So You are the Parent at a Poor School

So you are a middle class (probably white) person who has decided to send their kids to an “underprivileged” school. You care a lot about educational inequality and want to make a difference. After reading somethings on the internet (maybe written by me) you decide to do this! You do NOT fill out the forms and utilize the lotteries, you choose the path of least resistance and send your kid to the neighborhood school. You know no one else who has done this. You know that this is tricky and want to do it well. You know just enough to know you don’t know anything.

I am here to help! I taught high school in Atlanta for almost a decade, half of my time at an underprivileged school, and half at what can only be described as an over-resourced school. I know as a teacher what teachers need. I also am the white middle class parent at a poor black school. We chose three years ago to send our daughters to the neighborhood school when it was ranked the second worst in the state. We have loved every minute. Our kids are thriving. The school is an amazing community for us and my kids at 5 and 7 already understand that whiteness is one way to be, not THE way to be. They are way smarter than my 20 year old self.

If you want to ACTUALLY be helpful instead of FEEL like being helpful, here are some things you can do:

Know WHY you are there: If you are here to make the black school/poor school/refugee school a white middle class school, STOP. There are enough middle class white schools that you will be totally comfortable in. Go there. If you think you and your babies would benefit from an experience that is unlike the white middle class Dawson’s creek existence of (most likely) your own youth and you have a lot to learn, then you can proceed.

Understand Your Privilege: You are going to be listened to faster than anyone at the school. Your complaints will be taken more seriously, and if you have to run something up the chain it WILL be handled swiftly and harshly. You may not want this to be true, but it is. This may make people a little nervous when they interact with you. One complaint from you and a teacher may lose her job. Just know that any complaint you have will be taken very VERY seriously.

Assume Good Intent: There may be some things that they do at the school that you do not quite understand. Our school doesn’t use email as much as I would like them to. It used to annoy me. Then I figured out that they use text message because all the parents always have access to that. The school is more invested in you are in systems that work for them than you are, and they have thought about it longer. So, before you make all the suggestions, just watch. I promise you they are doing something for a reason.

Join the PTA: This is going to cost you ten dollars. Shell out. If you have a spouse or co-parent pay twenty and join separately. Mom, dad and step-mom? Everyone join! This is a national organization and it keeps track of what percentage of the school’s parents are in the PTA, they then give awards based on that. Just HAVING a PTA looks good for your school’s metrics. Even just having one improves your school, even if they don’t do anything, that ten dollars is not wasted.

Ask and Deliver: Ask your kids teacher, or the social worker “What is one thing you need.” They may tell you they don’t need anything. They are not telling the truth. Keep asking, “What is one thing I could do for you.” Then, deliver. If they say kleenex, buy kleenex. If they say lunch duty, show up. The school may have been functioning for years without volunteers and making room is sort of exhausting. Also, they are very used to people saying they will, and then not. If you want to help, you need to come through the first time so they know you are worth their energy.

Make Yourself Available: The teachers you are working with may not be used to planning ahead. Poverty is chaotic and sometimes oppurtunities that are free or reduced cost are often last minute. If you get asked day of to do something and you can, do it. If they ask on Wednesday and you are free on Friday, say yes to the field trip. If you get told at drop off they are out of paper towels, try to get some by pick up. These teachers are totally self reliant and have been their entire careers. Train them that you can be counted on. If you get annoyed, they will just stop asking.

Find your Beyoncé and Get Into Formation: You do not get to be the star of the show. You just don’t. You don’t know enough about the community. You don’t know any of the moves. Find someone you can back up. First I said YES to any request our pre-k teacher had. I made it happen, I volunteered my husband. As she got to know us she trusted us enough that we were able to advocate for her county wide. I always back up my kids’ teachers, but have also made good relationships with the social worker and the PTA president. I find out what they need and I do it. That easy. DO NOT make up a whole new set of moves. Just get into formation.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, DO NOT say it in Public: In the age of school choice NOTHING, I mean nothing is more important than school reputation. Because you are middle class and white, your opinion is worth a lot more than other parents. This is stupid and racist, but also it is true. DO NOT tweet, Facebook, or otherwise publicly complain about your school. Even if you say the good with the bad, people will only hear the bad because that is what they already believe. If worst comes to worst and you decide not to keep your kid at the local school learn this line: It just was not the best fit for our family. Other people really love it.

