Emotions and Inequities

I expected to get choked up at Honor’s Day. But not for this reason.

The elementary school holds Honors Day every semester, and the Principal gives out awards to all the kids (1st through 5th – no K.) They get awards like Citizenship Award, Academic Award, and Principal’s Honor Award. They get awards for finishing certain programs, like the reading program Accelerated Reader, Literary Guild (which introduces new genres to kids that they might not have read before,) and Math Facts in a Flash, which is a computer program that drills kids in math concepts. Each level gets progressively more advanced, until you reach level 50.

Remember a few weeks ago when I posted on Facebook that “I absolutely hate Lit Guild with every fiber of my being?” Basically, I had decided that rather than argue with my child about whether or not he was going to finish it (it’s optional), I would leave it up to him. If he finished, he would get the trophy, and if not, well, he would learn what it was like to watch all of his friends get the trophy, knowing that he didn’t work hard enough to get it. I decided that this was a good life lesson for him, and that me wanting him to get the trophy was really more about me, and my idea of how I wanted to present myself as a parent. (I guess that would be the kind of parent whose whose kids get Lit Guild trophies?) I decided that I was okay with it. My reasoning was that he was already reading well past the level of the lit guild books, that he enjoyed reading, and that he was reading what he wanted to read. He was reading for pleasure. Isn’t that what I always wanted for him anyway? Mission achieved; I didn’t need him to get a trophy to prove to me that I had done my job. He had learned the joy of reading, which is truly the gift that never stops giving. No one can ever take that away from him.

I sat a few rows back in the cafeteria today, and I watched him as his friends went up to receive their lit guild trophies. I watched his back, looking for some sign that he was sad or embarrassed that he didn’t get the trophy. I told myself that if he was upset, he would be learning a lesson. Instead, i saw my son cheer for his friends, clap at the appropriate time, and give a friend a high five as she went up to get her award. I was proud of his response.

The teachers proceeded to give the other awards to their classes. Each teacher stood at the podium, called out the student’s name, then called out the awards being given to that child. The child walks past the podium, receives the certificate(s), and shakes the principal’s hand. The audience claps for each child. It’s a pretty darn long process.

The first class completed their awards, and my son’s teacher stood at the podium, and began to speak about his class. He began by saying that it was one of the brightest classes he has ever taught. He spoke of their intelligence, their readiness to learn, the fact that they are all above grade-level when they came in the door, and that he never even taught from the curriculum or the book, because they all already knew the stuff. He said they challenged him, and kept him on his toes, and he acknowledged that much of that was due to the parental involvement in the class. He said that his class rarely came in and talked about what they watched on T.V. last night, but rather about the books they were reading and the things that they did outside.

I admit it – I felt proud and thankful that someone said aloud, in their own way, “you are doing a good job as parents.” Parents don’t get that kind of affirmation very often. It was a good moment. In the back of my mind, I thought, “Wow, I hope this doesn’t make the other parents in other classes feel bad.”

Pride goeth before a fall, or so they say.

The teacher started giving out awards. He read the names, he listed their awards, the kids walked across, got their awards, and shook the Principal’s hand. The kids smiled, and the parents clapped and their cameras flashed. But a couple of times, this teacher said a child’s name, and then he commented a bit more about that particular child. Things along the lines of (and I am paraphrasing, because i don’t have a tape recorder for a memory):

“This child reads all the time. He does nothing but read.”
“This child is doing 6th grade math problems. His success inspired the whole class to finish levels of the math program.”
“This kid is the most motivated kid I’ve ever seen. He reads books that look like ship anchors.”

There were four or five of them who were personally recognized for their exceptional characteristics. They were all boys. They are all good kids, with lovely parents, most of whom I consider friends, or at least really good acquaintances.

Not one of them was my son.

And I was sad, hurt, jealous, and angry. I was worried for my son and how this would make him feel. I clenched my fists, and I fought back tears. I clapped politely, even as the thoughts I was thinking were not at all polite. I am not proud of these reactions, but I am a very honest person, and I did experience them, and even if they were illogical, they were authentically and sincerely felt. I had a hard time sitting through the rest of the ceremony, as my son’s class finished and we moved on to the other three classes.

