A Bend Mom's Struggle with School Choice

This post is a response to an article written by Courtney E. Martin for OnBeing entitled, The Problem with Seeking the Best for Your Kids. Courtney is the author of one of my favorite new books entitled, The New Better Off.

Hi Courtney....

I acknowledge that you asked for stories from parents who went against the flow and placed their children in neighborhood schools. I wonder if you also might be interested in stories from parents who, like you, heavily considered how their choice impacts their communities. In the end, we didn't stay in our neighborhood school (we are in public school) however at times during the decision making process, it could very well have been different. And that is what is interesting to me. I wonder if it is less about the decision that I made being right or wrong, good or bad. I wonder if it is the awareness that spawned within me that this is a hard conversation that our community must keep open if we want to create a world that works for all children. Regardless of where my child goes to school, I will work to ensure that all kids (and people really) in my community are getting their needs met and having an equal opportunity to thrive regardless of the cards they were dealt. I know that my family cannot be healthy if another family is suffering.

When Jon was in town for the Bend Design Conference, we had a chance meet and talk briefly. We discussed cohousing for a bit and a community building project I’m involved in, but I remember that school choice was what was really on his mind. He asked if I could offer any perspective. He wasn’t feeling well, looking rather pale, and the timing felt off to really dive deep. I think I offered him some jumbled and cliché answer about knowing in the end what is right for you family and encouraged him to get some rest. So when your article popped up in my Facebook feed with a request for stories, it seemed like time to share the story I didn’t tell Jon that night.

It’s important to have context, so I’ll lay some foundation here. Bend, Oregon doesn’t have much racial diversity, so socioeconomics is how our city is divided. From a class perspective, our cohousing community is located in one of the poorest pockets of our city. You wouldn’t know it by driving though, but subsidized affordable housing circles the neighborhood school that is two blocks from our cohousing community. According to Robert Putnam’s, Our Kids, 45% of kids 18 and under are living in poverty in our neighborhood. Eighty-nine percent of the kids at the neighborhood school (K-5) qualify for free or reduced lunch, so the district has opted to feed everyone breakfast, snack and lunch, no questions asked. Many of the kids are coming from unstable and sometimes abusive homes and have extremely high ACEs scores. Classes are intentionally small due to frequent incidents and outbursts from students who are living with trauma. Knowing all of this, I was terrified to put my son into that mix. I feared he would stand out like a sore thumb with his homemade lunches, helpful demeanor and outgoing personality.

Bend has the blessing and curse of many public school options in the form of magnet and charter schools. Some are lottery selected, but you can transfer within the district as long as you provide your own transportation. And there lies the privilege factor. If you have the means, time or support system to drive your kid across town, the system is somewhat your oyster. We applied for everything to keep our options open. I’m a bit of a urban design enthusiast and idealist who wants kids to bike or walk to their neighborhood schools for so many reasons. In a town-turning-small-city that has no public transportation of much value (currently) and traffic that is overwhelming the infrastructure, it just makes good cents. Ugh. You see my dilemma.

Thankfully I have amazing neighbors to help me process all of this. Several neighbor families had given the neighborhood school a try with no luck and had decided to transfer for various reasons. Another was good friends with the kindergarten teacher there and encouraged us to check it out. My other neighbor, friend and on-call therapist reminded me that bullying happens at any school and to look at the opportunities that staying put might bring. Another couple also had a child going into kindergarten. She was a lawyer for LegalAid at the time and her husband is a public school teacher. They were willing to do some exploring with me. It’s so much easier to do anything in this life when you’ve got some willing collaborators. She had sent me an article about how kids that go to challenging neighborhood schools vs. transferring to other more elite schools all end up with similar abilities in the end. So with open minds, we set up a tour to meet the principal at our neighborhood school. I thought about the amazing impact that our two families could have on that school and how the elders of our community would become engaged as volunteers. It was a lovely story. I felt less fearful and more empowered.

The tour was eye-opening and we came to understand the heavy lifting that the staff at the school did each day and the profile of the student body. The school and classrooms had a calmness to them that I didn’t expect from an elementary school, let alone one populated by “at-risk” kids. We were told it was intentional as a way to allow the students nervous systems to rest from the trauma they experience each day at home. School was where they could find a sense of stability and safety. Schedules were extremely consistent and rhythmic so students knew was coming next. If there was variance like a guest speaker or assembly, they were told well in advance and reminded it was coming frequently. It was easy to understand all of these strategies, but I was finding it really challenging to imagine how my outgoing child who has been deemed “the mayor” of our cohousing community and loves doing announcements at community dinners would fit in here. The environment was clearly not designed with him in mind. The social justice part of me kept saying this is where you should be, make your impact here. The mom in me was saying, this isn’t a great fit for your kid. Taking the tour and meeting the principal and staff put me at ease that if my child were to go there, which was highly probably, he would be safe. I was no longer afraid of that possibility.

Across town, I also toured two of the public magnet schools, both of which employ a more hands-on, experiential curriculum. No seats in rows or long periods of sitting. As a mother of an active boy coming from a Waldorf preschool setting, this was appealing. Each child is seen as having their own developmental timeline, gifts and offerings to the world. Both schools actively engage in the arts, social emotional learning and are very much rooted in community. We chose to apply for a school housed in one of the oldest, smallest schools in downtown Bend. There is one class per grade (K-5) and around 160 students total. Around 30% of the kids received free or reduced lunch. Despite Bend’s lack of diversity, kids of color were there. Every morning before school starts at 9, one of the classes hosts “Community Time”. It involves the class getting up on the stage and performing something they’ve been working on in class, or a singing performance by a classmate or small group, a relay race, current events trivia, an interview with a local community member. Birthdays are celebrated, school announcements are made, “celebrations” (exciting and often hilarious events in the lives of students) are spoken and applauded. From the moment they start school there, being on stage, performing, putting yourself in front of your peers is the norm. Classes work together on projects and have older and younger “buddies”. There is a culture of “olders” (3-5) caring for “youngers” (K-2) much like we experience in our cohousing community. As you can imagine, I walked away from that tour feeling at home. And conflicted as ever.

