Growing up in rural Michigan, I had two choices for school: the one room school house that taught all children in grades 1 through 8, or paying tuition to attend public school in Ann Arbor. My mother chose the latter, driving my sisters, two boys from a nearby farm, and me back and forth every day. The trip was ten minutes each way, considered a long commute at that time. I was exposed to the most advanced teaching theories, and was one of the first to learn to read without phonics.
So it is particularly interesting for me to reflect on my experience in South Boston for the last 22 years, and particularly on how its children go to school. There are almost 3,000 school age children living in South Boston, (zip code 02127) and they attend 170 different K -12 schools, not including charter schools. 170 is not a typographical error. Included in this number are Boston Public, private, parochial, and METCO schools. South Boston kids attend an astoundingly large number of institutions, only eight of which are in South Boston.
Are all of these schools ones that parents have chosen so their child might have a more imaginative and innovative education, as in my case? Or in reality is parental choice more limited than one could imagine? As a recent Globe article on how families navigate the Boston Public School system points out, many families choose their top three schools (usually ones with good reputations) but have their child denied admission simply because there were too many requests for too few seats. And waiting for the results of the charter school application lottery is met with as much anticipation as the Irish Sweepstakes. There is the oft-repeated story of the mother who could not get her child in the school that was literally across the street from her house. Though there are certain “non-negotiables” such as having one child in a school guarantees that the rest of your children can attend, it can be an incredibly stressful and complex process.
In South Boston there is an added complexity. A federal ruling limited to 20% (later raised to 50%) the number of seats available to South Boston students at the five local public schools. The rationale of course was that white students were needed to integrate the schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods. The irony is that now South Boston is the most integrated neighborhood in the city. Over 50% of its school age children are non-white, primarily from immigrant families where English is not spoken at home. As they ride the buses leaving South Boston they pass buses entering South Boston with children who look very much like themselves.
As South Boston children transition into high school there is a spectacular array of special focus schools, but the prize is to gain entrance to one of the three exam schools which are rated top in the country. At these schools, admission does not depend upon lottery or quotas. It is based on how well your child can read, do math, and think critically – as measured by the ISSE test. More South Boston children attend these schools than South Boston High.
When it comes to private schools there is choice, to a degree. South Boston children attend 71 private, parochial, and suburban schools. The independent schools offer scholarships and look for city children, but there are limited number of spots and a limited number of scholarships. South Boston’s two Catholic schools are no longer entirely neighborhood based as they recruit and accept students from other parts of the city. Presently they enroll only 335 South Boston children, whereas just ten years ago there were five schools enrolling 1,500 students. Tuition and other fees are edging close to $5,000 which makes this option impossible for many local families.
Each year when I look at the statistics provided by the Boston Public Schools, I expect that the number of students leaving South Boston to attend school will decrease. It never does. It is as if our children are living in a “bedroom community” commuting to their school every day and returning home just to sleep. Sometimes that commute is for a very good reason and to a very good school; sometimes it is not.
These statistics also ask a question about the role of our schools in our local communities. What does it do to the fabric of a community when half its children do not attend school within its borders – by choice or not by choice? Historically, schools were the locus of community in a neighborhood. Parents met other parents through their children’s school. Childhood friendships extended beyond school hours and involved learning how to manage relationships with other children, friend and foe alike, in the informal setting of a city block.
Should we ask ourselves what is the substitute for local schools as a focus for building a social network of concerned parents informally looking out for each other and the children of the neighborhood? Extended families living in close proximity are not as common as they once were. More typically families have grandparents on the Cape, a sister in California, a brother in New York and a best friend in Newton. What happens for such a family when a child becomes critically sick in the night if one parent on a business trip and the other doesn’t know the parents down the street because their children go to different schools?
Having benefited from school choice myself, I obviously think there is a place for different schools and different opportunities. But does it have to be 170? And should we not be looking at how all of this affects the quality of life in our neighborhoods for families?