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Right now, snow and unusually cold temperatures (go back whence you came, polar vortex) have combined to cause several school closings and delayed starts. It’s also school choice time, when thousands of families in Jefferson County fill out paperwork to select a public school for their child to attend in the 2013-2014 school year. If these two happenings don’t draw to a close soon, I’m going to lose some friends and several friendly acquaintanceships are going to cool down considerably.

Because what I am learning from both occurrences is that while reasonable people may disagree as to how public schools should try to mitigate the negative effects of poverty and how the school assignment process should work*, some folks reveal deep ignorance of local public schools and a not insignificant amount of callousness while stating their opinions. And that, my friends, is raising my hackles, my blood pressure, and my voice.

As this is a soap-box rant, I’m putting it below the fold.

Assumption A: Since all public schools must be bad by virtue of being public, none should have selection criteria.

How It Plays Out: Simon attends a magnet school with an generally accelerated academic program (they try to keep kids one grade level ahead in most subject areas) and a specific focus on math, science, and technology. Simon had to take a pre-K skills test as part of the application process. Admittedly, the criteria are tighter in some places (the generally well-off east end of the city) than others (poorer parts of the south end and all of the west end) to compensate for differences in early childhood education and experiences, but the school generally tries to accept only those children who will be able to keep up with the program. Besides the admissions test, interested families must attend an information session, tour the school, and fill out an application explaining why they feel the school is a good fit for their child.

So you can imagine my feelings when friends of mine have off-handedly suggested that kids they know—kids with behavioral problems and developmental delays—should go to Brandeis and have been shocked when I told them that said child probably would not be admitted. One of these children would be transferring from another school. His/her transcript will show behavior problems, a high number of tardies and absences, and academic performance below grade level in many subjects. But heck yeah! Brandies would surely snatch this kiddo right up! It’s public, so it’ll take anyone, right?

Best Line: [after describing host of problems] “Can’t we just sign him/her up for Brandeis?”

Inference: “It’s OK for Collegiate, Kentucky Country Day, St. Francis, and all parochial and Christian schools to have admissions criteria, but not any public school.”

Assumption B: Since I can drive my kid to school when it’s -5 degrees out, school should not close.

How It Plays Out: Complaints all over social media about how ridiculous it is that JCPS (Jefferson County Public Schools) would close when the roads are clear. All those kids under-dressed in cheap and thin coats and gloves suffering at bus stops in hazardous conditions? They just need better (read, richer) parents. Never mind that at temperatures that low, frostbite is a real concern.

Best Line: “But those kids get abused no matter the temperature. I mean, they get neglected when it’s hot out, too, so what’s the difference?”

Inference: All poor kids are abused. There is no difference between temperatures at 90 and those at -10. Actually, I’ve seen this debate in the media, too, where jackass columnists try to convince me that extreme heat is worse than extreme cold because, you know, you can always put on more layers but can only take off so much. I’d love to point out the relative amount of flora and fauna in the Congolese rain forest as opposed to say, northern Greenland, but I assume that anyone who would say something this uninformed (I’m being charitable; I mean “stupid”) is beyond convincing. And yes, I am aware of Death Valley and the Empty Quarter, but that’s about aridity, not heat. I challenge you to find a sub-arctic or sub-antarctic location that is teeming with life.

Assumption C: Behavior is an issue in every public classroom.

This one is self explanatory.

Best Line: [In reference to a kindergarten child who yelled out, stepped all over classmates, refused to sit down, said “no” when given instructions, and then pitched a screaming, thrashing hissy fit.”You won’t notice _____ so much when he/she is in a bigger class at a public school.”

Inference: I don’t have to explain this one. Clearly, every classroom in every public school is overrun with ill behaved, out of control children. To be fair, in plenty of schools behavior is a massive problem. I know and talk to some of those teachers, and I can see how the constant belligerence and fighting can wear down even the most dedicated educators. But is that standard in all classes? No. I can tell you flat-out that the children who stand out for poor behavior in private kindergarten would have stood out in Simon’s class year. In fact, some of the worst offenders would be asked to leave.

Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe people’s hearts are in the right place—especially those looking for a good school for children they care about—and they are just stumbling over their words. But honestly, there’s no explaining away some of these comments, and at some point I’m going to demonstrate my own cultivated-in-public-school belligerence right back to the person saying something offensive.

*I’m not completely sold on our current school choice system. When I look hard at the numbers, it looks like many low income and/or minority children do better at their neighborhood schools than at wealthier east end schools. I also worry about the ability of poor children to fully participate in school life if their parents can’t get to the school on a regular basis. For some, being bussed to a “better” school 12 miles from home precludes participation in any after school activity and most parental involvement. These are strong and powerful arguments, whereas much of what I’ve heard these past two weeks amounts to sheer classism and ignorance of the system.

One Response to “Check Your Assumptions at the Door”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    Unfortunately, every generation has it’s “As long as I’ve got mine, I really don’t worry about you” people. Some are just too stupid to get it. Some really don’t care. And then we have the “If I pretend it’s not going on, then I don’t have to try to do something about it” folks. I’m glad it makes you mad but I can assure you that you will be wasting your breath.

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