After the ceremony, I smiled at my child when he smiled at me. He evidently didn’t notice any discrepancies. I took his photo with the Principal and Assistant Principal. My son asked specifically to have his picture made with his teacher, whom he had told me just this morning, he was “going to miss.” And I must add here that his teacher was great – he inspired the kids and challenged them, and didn’t force them to go over and over things they had already learned. I knew in my head, when he stood up and gushed about the class, and the parents, and those particular kids, he was not doing it maliciously – He was doing it because he enjoyed teaching a class that was so ready to learn, and so challenging to him as a teacher. I took the photo of the two of them, and thanked the teacher, and I meant it when I said thank you. My kid learned from him, and he was inspired and enjoyed school this year, because he and his class were challenged.

I left school, though, and I felt very out of sorts, emotionally raw, almost irrationally angry, and ashamed for feeling the childish emotions I was feeling. I don’t feel shame very often. And I haven’t exactly pinpointed the root of my shame. Perhaps it was jealousy – something i almost NEVER feel. Perhaps it was shame that i worried what others might think of my parenting if my kid was not singled out as a superstar in his class. Perhaps it was doubt about my “let him experience failure” tactic when it came to these extra programs. Perhaps it was shame at the thought that maybe I was disappointed in my child for not living up to the standard set by this class? Because i am proud of my kid, so very proud, and I love my kids more than anything on earth. I would take a bullet for either of them without blinking an eye. I don’t think it is disappointment in my child. I think it might be disappointment in myself – did I let my child down by not being a Tiger Mom?

I spoke to a couple of parents as I left, and I think the teacher’s gushing did not go unnoticed, although others didn’t seem as affected by it as I did. My neighbor, who has two 2nd graders, neither of whom are in my son’s class, seemed to shrug it off, as if it were something to which she had long ago become accustomed. She pointed out that my child’s classroom is a bit of an anomaly. I agreed, and headed for my car, thinking of what she said as I walked and I tried to make sense of my flustered feelings.

And i realized, this must be what it feels like for many parents all the time. I remembered thinking as the teacher crowed about his class, “I wonder how this makes the other kids’ parents feel?” I am not sure how I managed to not ever feel it before, but it felt awful.

And this is where it all gets pretty complicated. . . .

Sidebar: I should take a moment (Lie! Many, many words to come on this!) to explain a bit about my son’s class makeup, and how it compares with the four other 2nd grade classes at our school. My son is in a magnet class. Specifically, he is in a Science and Foreign Language Magnet. This is a DeKalb County program at our school. It is the only one of its kind in the county. There are other magnet programs, but they are run differently, or have a different focus. Some are for “high achievers,” some are theme schools, like DeKalb School of the Arts. Slots in these classes and schools are all given out by lottery. Some have minimum requirements. For example, to remain in the magnet at my son’s school, one must maintain a B average. To qualify to put your name in the lottery drawing for Kittredge (the “high achiever” magnet) you must meet the following requirements:

>75th percentile Total Reading, ITBS
>75th percentile Total Math, ITBS
>85th percentile Complete Composite, ITBS
>3.0 GPA from the fall semester of the application year
Current resident of DeKalb County

You get the idea. Basically, it’s open to anyone who can meet these requirements, and then a precious few are chosen. They get, from my understanding, a more challenging curriculum, and they are no longer going to school with those children who could not meet the above requirements.

I digress, but my point is that there are only so many magnet and theme school spots in DeKalb County, and the application process, lottery drawing, and transportation involved are not for the faint of heart. The children that attend these programs are the product of parents who went above and beyond to get them there. They are also the product of luck. Sheer, dumb luck. The drawing of a number, out of a hopper. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch Waiting for Superman and then come back to finish reading.)

Now, my child would be attending this excellent elementary school anyway, because we live in the district. Even if there were no magnet at our school, he would attend the same school. The magnet program at our school is one magnet class, per grade (K-5th), made up of 50% students from the “Home” pool (our elementary district) and 50% “At Large” students (Dekalb county students who live in other elementary districts). There was much discussion among parents when my son was in pre-k (another program paid for by DeKalb) about whether or not to put our kids in the lottery drawing for a magnet spot in Kindergarten. Our kids were already in district, so we were not like the “at large” parents who were trying to escape failing schools by getting their kid in a magnet (any magnet!) at another, more successful, elementary school. Our kids would attend the school either way.

