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Our neighborhood schools: what makes them attractive?

Yesterday I posted a critique of what’s going on in the Soquel School District, as described in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. I suggested that perhaps people quoted in the Sentinel were wrong in blaming overt racism for the fact that parents are clamoring to get their kids into Main Street School, which is only blocks from more racially diverse Soquel Elementary, and which gets worse test scores than Santa Cruz Gardens.

One of my correspondents sent me an interesting link: The Logic of Life. The video is actually an ad for a book by Tim Harford, but the content of it is quite interesting. It’s about a theory by Thomas Schelling about how even if people are only mildly intolerant, they will naturally separate into segregated groups.

He points out that even if individual people are tolerant and rational, what happens when they form a society doesn’t have to reflect their individual values: “The society that we produce together may be neither rational nor tolerant.”

I put some thought into how that would apply to what I see as a major factor in successful schools: How parents view the school.

A school gets a certain reputation as having a characteristic, and then parents who are seeking that characteristic flock to the school. Parents not seeking that characteristic are likely to feel less comfortable at the school, and may leave or not participate, thus not affecting the school culture.

The situation with Main Street School is, I think, a great example of this: Main Street has a highly organized parent community. Just take a look at their Friends of Main Street website to get a sense of it. Now, one of the things I do for a living is design websites, and I especially enjoy doing websites for educational purposes. Because of this, I’ve looked at the websites of many schools, and I know that most neighborhood public schools have nothing like this site.

Main Street, I think, is an example of the positive effects of the same phenomenon that is described above which leads to segregated neighborhoods: There happened to be a bunch of involved, organized parents at Main Street. When other parents were dissatisfied with their schools, Main Street was attractive because the parent group was so much like them. They were active, involved parents who wanted their kids’ school to have art, music, lifelab, etc.

Add to that formula the fact that a white child is more likely to have middle class parents with more money and time than a Hispanic child, and then add to that the fact that, let’s face it, Soquel is not your most racially diverse town in California anyway. And what you end up with is more white parents trying to get their kids into Main Street School.

I can relate this to my own personal experience with searching for a public school for my son when he was going into first grade. For a variety of reasons, our neighborhood public school didn’t make the grade. So I looked around and ended up looking at a charter school with a fairly diverse population. On the morning I sat in on one of the classes, a parent helping in the class was a Hispanic man with tattoos dressed in a casual way reminiscent of lots of local Hispanic teenagers.

On a theoretical level, a white, middle class woman being greeted by a Hispanic man with tattoos would “naturally” feel inclined to give that school a miss. However, if you look at the positive side of that theory, you’ll see that what happened in a positive sense was a much stronger pull for me.

As we were chatting, the dad told me the reason he liked the school the most: “When your kid goes to a big school and makes friends there, he’s going to want to go home with his friends. But you don’t know those parents. You don’t know what their values are. Here, we all get to know each other and we all share similar values about our kids’ education.”

That aligned absolutely perfectly with my feelings about big schools, so although he and I were, statistically speaking, very dissimilar, our similar values — and the similar values that all the parents of whatever background shared at that school — attracted me to the school.

I think that there are several lessons here for a principal who wants to improve a school: The first step is to define what improvement means. Higher test scores are great, but in the end, that’s not the major factor for a parent. What the high test score schools have most in common is involved parents. And parents are drawn in by involved, engaged staff. And staff are involved and engaged by feeling that they are part of a community that shares their values.

It’s all interwoven and it’s all important. The problem with focusing on any one part of the puzzle is that, as the eggs show in that video, if you don’t take care of the other details that people care about, test scores will be irrelevant. If families don’t feel part of their school, and don’t feel that they are part of a community that shares their values, they are going to try to move elsewhere. Either they’ll physically move their kids, or they will disengage from the school community. Disengaged parents bring up disengaged kids, who won’t give the time of day to their disengaged teacher, who’s hoping she gets hired at that really excellent school with the involved parents and the dynamic principal.

Wait: does the teacher know what the racial makeup of that school she wants to work at is? Oh, she forgot to look that up. Does it matter to her that in her present school most of the kids are the same race as her? Really, in the end, our unexamined prejudices are a minor point in the struggle to create good education. We’re just trying to shift our eggs to the basket where they will hatch and grow into the strongest, smartest, happiest kids we can raise.

Posted in Culture, Education.

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