On School Choice, and What Choice Do We Have? / by Ryan Koch


I read this recently because a friend sent it to my wife and me. I am a total fanboy of On Being, but I have not spend time with their website. This is a beautifully written piece by a thoughtful mom asking big questions. I wrote a response that does not answer her big questions, but answers my own smaller questions. Here's what I wrote:

Dear White Lady,

Thank you for this recent post regarding school choice. Thank you for going on those tours, for your research (shopping). My wife and I are white people too, and we did all of this not so very long ago. Here is how it went for us.

Eleven years ago we bought a home we could afford in a neighborhood within walking distance of a public school that had been recently renovated. The renovation allowed for more natural light while preserving the integrity of the 100+ year old building, but it did nothing for test scores. The student population is nearly equally split: a third black, a third latino, and a third white. Over 90% of the students qualify for free breakfast and lunch, so that is made available to any child upon request. Unimpressed with the tour, and with these services, we tried to get our rising kindergartener into a Spanish immersion program. We did not win that lottery.

The same week we learned that our son had not gained admission into what we thought would be the fancy school, and that he was headed for the neighborhood school, I shared our dilemma with two different educators at two different holiday parties. They both suggested that my wife or I volunteer at the school, preferably in a classroom. I thought this was a great idea, so I did. For the past six years I have had the privilege of reading with K-3rd graders once per week. I sit with any student that the teacher thinks needs a bit of extra help. Mostly these kids are reading to me, gaining confidence, using their picture clues, possibly memorizing the short books with which we practice. But whatever—we read. 

And for the most part this changes nothing. Since I started volunteering at the local elementary school, test scores have not improved. Inequality has not left the building. I have no idea how to make our school, or any school, better than it is. And no book has helped me discover any big solutions. Nor do I offer any big solutions. I remain a dad with a flexible work schedule, and this is one thing I get to do.

And I suppose, reluctantly, I would urge any parent or grandparent to do this too. Opt in. Join your neighbors. Read with a child that is not related to you. Learn her name. Come back next week. Do it again. Observe. Lament. Celebrate the 100th day of school. Watch these kids grow up. 

I think that is the change my efforts are making— it is a small change in my perspective. Maybe like the schools where Robert Putnam grew up (in a less stratified economic situation from another era) I am coming to have a concern not just for my kids, but for our kids. 

And I would love for our kids to have a chance to be with you for two hours each week. It may help them. It may help you. I’m not sure how, or how to measure it, but I believe this deeply. 

Small acts, great love, etc.,

A grateful dad of two kids at Arlington Elementary, which is not the best school in the universe, but it kinda feels like it some Thursdays.