The main draw of the magnet class was that they would receive daily foreign language instruction in French. (Yes, I could write a whole other post about the choice to continue French instruction when Spanish or Chinese might be so much more beneficial.) Many parents were confused about the “science” portion of the magnet program – it simply means that we have a Science lab. Our Science curriculum is the same as that offered by all of Dekalb county.

According to DeKalb County Schools’ website: “The Evansdale Magnet Program is available to students in kindergarten through fifth grade who have an interest or aptitude in mathematics, science, or French.” The only difference in magnet classes is that they receive that extra hour of french language instruction a day, and the fact that the school has a dedicated Science lab. It is my understanding that no other DeKalb County elementary schools have a lab. Oh, and then there’s this little problem: This program is only available to those students lucky enough to win a spot through a lottery drawing.

Other discussions of whether or not we should put our kids in the magnet lottery revolved around “diversity.” To many, the fact that half the kids were from other parts of the county would make the class more diverse and exposing one’s children to more diversity is a “pro.” Unless it isn’t – Some parents, sadly, think of this as a “con.” This is all the more ludicrous, because those parents of “at large” children had to go to great lengths to apply and get their kids into the program, and then have a kid attending school in another area of the county. As I mentioned before, these parents are not passive bystanders in their children’s education – these parents went above and beyond to get their children into the program in the first place, and then continue to support their children in a school that might be many miles from home. That is a large commitment to a child’s education. These are good, caring parents with a strong interest in getting the best education for their child.

The joke is on the anti-diversity parents. And the parents whose kids just weren’t lucky enough to get a spot in the magnet program. Last year, during redistricting, our little school took in a lot more students. Our neighborhood demographics changed. Some of those new kids are on free-and-reduced lunch (a typical indicator of lower achievement), live in apartments, and have parents who speak little English. Class sizes swelled at our school this fall, and classes had to be added in some grades. Except Magnet classes – their class makeup is dictated by the lottery. When these new students came in, they were put in the regular classes, not the magnet classes. So, for instance, on the first day of Kindergarten my daughter, who is in a regular class (she was not drawn for a magnet spot) did not even have a teacher yet – she was in an “overflow” class with a substitute; The county had not even hired a teacher for them yet. She did finally get a teacher a few days later. This phenomenon is not a problem at the county level, or with the principal, etc, but simply a side effect of having kids show up on the first day of school who must be served, but for whom the school had no knowledge beforehand.) They added an extra class. Where did all the new students (the group which included the apartment kids, the ESOL kids, the free-and-reduced lunch? They went into the regular classes. The Kindergarten Magnet didn’t have to absorb any of them. The K magnet class kept it’s static student teacher ratio. This happened for other grades. For those grades whose class sizes went above the county mandate, new classes were created. (Again, I could write a whole post about the classes that were inherited by the last teachers to come on board. Let’s just say that there were obvious differences between those classes, and the earlier-formed regular classes, and again, more obvious differences between the regular classes and the still-untouched Magnet classes.) And the magnet classes, through it all, remained untouchable.

Remember? The Magnet classes are set. They have the most involved parents. The regular classes have the new students. And that last class put together to catch the overflow? It consists of predominately African American and Hispanic kids, lots of boys, and a few token white kids whose parents don’t happen to be active in the PTA or the school foundation. I wish I were kidding. I keep trying to tell myself that if i could look carefully, this is not the case – that it’s simply an error of perception, that i am just mistaken, and things really are done fairly. I have to admit that I have not viewed this phenomenon in grades other than my own kids’ grades (2nd and K) and that it may be so glaring because of that late-added class. I don’t know if it even exists in other grades, but I have not looked.

Disclaimer: I have not sat down with photographs and class lists containing the demographics. This really may just be my perception. Even if it isn’t, I’m not pointing fingers. I don’t know who, if anyone in particular, is responsible. Also, I am not saying there are not involved parents in the regular classes. There are, and there are a lot of them. But it is not so across-the-board as in the magnet classes. Oftentimes, there are a few involved parents pulling the weight for the whole class.

I mentioned that this is where it all gets pretty complicated. Because the core of my emotion in the moment of that presentation was a very personal reaction. It was about me, my perceived inadequacies as a parent, my disappointment that my kid is not always going to be the best or the smartest, and even if he is, he might not be recognized for it. It was about feeling that nagging feeling, deep down, that maybe I didn’t do my all for my kid, that maybe I failed him.

