Hard decisions are not new to me, but in the past seven years, decisions about where to send my daughter for elementary and middle school have been among my hardest. I knew the school community I chose and the opportunities she would—or wouldn’t—have would have effects that could last her entire lifetime. When Amy was 4 and kindergarten was on the horizon, I thought carefully about what I wanted for her education. As a single mom, I hoped her school would become a place where she felt loved, supported, challenged, confident and successful. I hoped it would become her second family. I wanted a school where the teachers had the same high expectations I had for my daughter. I wanted a place where Amy, as a Latina and a first-generation American, could identify with the cultural backgrounds of her classmates, while at the same time she could encounter new communities. I wanted a diverse school with really strong academics. Many families chose to go to the neighborhood school, but I decided I would be open to someplace a little further away if it meant my daughter would have a chance for a better education. I looked online at the school options and I tried to enroll her in a district school in a wealthier neighborhood with high test scores. But when I visited the school, it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t see very many children who were like my daughter and while it was high performing, it wasn’t diverse and that was important to me. After looking at a few schools, I found a small public elementary school rated 7 out of 10 on
GreatSchools.org, which was all the data available to me at the time. The community of families were warm and diverse. I was so relieved that I had found Amy’s new home away from home. At first, we loved the school and felt safe and happy there. But it quickly became clear that the teachers had different expectations for Amy than I had. At one point, I spoke with a teacher about a concern with Amy’s school work. She told me, “Amy just doesn’t get it,” and walked away. In my culture, it’s unusual to challenge a teacher or talk directly to the principal. I was intimidated, but my mother instincts took over and I was not going to accept this for my daughter. I considered changing schools and started to look around. When I tried to talk to the teachers and school leaders about moving my daughter to a better school serving mostly Hispanic children, they talked me out of it. They said Amy would be better off staying put. Looking back, I can’t believe I listened to them. I didn’t want my child to be another statistic of a Hispanic kid left behind, but I did listen to them, I trusted them, I thought they meant well and my heart couldn't stand the thought of taking my little girl away from her second family, so Amy stayed in her school.
When I Compared Schools Side-by-Side, I Couldn’t Miss the Achievement Gap
By the time Amy was ready for middle school, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake. I knew I had to find a school where expectations and results were high for all children. The school leaders at her elementary school encouraged us to attend a school where many of her classmates were going. I thought I’d take a look. I found the school online and started to compare it to other schools. Then I noticed there was another school right next door. (They actually shared lockers and a backyard.) When looking at the two schools side-by-side, I could not believe my eyes. The school where we were encouraged to go, with mostly Hispanic kids, was rated a 3. The school next door, with over 90 percent White kids, was rated a 10. How could this be happening? I continued my search with the help of
parent leaders from Innovate Public Schools who showed me how to look up school information on GreatSchools.org, broken down by student group. I was shocked at the extent of the achievement gap for Hispanic kids in most schools. How did I not know this before? After seeing the information for Hispanic students, I knew I had to ask more questions and look for information and answers. I wanted my daughter to have a better opportunity and to become an empowered young woman and fight for her rights, ask questions and think critically. I had the power to send my daughter to a school that would help set her up for success. This time, it was
my decision to make.
With the Right Data, I Found the Right Middle School
Amy is now attending a very diverse school 15 miles from home. The data on GreatSchools tells me that while there is still a gap between White kids and Hispanic kids, the school is diverse and students’ test scores are improving each year. I have good information to talk to the school about how they are going to help Amy. It feels good to have this information. I know that Amy’s middle school has high expectations for all students, and all the kids know that, too. She is learning to take control of her education, to advocate for herself, to speak up, to know that her education is not negotiable but is a must. I hope that she will make a good living someday, but at least I know her education will give her knowledge and power that she can keep with her wherever she goes. This time, my decision about Amy’s education was based on knowledge and information about the choices I had, and it felt right for me. Education is very important and nobody should make decisions for me. Nobody—nobody—can tell me what to do or where to take my child to school.
Luz Jara is a proud and empowered single mom and a volunteer parent leader with Innovate Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Luz is an immigrant who works hard to support her family in California as well as the family she left behind in her native country. She has a small business and is a passionate lifelong learner, Luz takes classes whenever she has the opportunity.