Opt-in: What middle class parents can do to help Baltimore's schools — and their own kids

Middle class parents can save Baltimore's schools — and help their own kids in the process.

My oldest daughter just turned three, and so practically every parent in my network of mostly white, mostly middle class parents is talking about schools. It feels like the academic equivalent of a biological clock.

Conversations arise almost daily: Last week, it was a mom at the playground.

Making small talk, I asked: "Where do you live?"

"Canton," she replied, quickly adding, "Though I'm not sure for how long." She spoke with a wistful melancholy, as if she didn't even need to share the rationale: You know, because he starts real school next year.

A few days later on social media, I saw that an acquaintance — whose son is my daughter's age — had recently moved outside the city.

A flurry of comments followed her announcement, asking for details. One friend wrote: "Where? I can't decide which direction I want to go."

That one statement reveals so much about privilege and the ability to simply move in search of the better. It also illuminates one major reason why our school system remains crippled and why we, as middle-class families, may complain about the school system, but we're one of its biggest problems.

I work for an education non-profit in the city and am a former urban schoolteacher, so I know that the problem we see in our schools is a multi-pronged one, but there is one prong we rarely talk about, and it is, in my opinion, a critical one: Middle class and affluent families need to stop leaving the city as soon as kids are school aged.

A few months ago, NPR's This American Life produced an episode titled "The Problem We All Live With." It discussed a singular reform that has cut the achievement gap between black and white students by half: Integration. The reason for success is simple: Where integration occurs, poor black students access the same opportunities as their more affluent white peers.

The program featured the Hartford School District in Hartford, Conn., where almost half of students now attend integrated schools as part of a voluntary inter-district magnet program. Hartford students went from buildings with no heat and dead pigeons to butterfly vivariums and planetariums. And academic achievement soared. But that's not an achievement surge, that's an opportunity surge.

But one often-overlooked opportunity shouldn't be lost in the conversation around integration: What my daughter will gain. She will gain a socio-cultural consciousness, understanding that her white dominant mode of operating is not the only way to navigate the world. She will see her own privilege — as the child of a two-parent, two-income household — a privilege that, in our city, is largely predetermined by race. I hope she will learn empathy. She will be forced to grapple with issues of inequity, and she will need to form an opinion. She will see injustice, and I hope she will come home and ask 'Why?' and "What can I do to help change that?" She will work across lines of difference and form deep friendships across those same lines.

In the This American Life episode, reporter Channa Joffe noted, "a public reckoning seems to be a required step" in successful, voluntary integration. And so I wonder: At what point should families of means engage in that reckoning and decide that if we want to keep reaping all of our city's benefits, then we also need to participate in one of its most essential systems? Not just with our time or our opinions but with our children. Because if we went into many schools in our district, I suspect there would indeed be a public reckoning and a realization that by opting out of our schools, we've tacitly endorsed a policy in which certain school conditions — long-term substitutes, lack of heat, few to no electives or enrichment periods — are OK for poor students but not OK for ours.

I may never see that parent on the playground again — I don't live anywhere near Canton — but her presumed departure feels like an opportunity lost. For our city, yes, but also for her: The opportunity to know the smart, resilient students who already attend city schools and to interact with their hard-working and loving parents who, despite so many challenges, are trying to seek the best for their children, just like me.

So I wonder: What if we were to imagine a world in which opting out of our schools at age four wasn't a fait accompli? What would it look like for all of our students if we stayed?

Maggie Master is managing director of teacher leadership development for Teach for America Baltimore. Her email is maggiemaster@gmail.com.

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