And while it’s a normal emotion, it’s absurd. I am a highly involved parent. We send our kid to school ready to learn. I co-chair a PTA committee, sit on the board of the school foundation, and always step up to volunteer whenever I can. And yet, I still felt inadequate this morning. Obviously, i need to get over myself. I should be thankful that i have such wonderful, smart, thriving, healthy children.

And the nagging takeaway for me is that this feeling of inadequacy speaks to a much bigger problem. A problem that has been jostling around in my head for a couple of years ago, and which has moved back to the forefront for me with the discussion of budget cuts and tax increases to cover the Dekalb County schools system budget shortfall. My child is benefiting from his lucky inclusion in this very special class. I felt inadequate because I didn’t schlep my kid around to find specific books and take tests and Tiger Mom him; What about the parents who feel like they have failed their kids by not finding them the same opportunities that my child has just by being in the same room every day with these other privileged kids. What would happen if the boys recognized today were spread out into four or five different classrooms, inspiring all of those classrooms to strive to higher scores in math? I’m not saying we should do away with things like Guided Math, and differentiated instruction or Discovery. I think we should have kids on similar levels in the same reading groups.

In the end, I think all the kids in my son’s class (and school for that matter) are going to be successful. They are going to do great in life. But how is it fair that we spend so much money on these special classes that give some kids the opportunity for a leg up, while others are denied that opportunity?

I did not intend this post to upset my fellow parents. I love your kids and was proud of their recognition. I love my kids’ teachers and the principal at our school. I love my own kid and I think he is exceptional in his own way, whether or not his teacher recognizes him personally for it. There were hundreds of parents in that cafeteria today that feel the same way about their own children. I am guessing there are hundreds of thousands of parents in DeKalb county that feel the same way about their children.

I guess I just felt like this was the kick i needed to speak up and write about something I’ve seen as an inequity for a long time. This program has the best of intentions, and some really good consequences for those involved, and even some for those not in the program. But in the end, it is patently unfair. In the end, maybe my shame stems from the fact that until now I haven’t spoken up about it.

I’m guessing that if you read this far, you are a parent. You might be a parent of one of these students, or you might be a parent at my kids’ school. You might think that i should keep my mouth shut, since the school benefits from this program. I’m sorry, I can’t. If i was on the board, i could not in good conscience keep these special programs open. Before we raise class sizes, we should cut programs like this one. Before we raise taxes, we should cut programs like this one. And before we do anything, the central office should be made a skeleton crew.

On my end, I’ll be getting some therapy for my own parenting issues. Or at least trying to see the forest for the trees. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Parenting is really, really hard.

  3 comments for “Emotions and Inequities

  1. May 24, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Parenting IS hard.

    We need to learn it’s okay for our kids to be who they are. From what you write, it sound s like your son is pretty content with who he is – and when it comes down to it, that’s the job well done. A child comfortable in their own skin is the hardest parenting trick to pull off.

    Good for you for not being a tiger mother. And keep pushing to make school programs fair to all kids.

  2. May 24, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Interesting post! I show Waiting for Superman to my Public Policy students, and it always produces really interesting conversations.

    There are so many things to comment on– I think it’s commendable to recognize your emotions and how you’re feeling about the awards/etc. And also really fantastic that your son doesn’t seem to be hung up on it. I would totally push my kid into a reading club/group, but you’re right: if a kid loves reading, then who cares about all that other business.

    The magnet class concept seems to me (as a researcher) to be a way to create a self-fulfilling prophecy about the program. You separate out the high achievers, challenge them, and then pat yourselves on the back when they do great things. Don’t get me wrong, if my kid was a high achiever, I’d want him to be challenged by his public school. But, is that the goal of public education? Should it be? Does that benefit the majority of people or society as a whole? At what cost?

    I think in many ways it’s about what we want from our public education system. No child left behind is not realistic. Sure, I don’t want anyone purposely left behind. I want equal opportunity, which is not possible in most places. I also want kids challenged at their level, and helped to achieve all they can. But how can you implement that?

    it gets really complicated really quickly.

  3. May 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Amen, Kat. I feel exactly the same way about everything you said. Sigh. It IS complicated.

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