The Truth About 'Underperforming Schools' That Parents Don't Want To Admit

by Twilight Greenaway
A group of children with backpacks crossing the street
Image Source / Getty

I was on a tour of my neighborhood elementary school last week when the reality of school segregation hit me with new force.

I had known, going in, that the school is only ranked 1 out of 10 by the district’s own metrics. Ninety-five percent of the students are children of color, and 89 percent are from low-income households. And I was well aware that the school doesn’t appear on many of my white neighbors’ lists of workable options. And, while I went in with these facts in mind, I was also hoping to strike a balance between my inner cynic and the girl who attended a low-ranking public school herself — and knows that numbers only ever tell part of the story.

What I found was both revelatory — and not. I learned that the principal had left earlier in the year to run a charter school, only to be replaced by a string of temporary retirees. I watched the school’s prized music teacher in action and learned that there is no PTA. I saw a stripped-down, under-funded institution wherein dedicated professionals often work long hours and wear multiple hats to do right by the students against some pretty steep odds.

What struck me hardest was the number of us who had shown up that day: Only 4.

Mind you it was early December, high season for tours, and time when some schools have to keep waiting lists and others fill up with groups of 20–40 curious parents a day.

This school, I will add, is very close to Oakland’s border with Berkeley, a city known for its great public schools. It is mere blocks from businesses selling $30 thin-crust pizzas and vegan ice cream. And it’s surrounded by an increasing number of left-leaning white and Asian families. As technology companies have moved into San Francisco with a new force in recent years (thanks in part to sizable tax breaks), a huge wave of tech workers and their families have crossed the Bay, raising home prices and ushering in a wave of new businesses. But the public school system has seen little of the money (in fact, the school board just made $9 million worth of mid-year budget cuts). And Black and low-income families who haven’t been displaced to the remote suburbs face a wide range of disparities.

Among the white parents I know, these facts are ever-present, but rarely discussed. In fact, one the most common sentiments I hear about Oakland schools is that someone has moved — or plans to move — to one of the surrounding jurisdictions to avoid them.

“We had to get out,” one friend told me recently after moving her family across the border into Berkeley, implying a near-miss with something catastrophic. Her son is scheduled to start kindergarten in the fall.

I had just begun the search for transitional kindergarten for my own son, so I was curious to hear the name of the school that had sent her running. “I can’t remember what it’s called,” she said. “But we couldn’t send him there.”

No one says “I don’t want to send my kid to a Black and Latino school.” They don’t have to. Although the data on test scores, race, and class is endlessly complex, the district — and, the site that appears at the top of every online search about every school in the nation — has boiled it down to a simple set of numbers. The school I visited that day is ranked at the very bottom of the scale; another school six blocks away is ranked 8 out of 10, and has won multiple prestigious awards. Its student body is 60 percent white.

There are many systemic reasons that public schools around the nation fail to put our tax dollars to use for the good of all students equally. But a significant piece of the responsibility seems to lie with upper class and white families, and the policies that allow them to ensure that they can educate their children in isolation.

In Alabama, for instance, where Black voters, and Black women in particular, have been credited with electing Doug Jones to the Senate, the situation is stark. White communities there have been “seceding” from larger, once-integrated school districts, thanks to a policy that allows any town of more than 5,000 residents to form its own school system. As a result, many of the schools in the state are fiercely divided by race and class.

Like all parents, I feel a strong desire to do what’s best for my child. But I keep finding myself asking: Is it really what’s best if my own neighbors don’t have the same choice?

Like so many other elements of today’s ever widening equity gap, I realize that spending too much time focusing on what others don’t have can feel overwhelming and futile. And yet I am repeatedly surprised by how many parents I know who — once they find a reliable alternative to a low-performing school — appear to spend so little time considering those without the alternative.

After visiting my neighborhood school, however, I no longer have that luxury. I honestly can’t say whether it will make sense for my husband and I to send our child there, but we are taking the choice seriously — and not because we want to rescue anyone. It’s not an easy choice, but as Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in her seminal 2016 essay in the New York Times Magazine, “One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change.”

White parents, I’m not naïve enough to think that visiting the “bad” schools in your area will necessarily prompt you to enroll your children there. I can’t even say that it should. But visit anyway. Spend an hour really registering the reality of the achievement gap. Look the teachers and students in the eyes.

Because, at the core, these kids — and their families — should be part your understanding of the city you live in, as the children in my neighborhood school will forever occupy a place in mine.