School Choice: A Personal Story

There’s a false dichotomy permeating the Black community in Philadelphia. All across the city parents are succumbing to the notion that they have to either leave their children in rapidly deteriorating and highly dysfunctional neighborhood public schools or they are “selling out.”  Black and Latino parents, in particular, do not want to be viewed as abandoning support for a “societal good” represented by public education. As a result, many fall victim to the fallacy of this false dichotomy when in fact there are other possibilities. Supporters of public education, especially teachers and teacher’s unions go to great lengths to make the case that “school choice” is clearly outrageous, and so allegiance to traditional public schools must be embraced.  Nonetheless, one can opt to place their own child in a Catholic, private or magnet school setting AND still work to improve the situation for those those languishing in traditional public schools.

I was confronted with the false dichotomy fifteen years ago. My daughter, from the age of 3 to 5, attended Head Start/Day Care at a neighborhood public school. I really liked the school for that purpose. It was clean, safe, the staff was pleasant and they really engaged the kids. They did a very good job at the pre-school level. However, when the time came to choose a kindergarten placement, I chose an integrated high performing elementary school in Center City.

Ciera1

When I requested the form to enroll her in another school, the secretary at the neighborhood school loudly said, “It’s parents like you that are the problem.” She then went on to elaborate, “You are involved with you child, you come here everyday to pick her up, she’s a good girl… We need parents like you to keep your kids in our school.” Needless to say, I felt she was way out of bounds.

“Excuse me,” I interjected, “But my responsibility is to ensure the educational and social development of one child. While I want the best for all the children,  I can only make decisions for my daughter. I choose to place her in a diverse, highly competitive educational setting. This school is 99% Black and the test scores are abysmal. I want better for my daughter.” At that point, the Principal, a white male, overheard our discussion and asked me to come into his office. He immediately gave me the required paperwork and told me to bring it back to him directly. He told me he understood, respected and supported my choice.

Ciera2

In the scenario prescribed by the secretary, either you keep your child in ghettoized under-performing neighborhood public schools or you are a sellout abandoning all poor Black kids. Her argument, albeit highly flawed, was very simple powerful.  I know you don’t want to be a sellout and leave Black kids to fend for themselves. So, therefore you should leave your kids in the neighborhood public school.  Too many fall victim to this type of logic.

My daughter has never attended a neighborhood public school. I enrolled her in very diverse and highly competitive magnet programs throughout her K-12 career. I also worked extensively with thousands of students in neighborhood public schools. You can do both. You should do both.

Harrisburg pic

Under NO circumstance should a parent enroll their children in Philadelphia’s neighborhood public high schools. This is especially true for parents of Black male students.  The simple fact is that you are fighting against staggering odds.

In 2010, a major study found that Philadelphia, along with New York was the worst performing district in the nation with regard to Black male graduation rates. The five worst performing districts with large Black male student enrollment (exceeding 40,000) were New York City, N.Y. (28%); Philadelphia, Pa. (28%); Detroit, Mich. (27%); Broward County, Fla. (39%); Dade County, Fla. (27%).

Three years later, in 2013 the Philadelphia school system laid off 3,783 employees, including 676 teachers and 283 counselors. Along with teachers and counselors, those losing their jobs included 127 assistant principals and 1,202 aides who monitor the cafeteria and playgrounds. Among the targeted teachers are those that teach reading, math, English, special education and music.

There were widely publicized episodes of school violence, including one where a faculty member suffered a fractured skull in a confrontation with a student at John Bartram High School. There were also two incidents where young elementary school students died in schools where no nurses where on duty.

This past week the School District of Philadelphia announced it was discontinuing TransPasses for 7,500 high school students who live less than two miles from school, eliminating 300 slots in alternative programs for students at risk of dropping out, making 27 more elementary schools share police officers, reducing school cleaning and repairs, cutting extra professional development time at the District’s Promise Academies, and eliminating some administrative positions.

Clearly, the State of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia are making it harder for Blacks to graduate. It seems, the 28% graduation rate for Black males has been deemed too high by those funding Pennsylvania schools and the local politicians. Please take some time to consider your options.  You have choices.  There are schools that want to provide your child with a rigorous, high-quality education.  There are schools that welcome students of color.

Currently, the nonprofit foundation that manages Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is offering $1,000 grants to encourage students to transfer to the schools.  Christopher Mominey, chief operating officer of the Faith in the Future Foundation and the archdiocese’s secretary for Catholic education, said the new “transfer advantage” grants were part of the effort to boost enrollment at the 17 high schools.

I have met extensively with the leaders of the Faith in the Future Foundation and the presidents of Catholic High Schools across Philadelphia.  Mominey understands the dilemma faced by parents of school-age children in Philadelphia.  Where are parents to turn as the public school system crumbles around them?  The foundation wants to attract students who were not enrolled at Catholic high schools but were interested in learning more about them.

The $1,000 grants are available for all transferring 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade students who qualify for admission and enroll at one of the schools in the fall. The grants will help defray the cost of Catholic high schools, where annual tuition and fees range from $6,500 to $7,000.

Mominey said other dioceses had found that “sometimes, that $1,000 makes the difference for families.”

Students may also be eligible for scholarships based on financial need.   The only way to find out if you qualify is to apply.  Mominey said there was no limit on the number of grants available, “We’ve made a commitment to accept as many students as are qualified.”

Explore your options.  Exercise school choice.

Ciera3

My daughter’s first day in her dormitory freshman year of college.

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