Just between us

At our December meeting, there was a new couple I didn’t recognize. I asked how old their kid was, and they told me the baby hadn’t been born yet.  I’ve thought about the in-utero couple a lot since then, even though, since I get nervous before meetings, I can’t remember their names or what they look like. They were probably deeply confused and may never show up again.  But I have continued to struggle with how to include new people, whose voices and input and participation we want to encourage, in the intense and valuable conversation — or, really, conversations — we have been having for seven months now.

So I thought I’d take a moment, to set down some things I think we’ve learned — or at least that I’ve learned. Many of you probably already knew a lot of this, and some of this is my opinion but it’s also a synthesis of what I’ve heard from you.

My own attitudes have changed drastically since I started this process. Then, I was pissed off and I wanted to hold someone accountable for the dismal state of the schools in District 16, which at that point I had never even set foot in. Now, I’m still pissed off, but I recognize that we, as much as anyone, are responsible for the state of the schools in our own community.

Then, I was a maximizer who, despite starting this group, would send my child to the best school I could get him into, no matter how far. Now, partly because of this group, I would prioritize sending my child to a neighborhood school above a dazzling Park Slope or Fort Greene school.  Then, when I heard about a proposal to start a new public school in Bed-Stuy, I was automatically in favor of it. I would not be in favor of it now. Here’s why:

District 16 is a great opportunity. While we can learn much from the many struggles over gentrification and school overcrowding elsewhere in the city, which many of us have watched closely, the issues in District 16 are distinct and largely stem from a steady decrease in enrollment district-wide as many parents have chosen charter schools (44 percent of total enrollment in our district is in charter schools), or public and private schools elsewhere. That means any fights about overcrowding, zoning lines, or displacement are a long way off. We’ve learned that schools can transform and enrollment declines can be reversed fairly quickly. Now that there is renewed energy on the Community Education Council (basically our neighborhood school board, which until fairly recently was defunct) and a new district superintendent, the stars are aligned for positive change here.

Here is some good news about District 16. The most glaring issues are simple ones. Whether you are committed to principles like educational equity (all children deserve an equally rich education) and integration (racial and economic), or you simply would like a great neighborhood option for your child, the action required is largely the same. These schools suffer from low enrollment, which means just enrolling our children here will go a long way. These schools suffer from low parent involvement, which means getting involved will go a long way. (And I certainly do not mean there are no dedicated parents working on behalf of these schools — there are, and we have met some of them. There just could be a lot more.) The evidence is pretty clear that more diverse schools (here, again, I’m talking about socioeconomic as well as racial diversity) are better schools. If test scores are what you care about, they have better test scores, too. District 16 doesn’t have issues with space; our schools have beautiful auditoriums, full-sized gymnasiums and immaculate recess yards. So we could basically say, we’re going to enroll our kids and attend PTA meetings, and that alone would have a measurable effect, even if we didn’t do anything else at all.

What makes a great school. We have learned what makes a great school: excellent leadership and involved parents. Those are the key factors. We bring one to the table. The other, I think we have learned, already exists here in Bed-Stuy.

The value of a neighborhood school. Even if you have options — if you get a coveted spot at the Brooklyn New School, for example, or you can afford to send your child to a wonderful private school — distance is a price worth considering. Many of the parents of older children who have counseled me throughout this have said that sending their children outside the neighborhood came at great cost, both to their children and to the larger community. As Councilman Robert Cornegy eloquently put it, there is “social suffering” when children go outside their neighborhood for school: “In their own community, they become inept. And this is a great community.” Here is what I want to know: can that glittering school over in LaDiDa neighborhood really be THAT much better than a school a few blocks from your front door that you embrace and help to nurture? Given what I have seen from this group, as well as the many other stakeholders in Bed-Stuy, I rather think not. This is not meant to be a guilt trip of any kind — I expect every parent to send their kids where they think best. My definition of what “best” is has simply been enlarged.

A significant part of our effort should be focused on other parents. As many of you know, of all the articles we have read together I was most struck by this one. If it weren’t for BSPC, I may never have toured a single neighborhood school, and I believe the same is true of many of you. Yet together we have seen schools where children publish their own books, schools where students choose a social justice project every spring, schools rehearsing their production of the Lion King and schools where peer mediators solve disputes. Next month we will tour a school where the children create their own museums. Part of our role, I have come to realize, is to encourage parents to think of District 16 schools as potential choices. We should continue to provide service-oriented events like the talk on public school admissions next week, and I can also envision future events such as a public school fair to introduce parents to D16 schools. We should facilitate volunteering at local schools and help with district projects. When I moved here and shortly afterwards had a baby, I asked every parent I saw where their children went to school. The answer was almost never District 16. We can change that.

What about progressive education? From the first meeting on, many of us have expressed an interest in progressive education. We learned that progressive education takes many forms. That does not make it a meaningless term, but it does mean that terrific schools can be a mix of progressive and traditional attitudes and pedagogy (something we saw at PS11). It also means that schools can implement certain progressive programs, such as restorative justice, or community studies, or project-based learning, that are right for them without being fully progressive. Several principals have expressed to us at least an openness to moving toward more progressive strategies, and at Brighter Choice and 309 we saw a lot of those ideas in practice. In my opinion, it would behoove the district to brand one school (or more) as a particularly progressive choice, and help it move in that direction, and in the current climate I can see that happening. I also think that the parents at a school can push it in that direction or build consensus around particular progressive programs that are suited for that school, especially if the principal shares that desire. (At Sunday’s meeting, Alie added a great point — that the district as a whole is moving toward progressive strategies.)

This is an awesome group of people. When I called the first meeting of what would become BSPC, I had no idea what to expect. The most important result was that a lot of you showed up, or you emailed to cheer us on. On top of that, you were thoughtful, brave, and full of ideas and resources. Not only have I learned a lot from you, to my constant amazement, you continue to show up — I see you guys at CEC meetings, at school tours, at our meetings and I know some have you have attended education-related events around the city. By that measure, and it is no small measure, everything we have done so far has been a success. Everyone has intuitively grasped the importance of this from the beginning, and it has paid off — showing up has earned us a place at the table.

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