My child got into one of her selective enrollment school choices for fall 2016. I’m happy for her. Really happy. My husband has already posted the great news on Facebook. I haven’t. There’s some anger, sadness and guilt which prevents me from celebrating this accomplishment, and it’s ironic because we’ve been stressed about this day for at least six years. That’s no exaggeration and we are not alone. I know that some of you are rolling your eyes, pulling out your tiny violins to hurl at me and telling me to get over my damned if you do, damned if you don’t middle-class guilt, but I can’t. It’s just not fair for these children. You have to be damn near perfect to get into these high schools, with no “B” grades and great testing abilities (cuz there are no re-takes). There are thousands of brilliant students from all economic backgrounds who apply and are rejected each year, not because they aren’t great students and kids, but because there aren’t enough high quality schools to go around. There are ten selective enrollment high schools and twenty-two International Baccalaureate (IB) schools. Everyone is clamoring to get in. This time, my child did.
Here’s the reality. My husband and I are both community college professors in mathematics and English, respectively. Our daughter was well prepped in the basics of “readin’, ritin’ and ‘ritmetic” at home. We were savvy enough to get her into CPS one year early and transfer her around to better schools if we sensed challenges in the pipeline. We were always correct, so our child always landed comfortably in a high quality learning environment. On top of all of this strategic fortuity and networking, we were financially able to enroll her into a six-week selective enrollment test prep class right before the exam. Our child has never seen anything less than an “A” on her final grades and doesn’t really know what failure looks like. Some of you are thinking that this is about meritocracy and that because we worked hard as a family, our child has now benefited from that hard work. This is a partial truth. Of course we worked hard just like everyone else, but the deck has been stacked in our favor. To not acknowledge that we are privileged economically and academically and that those privileges place us and our child at an advantage would be short-sighted and is frankly, how we continue to allow the oppression of others in this society.
We like to play the sidelines and act as if we are innocents, if innocence means turning our heads to what’s happening because we didn’t commit the offense. We do it regarding the legacy of slavery. We do it with the legacy of patriarchy. And now we are doing it locally with public education. We think that since we didn’t create the corrupted, broken, public education system, then we shouldn’t be held accountable or carry the guilt. The problem is this. We are not living in silos and as we are gaining in this sick game, someone else is losing – always. We are a community. We are in this mess together and if we can’t bring ourselves to care enough to demand changes to the debacle of a system before us, then we are all failing, despite who gets into where. It’s about Ubuntu.
The economic elites should not be the main ones who gain access to the good old boys’ club when that club means the right to a quality education which provides access to better life outcomes. This is not low stakes, people. These are real lives being impacted and determined by 900 points. I know this is how things have always worked in our country where just a few get to the top, so we are desensitized to it. However, it is wrong and we must work to make it right. Some people have the gall to balk and complain about the low-income students who get into a selective enrollment school with scores a smidgen lower than their children (meaning they were “A-” or oh, God, “B” students). Let’s be real. If poor students still got close to our children’s scores without the same life perks, then we should be patting them on the back and asking them to teach their secrets, not trying to figure out ways to keep them out in the name of “fairness.” There is a long, painful history that reminds us that things are not fair and why these “affirmative actions” still need to happen. Affirmative action is how in the hell I got here, in my current privileged position. I was that poor, inner-city CPS kid who got into a few TRIO programs in high school and college at the right time (before funding got cut off for many of these programs) and it changed the trajectory of my life forever. I’m proud of that despite the vacuous shaming that goes on around it. But that’s not the point. The system is not fair, so don’t kid yourself, and it’s even more relentless with the have nots.
So instead of focusing on equality, let’s shoot for equity where every “qualified” kid has an opportunity to be at the table and instead of a table for 3,000, how about a table for 17, 000? We must widen the options and give the teachers the tools they need to construct stronger schools from within. We don’t need to build another selective enrollment school. We must re-invest in public education and improve what we have using the amazing talent inside of CPS. We need new leadership that believes in public education. It shouldn’t be an accomplishment to land into a good public high school in the city of Chicago. That should be the default. It’s a massive distortion to think otherwise. It is an unconscionable situation that we have placed 7th and 8th graders in. A recent DNA Chicago article by Ted Cox revealed that this year’s selective enrollment schools “received 16,826 applications for 3,200 freshman slots for the fall.” Those are the facts. What happens to the masses, the rest of the bright and qualified students who can’t get in? That’s what I don’t have an answer for. That is why I am angry and torn as I write this, though proud of my baby. Yes, failure is a natural part of life. Our kids must experience it at some point. Failure can make us tougher, yadda, yadda, yadda. But the real failure is within us this time, within this system that adults have created. Through it, we are failing many of our children which means we are failing our future and the future of public education. And that reality, in the midst of all this societal progress, is cringe-worthy and makes me more than sad.
Good luck to you all who have received your acceptance letters to the schools of your choice. To those who are holding a rejection letter right now, know how brilliant you are and that we adults are working to make the system accountable to you. It’s not you, it’s us. You are wonderful as you are. You are enough. I apologize on behalf of a horrible system where this even needs to be a conversation. Tight hugs to you and I hope that wherever you land that you take your bright mind and resilience with you and make that school better simply because you have arrived.
In solidarity, Tina