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The author's son, Ále

The author’s son, Ále

Choosing a school for my son in a segregated state (after Nikole Hannah-Jones)

A few weeks ago, I attended my son’s prospective school’s fundraising fair in their backyard. They had the standards: a bouncy house, a ball toss, a face-painting station, and a plastic frog pond. They also had some unique features: a DJ that played black music standards like Shalamar, Michael Jackson, and James Brown, a raffle for a dinner voucher at Sylvia’s, a principal in a smock running around with the kids and parents in a playful manner.

As first time pre-K parents, we’re nervous for Alejandro, a boy who already counts to 100 and reads Dr. Seuss with clarity and regularity. Academically, he’ll be fine. His mother is an assistant principal and thoughtful educator. His father has taught for 11 years and waxes poetic about the latest education research and its ramifications for a well-read blog. He’s supposed to be fine.

But our question was, will the teachers like him?

I read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ latest piece shortly after the school fair. The article, focused on the confluence between her work as a reporter for the New York Times and her daughter’s schooling, tapped every nerve possible. In my mind, I’ve played Nikole’s words in my mind while trusting my child to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program. I believe in social justice. I believe that the choices each of us makes for our child affects other children thereafter. I believe my child will be all right regardless of what school he goes to. I don’t think public schools are all that public, but, as fate would have it, I live in the middle of Harlem/El Barrio, the heart of some of the most well known — or notorious, depending on who you ask — charter schools in the country, from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy 1 to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Not only did I openly resist these school options, I even winced at the Catholic school options. As a Catholic school graduate, I hoped that the schools we chose had open spaces, creative pedagogy, and a loving environment for Ále.

We’re trusting these institutions with our child.

These choices are ostensibly connected to the larger landscape of New York City, too. Even with the latest developments in the PS 307/PS 8 fight in Brooklyn, it still begs the question of school structure and, specifically, how many of our kids have voice in the ways and means that the school they send their child to. I’m fortunate that, as parents of color who are educators, Luz and I know what to look for when we choose schools. Within a matter of minutes, we already have enough observations to fill up a notebook. Not many parents have that fortune. For those that don’t want to think too deeply on this, schools that openly advertise their schools (and have the means to do so) seem attractive to parents. Some of my associates who send their students to the local charters extol the virtues of structure and discipline.

It’s as if these schools stripped the crosses off the walls, traded them in for public funding, and kept everything else intact, including the long hours.

But as I’ve said before, the will of white parents seems to dominate the New York City schools narrative. As an outsider interested in the intersections of race and education, these conversations seem to fall in my lap. A white educator gives a list of resources afforded to her Upper West Side school that’s slated to integrate with another less fortunate school, and a list of reasons why the other school shouldn’t have the same resources in coded language. A school choice advocate throws out how we shouldn’t begrudge all-black or all-Latino schools as incapable of doing the same work as predominantly white schools. A real estate agent displays a series of brochures with properties around “good” schools, code for predominantly white institutions. School officials change their tune around us when we tell them we’re long-time educators.

None of this deals with the issue of creating equitable schools. If anything, it reinforces the idea that, so long as our students are kept separate, their schools will be unequal. And should we integrate schools, we won’t get equity in power and policy, either.

To that end, I’m nervous. In most of the schools that had the pedagogy we desired, we saw names focused on markers for success like “gifted,” “magnet,” and “STEM.” We saw uniforms, school trips, partnerships with corporations and non-profits. We saw special grants and achievement statistics. We saw the current demographics of our son’s new school, predominantly black and Latino. I went to the open house, too, mostly white parents. We heard during other school fairs how this need for competition often means that schools can get gentrified, too. We heard the parents telling us to our faces that they appreciate diversity for their own children’s sake, but not too much because it signals a bad school. Parents of color rarely get the opportunity to have a well resourced school that doesn’t see the population shift from right under them.

The political will to get it right for my kid and every other kid is not there. We have segregation of our kids, their parents, and their minds.

After leaving the fair, I finished Nikole Hannah-Jones’s article, yelling at Luz with “THIS!” every few lines. As a father, I was angry for my child. As an educator, I was angry for the 1000+ students I’d ever taught and the millions I never did. As a reader, I saw Ále in Najya’s eyes. I know she’s going to be all right because I see her parents the way I see myself and Luz.

I’m just not confident that every child has parents who are that confident in their schooling prospects. Ultimately, that’s what I seek.

This piece originally appeared on José Vilson’s personal website.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.