I Believe in Public Schools, But They Just Weren't Working for My Son
“The wolf took one last look at his mother and father…”
My son is reading aloud in the other room. I hear his little voice recounting the story of a wolf who became the first wild wolf in California in a very long time. He reads with expression—exclamation points invoke excitement in his voice, question marks prompt a raised intonation as he nears the end of the sentence. And he’s reading with fluency, one word smoothly flowing into the next word.
My tears came quickly. I go to him and hold his little face in my hands. What? he asks quizzically. Did I do something wrong? No. “I am so proud of you. Your reading is outstanding.”
My son is a bit of an attention hog. Seeing me so happy made him want to make me even happier. “Now I’m going to get a notebook and write down what I read.” And later—“I think I’m going to stop playing video games for a while. There are better things to do with my brain.” (The next day, he reconsidered.)
These new tears are very different from the tears I’ve cried over this child the last two years of his short life. As was the case for many parents, in sad defeat, I watched him learn nothing in Zoom school. In fourth grade now, the last “normal” year of school for him was first grade. While he wasn’t reading fluently then, I did not worry: it would be ok as long as he was doing so by third grade. He loved school, his teachers, and his friends. I was happy.
He was and still is a funny and popular child. I had another child the other day tell me that he was A’s best friend. When I mentioned this to A, he hesitated. “Well, I guess I can be many people’s best friend.” His funniness is not always welcome, but he never maliciously misbehaved or overtly or intentionally disrespected his teachers or peers. But he has a knack for the moment, like a natural comedian. And he can never pass up the opportunity. Teachers would tell me that they often needed to turn their back to him before meteing out a consequence for his disruption because whatever he did was so funny. We get this at home, too; it’s hard not to laugh even when he is not doing the thing he’s supposed to be doing.
My son learned nothing last year
But perhaps because of his charisma, he fell under the radar academically. Before COVID’s closure in March 2020, he got extra reading help at school. I knew he was behind, but after six months or so, the intervention teacher said he was doing better, and she needed to accommodate other children who were more behind than my child. She was playing triage with her time.
But he wasn’t doing good enough. When third grade Zoom school started, I realized that he thoroughly checked out. Yes, it was because he was bored and inattentive, but I could now see how behind he was. I used my economic capital to pay for tutoring, and I learned he lacked kindergarten-level skills in the third grade. And he learned nothing last year. When I say nothing, I mean absolutely nothing.
(Let me be clear that I am not blaming anyone. Zoom school for a teacher of elementary students was a practical impossibility to reach every child. If it weren’t my child who fell behind, it would have been another child. I do not believe that the school intentionally neglected him. It was a horrible situation for everyone.)
Now, the lifelong consequences of not reading at grade level after third grade are dire. Children who are not reading at grade level after third grade will only fall more behind in future years because, in third grade, children move from learning to read to reading to learn. If you aren’t reading proficiently after third grade, you can’t get the knowledge to learn other subjects. Children who are not reading proficiently after third grade are more likely to drop out of high school than other children. Black boys are more likely to drop out compared to other groups anyway. Add not knowing how to read. Less than 60% of Black children in California are reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
So we pulled him out of our local public school and enrolled him in a private school with more resources.
If you know my professional and personal life, you know that I often criticize well-off parents for the educational choices they make. I firmly believe—and can show—that the decisions we make for our children impact other people’s children. (See pandemic pods.) I bemoan parents who use their privilege to make things better for their child, privileges that other parents don’t have.
I have a particular loathing for private schooling. It allows well-off parents to divest from public schools, removing significant non-tangible resources from the school environment. (Of course, many public schools act like private schools, and privileged public school parents often treat public school like it’s a personal property right.) A dual education system for the haves and have-nots undermines the essential rationales for compulsory universal education, including equality of opportunity and a healthy democracy. When we all engage in public schooling, we share the benefits and burdens of the community. Public schooling is not a panacea, and it often works against our Black children. But I’ve committed myself, my children, and my time and expertise to that enterprise. If I had my way, private schools would not exist.
In the public school environment, I work hard for all kids. I advocate for all kids because my children do not inherently deserve more than other people’s children. My older two children do just fine in public school; in fact, they excel. So, in that way, I—and the school district—am lucky because almost all my school advocacy is for other people’s children. After all, my kids are just fine. When I sit for hours a week in school board meetings, PTA meetings, organizing town halls, meeting with parents and administrators, I do it for other people’s children because it is right.
It’s not ok to opt-out of the public schooling system
It’s not ok to opt-out of the public schooling system. But I did. And I loathe myself for making that choice.
Yet my guilt to not live entirely to my ideals pales in comparison to the guilt I felt about my child falling so far behind. I am a Ph.D.-having professor that studies educational stratification for Black children—how did my kid fall through the cracks? Was I doing so much for other people’s children that I neglected my own? I realized that I could not leave him in an environment that was not only not allowing him to thrive but that wasn’t providing the bare minimum for him to be successful. It did not feel right in my heart that I had the means to help him, but I chose my ideals over him. For him, I had to make a change.
I make myself feel better that my older two children are safe and doing well in their public high school. And that I tried for three hard years to make this public school work for my little one. I continue to work in the school district and pretty much neglect parent volunteer opportunities at the private school. It doesn’t need me.
I’m not comfortable in this private school world. When I reveal that I have two other children, the private school parents ask which private school my older children attend. I surprise them by saying my high schoolers attend public school, and if it were the right move, my little one would be in public school too. I hope that I can move him back there in middle school; private school is a pit stop to him catching up. They may say, “Yeah, you just can’t get this environment in public school.” I agree; the resources are enviable. There are redwood trees, 18 kids and 2 aides, in-class libraries … But I am clear that I am a public school advocate, and it’s not public school in general that didn’t work. It was that school that didn’t work for him.
I hear him reading again. Loud and proud, happy with himself for what he can now do in two months, something he wasn’t able to do for three years. When I hear him, I cry, and I know that we made the right decision for him. The world wouldn’t be better to have a little Black boy who couldn’t read and thus couldn’t experience life as a literate person.
Our decision was wrong and right. I cry for both.
LaToya Baldwin Clark is a mother, law professor, and essayist. She writes about parenting, educational stratification, and race.