Alright, here goes . . . I have tried to keep myself from writing on this topic because I know it is a deeply personal one for many families, but as the school year draws near, I cannot avoid it any longer. And I know I am bound to offend many people, people I really like and consider my friends, if not by my scathing indictment of our nearby parochial schools than by my frank discussions about race relations, and I am sorry for that, but, well, here goes . . .  

I live in Cleveland Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland that prides itself on its diversity. The population is roughly half black and half white, spans from extremely wealthy to those living in poverty, encompasses a plethora of religions including a large and active Orthodox Jewish population, and is an all-around fascinating place to live. I was educated in the public schools here and I think I speak for many of us when I say that the “real world” education we received was unsurpassed.  In addition — and this is important — my academic eduation, the actual classroom material (as opposed to the endless hallway material), was extremely rigorous. I went on to a prestigious liberal arts university where I worked very very hard, but I was never challenged quite the way I was at Heights High.

One of the interesting outcomes of living in a community like this one is that I have always felt (relatively) free and comfortable talking about the taboo subject of race. We were exposed, from a very young age, to all of the disparities, the differences, the similarities, the stereotypes, of one racial group or another.  And we addressed them head-on with both honesty and respect.  Issues of black and white were an integral part of our upbringing and we had to talk about them openly. This has been a great gift throughout my life, and one that few people I’ve known were lucky enough to experience. I remember during my senior year, the Unity group of which I was a member was concerned with the self-segregation of our school’s sports teams. Black kids and black families went to basketball games to cheer on the mostly black players, white kids and white families went to hockey games to cheer on those mostly white players. We decided to offer a two-for-one deal when you bought tickets to either team’s games. I will never forget sitting with our group of black guy friends at their first ever hockey game as they were duly impressed with the rough and rowdy behavior both on the ice and in the stands. We were all reminded of a lesson we thought we already knew: to focus less on the color of the players’ skins and more on the color of the players’ jerseys.

All of this is a very long introduction to something that has been bothering me enormously as I prepare to send Braedan off to kindergarten in this very same school dicstrict. The make-up of our community has not changed all that much in the last twenty years, but the make-up of the schools has, as more and more white families send their kids to private and parochial schools. Now I know this is a very individual decision that can be based on many factors, including family history and a child’s specific needs.  I also know some families feel strongly about their children receiving a specific religious education. And I have no quarrel with that. But I am disturbed and upset by the families who assume that the public schools aren’t good enough for their children simply because of the other kids who go there.

Now I know that’s a huge accusation to throw out there and that a lot of your hackles are raised right now, but I do hope you’ll keep reading. When comparing the three nearby parochial primary schools with the public elementary schools, there is absolutely no question, no debate, about which provide better, more rigorous and well-rounded academic instruction. First of all, the teachers in our public schools are among the best educated in the state of Ohio in terms of the number of Masters degrees and PhDs, as well as being certified in the subject they teach. And yes, that matters, big time. The person standing in front of your child all day every day, determining what material to cover and in what manner, guiding them and inspiring them, should be the best educated. I don’t see how you would choose anything but.

The curriculum in our schools is rigorous and varied and includes specialized instruction in the visual arts and music, as well as physical education and technology. The middle schools and high school offer many foreign languages and high level science and math courses. The well-known secret among the district’s teachers (and remember, I was one) is that the kids who transfer from the local Catholic schools into the public middle schools (which many do when their parents realize they need something more rigorous to prepare them for high shcool) are on average one full grade level behind in math, science and social studies.

So, I’m just feeling frustrated. I feel frustrated and disappointed by parents who claim they want to use the public schools, but then don’t. Who believe that they are actually doing their children a favor by protecting them from kids with a different background or different life experience. Who condemn our schools as “dangerous” or “out of control” without ever giving them a try.

I don’t need more white families to use the public schools in order for them to be good enough for my kids, that is not what this is about.  I just wish more white families believed the schools could be good enough. For all of our kids.

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