Rep for you school, Hard: The number one way you can be helpful is to be the biggest cheerleader your school has ever seen. Let everyone and their brother know just how much you LOVE your school, how GREAT it is. People like to support winners, and if you can get people to have positive thoughts attached with the school people will be more likely to support it. I joined the local mommy Facebook group to rep for, and defend my school. My friends know this. If they see my school mentioned they tag me in it. Practice smiling really big and saying loudly: Actually we love that school! I don’t know where you heard (that shitty thing you just said) but we go there and my kids are thriving! If you want to come with me to tour it I can arrange that! Despite what you heard about the test scores, I am VERY happy with the education my kids are getting! You will be shocked at the things people say to your face. Do not be silent. Stick up for your school. Because you are middle class and white people take what you have to say more seriously. Use that for the good.

Accept Charity: Listen here. You want to be part of this community? Then you need to be a receiver as well as a giver. If you have been raised middle class and white this is going to feel uncomfortable to you. You have been taught that you are supposed to provide for yourself. This is a lie that, if you do it right, your kids will not inherit. First, you accept charity so it isn’t shameful for anyone else. My kids get a “backpack of love” every weekend from the Methodist church that is on my seminary’s campus. We do not actually need the milk and peanut butter and graham crackers, but when they tried to make the program “opt in if you need it” no one would admit to needing it. Kids went hungry on the weekends. By normalizing receiving, everyone eats. The other thing is that this makes you a member of the community. I ran a coat drive that my child then benefitted from. This made it like a community thing instead of a “look at how good Abby is” thing. It was better.

Be Patient with Systems NOT Built for You: I said this before but it bears repeating. People of different classes and races have different ways of interacting with the world. The school is not used to people who work like you do. The communication might be through channels that aren’t your favorite. The pick up line might be chaotic because they have only ever had bus riders before. They may not know what to do with your kids’ packed lunch because everyone just uses the free lunch. The school has reasons for doing what they do. Find out what those reasons are before you demand change.

Praise People Lavishly: This is the easiest and most important thing you will do. Kids are bad at saying thank you  Parents already maxed out by life may not have the space for it. Be generous with your praise and your token gifts. Y’all I made a teacher cry by emailing the principal about how much I liked her. That was free. I drop off five dollar gift cards and bake cookies to drop in the teachers lounge. The teachers are the front lines and the best thing we could do for the kids is making sure the teachers know we love them.

That is it. That is all I got. TEACHERS if you have more suggestions find me on Twitter. Parents, if you have questions seriously contact me. It can be scary to do something no one else you know is doing. It can be scary doing something that is easy to mess up. You got this. I promise.


13 thoughts on “So You are the Parent at a Poor School

  1. I would agree with all of your advice. I did this with my children. We attended a school across town, not in our neighborhood, because it was a choice school across the street from where I worked. The school we attended was an arts integrated school, so my kids learned about music and drama. This gives kids another avenue to go into later. Our music program started in 5th grade, and he convinced kids to play more unique instruments, as he felt it would be easier to earn scholarships as they went on to high schools.

    But, It wasn’t always easy. The culture is very different than what they experienced by going to their zoned middle schools and high schools. But, it was worth it! You will find that the teachers at these schools really—and I mean really care about the whole child, not just educating them. They teach them things kids at the other schools don’t have to learn. If you drove by the school at 5 or 6 pm, you would almost always see cars in the parking lot. Teachers in these schools work extra hard to get the kids where they need to be. Rankings are stupid, and they don’t reflect the entire vision of the school. Test scores don’t typically reflect what the school really does either.

    I got involved in the PTO, and became the president. It’s so worth every moment of your time! Teachers do listen to you, and I loved the relationships we built with them over the years.

    It was a good experience for my two girls, and I encourage others to consider it.

  2. Abby I’ve read this entire piece three times now it hits so close to home. I can promise you I’ll be reading it again and trying to memorize all of these important lessons.

