I grew up in a small town. There was one elementary school, one middle school, one high school. If you lived in that part of the county, these were the schools you went to. These were the schools your parents went to. These are the schools to which your grandchildren will go. The buildings may get updated or even built anew, but the link between the town and the schools will remain (seemingly forever) unchanged.
This is not true of the city where we currently live. It has a population of around 250,000 and is served by a couple dozen elementary schools, ten to twelve middle schools, and four high schools. When the school district’s officials last rezoned the city over a decade ago, the neighborhood in which we live got a boost. While its elementary school remained the same, its middle school got shifted from one of the city’s worst to one of the city’s best. That shift was significant in that it made this low to middle income neighborhood a very attractive location for families with young kids. They could buy a small, reasonably priced house and still be able to send their kids to a decent elementary school, one of the state’s best middle schools, and a well regarded high school. Since that time, the quality of the elementary school has improved dramatically - a trend that probably has as much to do with changing demographics as it does with the admirable efforts of the school’s teachers and administration – making the neighborhood even more attractive. When more middle income families who care about education – and who have the time and monetary resources to devote to it - move in ( as we did this past April), your school’s performance goes up. How much and in what ways may be personnel and location dependent, but the larger trend of improved test scores is often divorced from the specific actions of any given school.
Unfortunately for us, given the city’s current and anticipated growth in population the school district decided this year that it is again time to make some adjustments in the school zone boundaries. After much whispering and gossip, the new proposed school zones were revealed this past week and while both their elementary and high school zones remain the same under the proposed plan, the kids in our neighborhood would be sent to a different middle school than the one they currently attend. This different school is about the same distance away as the present one, but its location is worlds apart. The present middle school is smack in the center of a set of rich, mostly white neighborhoods. The nearby businesses include a small-time hardware store, a French bakery, a local bookstore, and a home furnishings shop. The middle school our children would go to under the new plan is sited in a poorer and highly diverse neighborhood. To get to it, we have to drive past a low-end liquor store, a couple blocks of shotgun houses, and a church that used to be a restaurant. This school’s current test scores place it among the lowest third of all middle schools in the state. As someone who felt overjoyed at our good fortune in being able to buy a house in our neighborhood in part because of the schools to which we gained access, the proposed change in middle schools is a bit of a blow. I can’t help feeling like we got the rug pulled out from under us.
However, I also am a bit conflicted about this reaction. Naturally, I’d rather my kids go to the ‘good’ school with the high test scores and the upwardly mobile environs. There is a comfortable certainty in sending them there, a certainty that whether they really thrive or not, they will at least be in an environment where most of the kids are doing well by conventional standards and so they probably will, too. But, the numbers don’t tell you what’s going on inside the school buildings, what kind of pressures exist or what the competition levels are like for participating in extracurricular activities. We can’t tell what the social and sartorial expectations are nor how the school’s dominant values align with the ways we want to live our lives. What’s good for one is not always good for another.
Plus, what happens to this other middle school when the kids from our neighborhood elementary join it? Will the test scores go up? Probably. Will the school rise in the state rankings? Probably. Will we come to think differently about it? Possibly so. Will it become a ‘good’ school like our elementary school has over the last decade? It could. Should the district try to make that happen? Absolutely. So, should I complain when my children are the ones who get moved? Probably not. Why shouldn’t my children be the ones to move around? Why would I fight to send other kids to a school on principles of resource redistribution while maintaining a claim that my children should remain where they are? That would reflect a kind of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ hypocrisy that is the bane of so many worthwhile community ventures.
All the same, this change worries me. Whereas the school gets a new crop of kids every year, I only get one chance at middle school with my children. If one year goes awry for a class or a school, the teachers and administrators get to try again next year. If one year goes awry for us, that is a year we’ve lost and will never get back. It makes one want to be hyper-conservative. It makes me want to fight for the most selfish and individual of outcomes. The tragedy of the commons has never felt more real.