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April 09, 2008

Diversity Trumps Test Scores

Cultural_diversityI can hardly think about my children's education without thinking about our move from the suburbs to live in the city--the same values formed both decisions.  I know we're counter-cultural, that most families in our stage move the other way, perhaps hoping schools with higher test scores and more economic resources will set their children's feet on the yellow brick road to a shiny emerald future.  But I've been to the 'burbs.  I lived in a planned neighborhood of track homes in which all the houses in our vicinity were nearly identical--not just in looks, but in price--ensuring our interactions with people in higher or lower income brackets would be minimal.

The lack of racial and cultural diversity in our former suburb goes without saying, but the uniformity of appearance is further-reaching than that.  Whether you are a thirteen-year-old girl or a thirty-year-old mom, the fashion trends are narrow and rigid, with little belonging extended to those who cross the lines.  Beauty is a narrow construct in the suburbs, and belonging is the weapon used to hold girls hostage.  Highlands Ranch high schoolers were a great motivator to get my girls out young.  By their teen years, the girls we saw seemed hollow, like people living in poverty of self-expression.  Like unknowing prisoners who lost freedom to be an individual and still belong.

When we arrived in Brooklyn, we couldn't jump on the school obsession bandwagon. 

NYC parents compare and critique schools like the hottest new consumer commodity.  Many families sample charter, private and public schools (many of which are outside their zone) like a Sunday afternoon buffet.  Our neighborhood is home to PS 321, a premier Brooklyn elementary school whose popularity drives up housing prices in its zone.  The student population at PS 321 is 61% white.

My daughter attends the public school we're zoned for, which is next to PS 321 but on the other side of a district line.  Because it's in a different district than most of Park Slope, it hasn't been overrun (yet) by upper-middle class families, despite its good reputation.  My daughter is in a racial minority there, with a 5% white population. We're fortunate to be zoned for a school that is safe, that has a reasonable level of resources and proficiency.  Pair those with the intercultural education she gets from the school's diverse community, and I can't imagine sending her anywhere else.

I don't know when it stopped being important that our children know and play with children who look different, who live in different types of families and different types of homes. I don't know when they stopped having the freedom to emerge into their own selves in their own time, and became an extension of their parents' ambition--the latest status symbol.

We came to Brooklyn in part so our children could grow up in a place in which all kinds of cultures and individuals form their community, a place in which they have the freedom to be themselves and discover the beauty of their own individuality.  These are same reasons for which we send them to our neighborhood public school.  Test scores aren't everything.  Not now, and not in their real, non-Technicolor futures.

An original NYC Moms Blog post.  Jen Lee explores life as a "Writer, Mother, Newbie Yorker" at jenlee.net.

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