So we waited. When the letter arrived in the mail to learn our son’s name had been picked in the lottery to attend the magnet school, I was still torn. We had to answer by week’s end. I knew Taran would thrive there. But I wanted to break the trend of fleeing the neighborhood school and be able to walk Taran to school each day. By going through this process, something had clearly shifted in me. I went from wanting to run to wanting to stay. At that moment, I wasn’t willing to let go of the kids and staff at our neighborhood school. But I also wanted my own child to get his needs meant. Due to the overwhelming amount of affordable housing in our neighborhood, it was clear that our neighborhood school was focused on meeting the emotional needs of kids who were coming from trauma. At the end of the week, we chose the magnet school.

Our cohousing community is a place where I am surrounded by female mentors, wise, empty-nested mothers, nurses, therapists, writers and elders. They ask open-ended questions and allow me to fumble my way through the answers. One of those questions that comes back to me from that time was from my friend, Dorothy. She asked me, “Casey, what is your work and what is Taran’s work in this situation? At that moment, it became clear to me that my work was to use my gifts and creativity to make sure the kids in my neighborhood school felt supported. Taran’s work was to fall in love with learning and having a great time doing it. Had I sent him to the neighborhood school, I would be creating one more kid in the system not getting his needs met. The guilt I felt for “fleeing my neighborhood” started to lift. Ideas and opportunities started to appear.

About that time, a conversation had started in our cohousing community about how we wanted to interact with our surrounding neighborhood. With several retirees with bright minds and big hearts, we worked with the school staff to start an after school “reading” program. It’s taken about a year to get going, but about 7-10 of us, myself included, are involved every week. Some reading goes on, but we spend more time listening to the kids and hearing their stories. Last week a second-grader rested on the floor in the library after telling my neighbor (a nurse and facilitator) how he had to stay up until midnight doing laundry and that his dad came home angry. He didn’t get much sleep. I was so glad he had my neighbor, Sarah, to receive his story. He and another tired child slept on the floor for the session. Their stories were heard and they got exactly what they needed that day.

I also volunteer at Taran’s magnet school to stay in contact. There is plenty of parent support to manage the fundraising and daily workings of the school, so I serve on the Site Council that meets quarterly to discuss larger projects, long-term goals, and parental concerns. I work to give equally to both schools. I challenge myself to see each child as I see my very own. I know that the after school program we’ve created doesn’t just support kids, but also their parents who are living in survival mode: working multiple jobs, dealing with high levels of stress and can’t be there. My privilege allows me the space to help them and be a positive adult in their child’s lives. Our children’s lives.

Going between the two schools on a weekly basis helps me stay rooted in what is true in our community. And what is true is that somewhere in our City’s history, we chose to hide all the financially-poor people on the eastside of town where the rich people can’t see them. There’s little to no interaction, they can’t hear one another’s stories, and there is definitely “Westside” and “Eastside” language that labels and perpetuates the divide. NIMBY is alive and well on the Westside as wealthy retirees move in who have worked hard their entire life and feel they “deserve” to live away from “those people”. Any project that would add higher density, smaller dwellings, or more affordable options are attacked and vilified by neighbors at community land use hearings. You know the story. It’s not unique to Bend.

So next month I’m scared shitless to host and tell my story at a Friday SALON at the upcoming WORLD MUSE Conference here in Bend. With the help of my neighbors as group facilitators, we are going to hold small group conversations with activities that invite participants to try living on the other side of town for the session and tell that story. We will do a writing exercise to explore how people feel and react to having an affordable housing project scheduled to be built in their neighborhood. I want to hold a safe space for people to have real conversations. To share if they want and for everyone to have a chance to be heard. Because in the end this is the reason why I couldn’t send my child to my neighborhood school. Our city is so segregated by class and that school is juggling far more important topics than reading and writing. It’s not fair that one school bears that kind of intensity and it is all because access to half of the city is denied to a lower socioeconomic class of people.

I hope this story is helpful, Courtney. It may not have been what you were looking for, but it is what is true for me. Each community and scenario is different and the process is gut-wrenching, er, I mean a growth opportunity, to say the least. I think you will recognize this quote and it is so applicable here: “The complexity of the local, however, can never be an excuse for disengagement. If anything, it’s an invitation for us to stretch–to become more brave, more humble, more invested, more creative.” You know the author.  My friend and neighbor, Carol, spoke about your article yesterday and she said to me, “ This isn’t about where each individual sends their kids in the short term…..it is more about realizing that this is conversation that we must continue to have as a community, to stay open and to work to create change around so that all kids are getting the education that they need in the long term.” She reminds me that by volunteering at the neighborhood school, I am improving the health of my own child because his well-being is dependent upon the well-being of all of the children in our community.

Thank you for putting this topic and all of yourself out into the world. You are an inspiration to me and all who are waking up and finding their way to your work. Thank you for showing up big at this time in history. The world needs all of us to show up as our most brilliant, messy, curious and questioning selves at this time. And you are doing just that. Thank you for posing the questions that we all need to answer. Good luck to you and Jon. I’ll be following along with interest.

With much gratitude,
Casey Davis