

I'm enamored with the idea of blooming where we're planted. The image of "walking to school" is one burnished fondly in many of our memories. It's quaint. It makes us believe that maybe not every single thing in the world has changed.

I didn't spend up my reading-in-bed hours with How to Walk to School because I need a blueprint. We're already enthusiastic supporters of our little public school, the one we often walk to. But I thought I might pick up some tips. And I couldn't wait to see how it all shook down when the upper-middle class collided with folks in lower socioeconomic classes. In my mind, it's a recipe destined for greatness.

And they did achieve greatness, or at least what they think is great. The school is thriving now. Real estate value has sky-rocketed as Nettelhorst Elementary rose from the grave and the upper-middle class moved in. It's the "It" school now. Everyone wants a piece.

But here's some of what had to happen for the miracle to descend: A massive PR overhaul (provided pro bono by well-to-do parents with time and resources to spare), thicker paper for all school notices, classier wording for school newsletters, slick promotional materials, organic lunches, a French market held on school grounds (to lure additional wealthy city folk), free after-school Tae Kwan Do classes, an in-school cafe where moms could stop and chat after dropping off their children, and a private-school-esque re-branding from bare-bones "Nettelhorst" to "The Nettelhorst School".

I suppose none of these changes are inherently bad, but I found myself wishing improvements had been more organic, a steady result of the coming together of families from different walks of life, families who stood their ground and did the slow, hard work of making their neighborhood better.

I'm all for public schools. They need to be supported and nudged along. The poor kids stuck at Nettelhorst pre-revival were not being served well, and that's disappointing. Every child deserves a quality education.

I don't pretend to be an expert on the complex education issues of our country. I certainly see room for improvement.

But the day we walked in to Chamberlain, everyone went home a winner, especially us.

I believe, more and more, that the best way to impact life around us is by simply showing up, without expectations or demands, ready to bring our best and actively engage in what already is.

They don't need to bend to our ideals or cater to our preferences. They need to know us, feel solidarity with us. And maybe over time it will be clear that we bring new things to the table. And maybe over time we'll want some of what they've got.

Our Title I school has no murals on the walls, hand-painted by local artisans. The halls are kind of boring, the bus routes too few. Meals are free for all and I once got an email asking if I would be willing to donate laundry detergent to some of the families because the need was so great.

Education is important, and my kids are getting an excellent education, but I'm only now starting to see the ways I have set this up as an idol, holding it above things that are far more important.

An Ivy League education or an SAT score in the 90th percentile pale in comparison to the understanding that Heaven won't be arranged by social class. How can my kids possibly have mutuality with the poor if I spend my life fencing them away, or if my goal for them is a lifestyle that keeps them safely beyond the reach of trouble or things that are uncomfortable?

Our school elevates us by allowing us the opportunity to sink down into working-class poverty, undocumented citizenry, and crappy playgrounds.

I fully understand not everyone happens to live in a poor school district and not everyone needs to. The good news is, every public school could use our support. The benefits to us are obvious. But you and I bring important things to the table, too. We're a parent who knows the name of our child's teacher and works with him or her to make the year better. We send extra boxes of tissues and Teddy Grahams for snack. Our child usually has his homework done and shoes on her feet and is, quite simply, an amazing kid. (True, we might be biased.) We send tax dollars, yes, but we also send prayers and encouragement and we sign our name on every sheet that asks for our help.

And every day, the culture elevates and improves, not because we busted in and made demands, not because we make the other moms and dads and teachers feel inferior or unfancy, not because we must be coddled lest we pitch a fit and flee, but because we put relationship and humanity and the future state of little hearts and minds at the very front of the line.

Here's a very easy way to help your local school - send your Box Tops for Education! Whether you have a child attending the school or not, they need these box tops, particularly if it happens to be a poorer school. We have been feverishly clipping, trying to save for a new playground and it's amazing to watch them add up to actual cash!

If for some reason your school does not collect or need them, feel free to send them to us! We'll take 'em.

Trim the edges cleanly and mail them to:
Chamberlain Elementary School
428 North 5th Street
Goshen, IN 46528