    “Close to home” is actually exactly right: our neighborhood school is 3 blocks from our house. We walk or bike there with our son, and we run into all of his friends on the bike/walk to/from school and all around the neighborhood. We live in the middle of the city, but sometimes it feels like the Andy Griffith show: familiar faces all day for my kids. There have been times this past year when I’ve felt near tears with emotion at how unbelievably sweet, loving, and supportive this school environment and surrounding community are. BUT. The test scores. Are. So. Bad. 22% math proficiency. 8% language proficiency. My son is 4, in preschool at the neighborhood school, so all I really want for him right now is to learn manners and play and be nurtured; this school is nailing it. But when he’s in 3rd grade, or 4th grade, or 5th grade, I want him to get a good academic foundation for middle school, HS, and beyond. The disparity between the “good” public schools in the area and my son’s school with regard to test scores is humbling, and I’m being constantly hounded by my parents and in-laws that the best thing I can do for my kid is make sure he gets a good education. When I was a kid, my mom would find the cheapest most ramshackle tiny apartment we could afford in the zone of the BEST public school, and she’ll remind me of this: why wouldn’t you sacrifice to equip your kid with the tools to succeed?? There were downsides to that formula, too: I was always one of the poorest, if not the poorest, kid at a school full of entitled and wealthy children. OTOH, I graduated from one of the best public high schools in the country, and there’s no doubt that the education I got there helped me get into a great college, and so on.

    Let’s say we stay at this school through 5th grade, and he gets to the basics, he learns to read and write and count and multiply and passes the tests. Meanwhile, the kids at another public school nearby – where there is a GIFTED program, or a montessori focus or reggio emilia focus or any kind of pedagogy or educational philosophy at all – are learning the same things, but better, and then learning even more on top of that. Have I, because of my dedication to the special lessons of going to a Title I, 97% black school, deprived him of the most essential thing he’ll need to succeed? I suspect I may sound like a white middle class jerk even asking this, and if that’s true, teach me how to think about this in a way that I can shake off that jerky perspective. But my question is entirely sincere, as my husband and I debate whether we are being selfish to want to stay in our current home, in our current neighborhood, with the under-performing schools. Thanks so much for writing this, and thanks in advance for any feedback/advice/perspective.

    • This sounds like a lot, not the smallest of pieces is I think you choosing a different path might be making your mom feel like you don’t value her sacrifices even though it is clear you do. This stuff is messy and personal and complicated. But more than that it is systemic. White, middle class kids do well on those tests ESPECIALLY if their parents are educated ESPECIALLY if their parents care about their education. Your kids test scores will follow them where ever they go.

      As far as when and if to make a switch I can only tell you what we are doing. My kids will be attending the neighborhood school trhough elementary school if at all possible. Starting next year when my oldest is in the 3rd grade I am going to gather some parents and we are going to have a meeting with the middle school principal we are going to say, we want to be here, we want to support your school, what can we do NOW to make sure it is an option. Then I am doing that with the High school. I have the means to demand the things that will benefit ALL the kids in my neighborhood and I intend to do that.

    • I don’t think good schools always have good test scores. Test scores are the main measure used to determine if a school is the “best school in the district,” but there is so much more to a quality education than a test. Passing a state test doesn’t mean that a student has a quality educational foundation; it means they have good test taking skills. Maybe check out local community organizations or the local library…they likely offer classes in robotics, STEAM, coding, art classes, etc. to supplement your child’s education?

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  4. Yes! As a teacher in a high-needs school with historically low test scores (I honestly think we have a shot at better scores this year, but who knows?!) and an, um, interesting mix of demographics (neighborhood schools aren’t really a thing here)–this is what I need. And also, for parents to be willing to support and visit without judgment. I love when I get a parent who recognizes how hard we work for our kiddos, how we are doing everything in our power to meet all 1300 of our 6th-8th graders where they are, who recognizes that most of the kids are doing the best they know how.

  5. Great suggestions here;s the problem- My kids suffered. I was a young mother and had a head full of expectations from public school. We moved in to a divers neighborhood and I went to meet with the Principal eager to jump in. After describing my children he said “take them to another school, they will not get their needs met here”. My brain was spinning. How could that be? When school started I quickly found out. Most kids were below grade level and half of the students were ESL kids with non english speaking parents. I was determined and joined everything also helping in the classroom. I wanted to raise the bar for my kids and all of the others. At the end of 3 long years I was drained, my kids were frustrated and the school was the same. It had gone through 2 more principals. I open enrolled my kids at other schools with a higher educational standard but still somewhat economically diverse. They thrived even though we spent lots of time in the car traveling.
    My lesson was to fight for education for all kids within the district and to meet the needs of my kids first.

    • That sounds really tricky. This particular piece was not written at the request of a bunch of people who LOVED their school but wanted to make sure they knew how to advocate for it well. All of my writing always says, try it or at the least go talk to the principal. I am troubled by a school that has a principal that would say that.

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