I am the parent of a 7th grader at MMS and a 4th grader at Seth Boyden. As a parent with children in the district since 2008, I would like to share my perspective on important equity issues we should consider as we move forward with our strategic planning process.
My family is what is known around town as an “opt-in” family, meaning that we chose to send our children to Seth Boyden. I have watched over the past seven years as my children grew and flourished at Seth Boyden. I have seen each child at school treated as an individual whose needs were assessed, not assumed, and I have seen those needs met.
Unlike several schools in our district, Seth Boyden is not classified by the state as a Focus School—that means, among other things, that while the income gap between students at the school is great, the educational gap is not great enough to require a certain level of state oversight. Given the great disparities in parental education levels and income among students at our school, staying off the Focus list is a great accomplishment. In addition, when standardized test data are separated into cohorts, they show that SB students have traditionally performed as well as, if not better than, their peers at other elementary schools.
Over the past seven years as I watched my children at school, I have sometimes felt that we are starting to live the dream—the dream that children of many ethnicities and economic circumstances can learn and play together, while their parents work toward a better future for all of them. It’s a privilege to feel that our daily lives are perhaps a small part of the solution to some of our country’s perennial problems.
However, as the wider economy has created greater inequality, I have also seen the reality that class differences between schools in our district have become extreme. And they are moving in the wrong direction. Last year, the number of students at Seth Boyden who qualify for free and reduced lunch made up 43 percent. This year, it is 46 percent. That is a percentage more than twice that of Clinton, four times that of Tuscan, five times that of Jefferson and nine times that of South Mountain. (Please see the accompanying graphic below.)
The district originally designated Seth Boyden a partial opt-in demonstration school in 2000 precisely to address the racial and economic imbalance among the populations of our elementary schools. (I call it a partial opt-in school because while anyone from the rest of the district can opt-in to Seth Boyden, those in the SB zone have no choice about where to attend school.) In the past several years, each year fewer middle and upper class families are opting in to Seth Boyden, while nearby Tuscan, with a dramatically lower FRL rate, is becoming overcrowded. The current extreme economic imbalance in the district shows that, while it helped create a thriving school, a partial opt-in policy did not work to solve the imbalance, and in fact the imbalance has gotten larger in recent years.
Generally speaking, more resources are required to help economically disadvantaged children reach grade level—reading and math specialists, classroom teachers, continuing education for teachers and staff. I mentioned earlier that the achievement gap at Seth Boyden has historically been small enough to keep it off the Focus list (though like that in the rest of the district, it is still too large). Now, with more economically disadvantaged students than ever concentrated at one school, the district will not be able to sustain the excellent work at Seth Boyden without committing additional resources. As a district, we don’t stand a chance of shrinking the achievement gap if we do not provide the needed support.
The smaller percentage of families with disposable income at one school also means that it will be impossible to come even close to matching what the families at the other schools are able to donate for “extras”: things like field trips, technology, books in the classrooms, art supplies, assemblies, outdoor play structures, artists fellowships and supplies for the teachers—all things that children whose families are stretched for time and resources need from school even more.
Something’s gotta give. If we do nothing, we will slide toward a separate and unequal system. This would be both unjust and appalling. Inequity at the high school level has already exposed the district to negative attention in the form of the Office of Civil Rights complaint. The inherent ethical problems with increasing inequity in the district are enough to move us to action; in addition, we only encourage further negative attention if we do nothing about these disparities. Do we want to be a district with separate and unequal elementary schools for the wealthy and the economically disadvantaged?
We must acknowledge reality and run toward this challenge, because it is also an opportunity.
I ask that every family in our district consider itself an “opt-in” family. You could have gone to less economically diverse towns: Irvington or East Orange; Millburn or Summit. But you came here, where economic diversity is our reality. I ask that as a community, we share both the dream and the reality: the benefits and the costs of our economic diversity.
Let’s encourage, not resist, changes in our school system that may incur costs, but will bring much greater gains for our entire community. I think it is up to our leadership—Dr. Ramos and the Board of Education—to openly acknowledge the reality and share accurate information, study best practices and recommend specific changes. The changes must be implemented in such a way that the costs are spread throughout the entire district. We will all bear the cost, and we will all reap the benefits, because our children share this community and are part of each other’s education, especially as they move into middle and high school.
If we act now to reverse the slide toward inequity, we can improve on the work already in place to shrink the achievement gap and move closer to becoming the community of which we dream. One thing is certain—we must change, because the status quo is unacceptable. We have all chosen to be neighbors who are in this together. It’s time for all of us to opt-in.