It’s March, and all over the country, students and their families are waiting anxiously to receive emails and letters about the status of school applications; parents furtively asking one another if they’ve received word from their top choices of schools. It is no different here in my West Philadelphia neighborhood. Except we’re not talking about college. We’re talking about kindergarten. Last December, I wrote a
piece about the cognitive dissonance of being a teacher who fights daily for educational equity, while also playing the heavily privileged game of school access for my own children. Since then, my son, who has autism, has, unsurprisingly, been denied from all private schools to which we’ve applied. These schools felt, probably correctly, that they couldn’t provide the services my son requires. Such is their prerogative. In addition, we received our voluntary transfer email from the School District of Philadelphia, wherein we are allowed to apply to up to five out-of-catchment schools. Of the five schools we applied to for our son, none granted admittance. Four put us on a wait list, with one explicitly denying acceptance. Our default school, about five blocks to the west, gets a rating of 2 out of 10 according to
GreatSchools. According to the website, 9 percent of students were proficient in math and 27 percent proficient in English, compared to the state average of 42 percent and 60 percent respectively. This school serves a student body that is 90 percent Black and, staggeringly, 100 percent low-income, unsurprising when considering our nation’s shameful history of systemic racism, purposeful residential redlining and conscious depletion of neighborhood resources, combined with the alignment of wealth with access to quality education. Five blocks to the east is a school that might as well be in another country. This school, located within a defined catchment that sees property values hover near half a million dollars, received a 9 out of 10 on
GreatSchools, and saw recent proficiency rates of 77 percent in math, 88 percent in English, and 86 percent in science. Again not surprisingly, this school is far more diverse, with 39 percent of students being White, 24 percent being Black, and 18 percent being Asian. And least shockingly of all, only 28 percent of students were identified as low-income. So we moved.
It Shouldn't Be This Way
We utilized our resources to give us school choice, precisely the type of school choice that so many anti-choice advocates exercise for their own families while working to deny others the same privilege by insisting they wait yet another generation for their neighborhood schools to improve. We uprooted our family and moved four blocks to the east into a home one-third of the size of our current home, although with comparable property value, so our child can go to a ‘good’ kindergarten. And just a few weeks ago, we got his acceptance letter. We are overjoyed, thrilled to join such a wonderful educational community. We know our son will be offered some of the best educational opportunities and special education supports available in Philadelphia. I let out a sigh of relief the likes of which I have never known. But my joy is tempered by the knowledge that at this very moment there are families with whom we share our lives whose children did not get into this school and who are devastated, some whose children also have special needs who now face the pain of having to advocate for their kids in the face of an oppressively ticking clock. It shouldn’t be this way.
I’m absolutely ashamed of the games we have to play to ensure our children access to high-quality education. On the day we received the acceptance letter, people kept shaking my hand, eyes aglitter as they said, “Congratulations!” For what? For being born into a race and class that allowed us the privilege to live in an upper-middle class neighborhood so we could send our kid to a school that provides comfort to our White, upper-middle class sensibilities? Congratulations for arbitrarily being given access to high-quality education that so many others have been denied? It comes down to basic simple truth: When only rich people have access to quality education, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. And because it is, I, for the wellbeing of my son, have to play along. And that, to my utter disgust and shame, is precisely why it won’t change.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...