When I was in elementary school, my father drove a semi-truck and my mother stayed home. She cooked and cleaned and took care of eight children, with 16 years between the oldest and youngest.
All of us kids walked to the same neighborhood school, five blocks away, through rain, sleet and snow. And when we got home at around 2:45 p.m., we would eat a light snack and do our homework at the kitchen table while dinner simmered enticingly on the stove.
Fast forward 30 years.
I now have three kids: a teen, a tween and one in diapers. When I’m not working at my school, I’m writing blog posts. When I’m not blogging, I’m networking for my nonprofit or I’m doing homework for my Surge Fellowship. All other times, I’m sitting in on my children’s music lessons, or taking them to orchestra rehearsals, swimming lessons, etc. Oh, yeah, and I have to do that wife thing, too.
My house isn’t as clean as the one I grew up in, and I’m definitely not as good a cook as my mom. I also don’t let my kids walk to the neighborhood school—I drive them to my charter school 11 miles away.
It’s not just that my neighborhood elementary school has been low-performing for the past 20 years. Sure, the class sizes are overwhelming, and there’s a new principal in charge every other year, but even if my neighborhood school were one of the best elementary schools in the city, I would have a hard time sending my kids there.
Because for most of my kids’ lives, my husband and I had to be on our way to work at least an hour before the neighborhood school started and we weren’t home until about two hours after it ended. We had no one we trusted who could see them off to school or pick them up. (Any child under the age of 13 is just too young to be a latchkey kid in my book.)
This situation made finding a school extremely difficult for my family. When my oldest daughter (who is now in eighth grade) was entering kindergarten, I placed her in a lottery and she was accepted into a highly reputable magnet school just 1 mile from our home.
I wanted her to attend so badly; I called family and friends but none of them could commit to dropping her off and picking her up everyday. She needed to be there by 9:00 a.m. in the morning and picked up at 2:30 p.m. (before the extended school day in Chicago ended at 3:30 p.m.). I had to be at work at 8:30 a.m., which meant I left the house at 7:45 a.m., and I didn’t get off until 3:00 p.m., which meant I didn’t get back home until around 3:45 p.m.
I had just bought a house and was new to the community, and I didn’t feel comfortable—nor could I afford—to pay a babysitter for the hugely responsible task of ensuring my kid’s daily school attendance.
As such, the lack of transportation made attending the low-performing neighborhood school and the high-performing magnet school in my community equally impossible options.
Thinking Outside the Neighborhood
This is School Choice Week, and undoubtedly there will be blog posts and podcasts championing free-market competition, vouchers for private schools, parents’ rights, yadda, yadda, yadda.
But when I placed my kids in a charter school, I didn’t know much about those arguments. It was all about logistics. I looked specifically for a good school close to my job so I could navigate the kids’ start and end times with more ease.
Transportation is rarely mentioned in school choice debates, but it’s essential and can be a deal breaker even for parents who get their young children into top schools. What good is it to enroll your child into a school that he/she is late to everyday or has to sit in the office long after dismissal because no one’s available to pick them up?
How I long for those days when kids were safe to play anywhere in the neighborhood, as long as they were back home before the street lights came on. When half the mothers on the block could choose not to work and would, for a little pocket change, watch and feed the neighbor’s kids until their parent got off work. When neighborhood schools might not have been the best schools in America, but the teachers served the community by staying in the classroom long enough to teach all eight children from one household.
Today, if I can put on lipstick before herding my three kids into the minivan in the morning, it’s a good day.
If I had no choice but to send my children to the neighborhood school, good or bad, I wouldn’t even be able to teach; I’d get fired for either coming to work late or for needing to leave early.
I’m convinced that having school choice is really the only option for many parents who commute a distance to work. We live in a global society, yet many schools still struggle to think outside their neighborhoods.