Disclosure: This post was sponsored by New Schools for New Orleans and written by Clara Baron-Hyppolite.
The Power of our Public Schools: What I Wish for My Infant Daughter
This summer, at seven months pregnant, I Craigslisted a chandelier while my husband was out of town. I found a buyer on a sunny Thursday morning, and we scheduled a pickup time. That time came and went, and 40 minutes later, the buyer called.
“Hey, it’s Paulette. Is this Clara?”
“Yes. Are you close?”
“Do you live in Hollygrove?”
“Is this the Hollygrove I’ve heard about on the news?” she asked tentatively.
“I guess,” I said awkwardly.
“My husband and I are at Lowe’s. I’m scared.”
“Well, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Can we meet somewhere public?”
That was the end of the conversation. A few heated text messages later, the chandelier went (and, actually, remains) unsold.
As inconsequential as it was, I somehow couldn’t get this incident out of my mind. It seemed to symbolize what would inevitably happen to my unborn child. This woman viewed my neighbors and me as a threat to her, and eventually, people like her would think of my child as a threat to them. I felt overwhelmed by the idea that I could not create the perfect environment for my black daughter.
Paulette’s Missed Opportunity
As I reflected further, I realized that I felt haunted by this incident in part because it so neatly illustrates how systems of oppression perpetuate themselves. I am certain Paulette harbored no ill will toward African-Americans, but she was also ignorant. To address that ignorance would have required her to take a risk: to step outside her own comfort zone, personal interest, and even her sense of personal safety, all on the good word of a stranger. As wonderful as it would have been if she’d taken that opportunity, the world around us shows that relying on people to consistently step outside themselves simply cannot be a foundation for practical change. And so her fear and ignorance stayed intact – reinforced, even.
As someone who works at an educational nonprofit, I believe strongly that most societal issues can be addressed through education. So I began to wonder, what does this mean for the future of our school system?
The Power of Education
It is no secret that our city’s schools are de-facto segregated. Many white, middle-class, and affluent families send their children to private schools. And with the exception of selective-admission schools, our city’s public school students are mostly lower-income students of color.
Creating real racial and socioeconomic diversity in our schools is the only way to undo the fear and ignorance that entrench systems of oppression in our education system and beyond. But people who believe their children have an advantage will not give up that advantage willingly.
The parents of advantaged children are also themselves advantaged, with economic and political power. To attempt, in the name of the greater good, to somehow coerce those parents into sending their children to more racially and socioeconomically diverse public schools – if those schools are much poorer-performing than the private or test-in public schools they’re used to attending – would likely be impossible in practice.
So how can we create a school system that nurtures our daughters and sons, without relying on coercion schemes or fantasies of huge numbers of parents stepping outside themselves?
Diversity: The Choice in Our Best Interest
I believe the practical answer starts with realigning how people understand their own interests. Experiencing racial and socioeconomic diversity—gaining a broad worldview, a lived understanding of our multifaceted community and world—is a strength, not a disadvantage. In fact, to be without it is a disadvantage. Paulette, for example, must make do without some perfectly good chandeliers, and without the knowledge that, for every street she sees on the “news,” there are quiet neighborhoods of mostly retired black families, washing their cars and watering their flowerbeds. Our children face the same, often missed, opportunities to move freely through a world whose diversity they experience firsthand.
“Perceptions Have Not Caught Up to Reality”
At a practical level, New Orleans’ schools have a marketing and recruitment opportunity. Many have incredible academics, thriving communities, and excellent athletics and arts programs. We have open enrollment public schools that are equivalent to many of the private schools that middle-class and wealthy New Orleans families tend to send their children to. Perceptions here have not caught up to reality, and they should. Attending many of our public schools in New Orleans should be seen for what it is: an opportunity to get a locally competitive education, while experiencing the many advantages that a truly diverse educational environment can offer—all for the goodness-wouldn’t-that-be-nice price tag of free. What parent wouldn’t want that?
There are more high-performing options each year. The percent of “A” and “B” schools in our city has more than doubled since 2005, rising to 25% by 2019. Over 75% of our schools have earned an “A” or “B” progress rating this year. This is hopeful, positive motion. A movement of more diverse families to this system would help fuel even more energy city-wide to make that 25% into 100% in the years to come.
The mutually reinforcing pains of inequality, fear, and ignorance will never go away, but they will get better over time. My daughter was born on July 29th, and these questions became all the more real. What do I hope for her education, and what can we do to prepare our school system for her arrival? We can start by telling economically advantaged families the truth: that choosing a good public school that is also racially and socioeconomically diverse is one of the best decisions they can make for their children. This opportunity to create common purpose, shared buy-in, and—most importantly—real bonds of connection and trust across race and class boundaries within our public education system is, I believe, our best way forward.
Clara Baron-Hyppolite is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and has a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Boston University. She is a mother, college access advocate, former mental health provider, and works as the College Completion Director at College Track New Orleans.