By Andrew T. Jarboe
In the coming weeks, thousands of Boston families will learn where Boston Public Schools intends to educate the system’s newest pupils. BPS is scheduled to mail assignments for grades K0 and K1 the week of March 20. Families registering children for K2 will discover their assignments by email the week of April 10. Families are already hearing from charter schools.
This is the time of the year when a small number of Boston families – mostly white and affluent – will decide to leave the city for the “good schools” found in the Boston suburbs. “Spring attrition,” I have heard it called.
For those who can afford the price of admission, it is hard to resist the allures of those suburban schools: abundant resources; stratospheric test-scores; the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing your child will one day attend a school highly-ranked on Boston Magazine’s list of the region’s best public high schools.
Everyone is entitled to make what they deem to be the right choice for their family and their children. But a little more resistance from affluent parents could go a long way towards improving the prospects and opportunities of every child.
Consider the findings of a Boston Globe study published last year. In the last four decades, our region has become more segregated by income. In 1970, 7 in 10 of our region’s families lived in mixed-income communities. Now it’s just 4 in 10. Since 1970, the proportion of families living in the wealthiest neighborhoods has nearly tripled, from 6 percent to 16 percent.
Boston’s suburbs are more exclusive now than they were four decades ago.
Now check out Boston Magazine’s rankings of the region’s best public schools and notice how that list so neatly dovetails with those ranking the Commonwealth’s most affluent towns.
More than a decade teaching in New York City and Boston schools has convinced me that suburban schools do not have a monopoly on excellent teaching. I encourage you to visit classrooms in Boston and compare the teaching you see there with the teaching happening in the suburbs. I bet you will find it comparable. What the suburbs do have is highly favorable demographics. And demographics more reliably predict the kind of college a child will attend than that child’s test scores. A wealthy child, for instance, is more likely to succeed in college than a poor child even if that poor child had better test scores in elementary and secondary school.
It seems a strange thing indeed to privilege those suburban schools – to privilege those families who themselves rank among the nation’s most privileged – as somehow inherently superior to schools teaching children whose parents have less. To do so perpetuates gross inequalities in opportunity and access to power. Suburban property values soar. The region’s best public schools become even more exclusive. Upward mobility becomes the closely-guarded reserve of the already-wealthy.
Next, consider what it is like to go to school surrounded by the most-privileged. Our region’s best public schools (and I graduated from one of them) have become pressure cookers. They fuel a mania and mad scramble among children and parents for rank and prestige. It is the subject of Frank Bruni’s 2015 book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” I encourage any parent to read it. Our obsession with getting into the right school, taking the right classes, participating in the right extracurricular activities – in short, our obsession with “getting ahead” – leaves our children miserable, exhausted, and no-less subject to life’s unforeseen setbacks.
One final point. Beware the tendency of the best schools to imprint upon the minds of their students the idea that they are special and that other students are less special. My students are as intelligent, as ambitious, as vulnerable, as deserving, as full of life and as in need of thoughtful and empowering teaching from caring adults as any child, anywhere. My students face greater obstacles than I ever had to overcome at their age, and if their college applications lack the luster of some of their suburban peers, it is not for a lack of achievement on their part but for a lack of opportunity.
Where kids go to school matters. In our winner-take-all economy, it is tempting to believe that if our children do not attend one of the best schools, we doom them to a life of stunted potential and pauperism.
That just isn’t true. At least, it doesn’t have to be.
As the parent of one of my students said, “They don’t have anything out there [in the suburbs] we can’t also have here. We just need to speak up.”
Andrew Jarboe is a Jamaica Plain resident who teaches at the Match Charter High School.