A educator friend messaged me last week and asked if I was keeping up on our community’s school boundary discussion. Our community opens a new middle and high school next school year and is redrawing boundaries to balance out the number of students in each building.
My initial response? It was honestly meh. Not because of apathy, but because boundaries don’t matter as much as I’d like them to and as much as we as a community would like them to.
The potential boundaries’ effect on my family isn’t going to be that great. Our youngest child will be in 8th grade when the new boundaries take effect and we’re tentatively within the new middle school’s boundary, so the change potentially affects us. I’ve told several people, though, that if she wants to stay at her current school, she likely can because there’s not many decide to open enroll there.
Therein lies the challenge with school boundaries. School boards can set boundaries best they can. (Sidenote or disclaimer: The remainder of this letter isn’t a critique on my school board. They’ve worked hard. They’ve listened to the community. I’ve worked with a couple of them on community issues with Covid-19 and they’ve been gracious, conscientious and ready to help). School boards lean on population data sets and try their darndest to make sure schools are equitable with similar populations of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. It’s the best available metric we have to make sure our community doesn’t have schools of “haves” and “have nots”.
To give each school the opportunity to have an operational PTA or PTO.
To provide students with similar educational experiences and equitable facilities no matter the school they attend.
But I wonder how much school boundaries actually matter in districts with open enrollment and specialty schools. My words to follow will sound judgmental and harsh. Please know they’re not meant to. I believe families should make the best decisions they can for their children’s educations. For some families the best decision is homeschooling. For others its private education. For others it’s going to a specialized school or open-enrolling to a perceived better school.
Many of my neighbors have open enrolled to schools our community perceives as “better”. When I had four kids in elementary school, there were 19 kids in our half of the block and only 5 (my four plus another kid) attended our district school. Today they’re the only ones on our block who attend the school they’re supposed to according to boundaries. Our neighbors opted to open enroll to perceived better middle and high schools in our community and they should have that option.
But if every family makes a similar decision, if every family makes decisions with only their immediate best interest in mind, school boundaries will only matter for those unable to make a similar decision to open enroll. Or send to a specialty school. Or send to a private school.
School boundaries ought to be a great equalizer within a community.
School boundaries ought to provide equitable educational pathways for all students.
School boundaries ought to insure students and families benefit from diversity.
I see two options independent of the where the actual boundaries end up. The first option is for more families to make educational decisions in the community’s best interest.
In the neighborhood’s best interest along with their children’s best interest.
Families who view the world through a holistic lens and intentionally decide to educate their children in schools with more diversity.
In schools with a perception- real or perceived- of not being as good.
Families who use their opportunity to attend and serve schools with historically limited opportunities.
Communities with schools of "haves" and "have-nots" only delay costs the entire community eventually will bear. Harvard professor and author Robert Putnam writes in his excellent book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, “Even if we harden our hearts and simply leave these poor kids to fend for themselves, we still have to reckon with the lion’s share of these costs.” Equitable school boundaries is a good place to start. Families who intentionally choose to educate their children in schools perceived not as good are another way to take on these costs earlier and actually make a difference on the front rather than wrestle with consequences on the back end.
Perhaps this is a bit Pollyannaish. It's difficult and challenging for any of us to make decisions for the greater good when they conflict with our self-interest. So my second option is higher pay for teachers and staff in schools with higher rates of student populations on free and reduced lunches. I’m already on record as saying teachers don’t make enough as it is. I contact my local legislators each session on this issue. I know increasing teacher pay is already a challenge. I'll concede pay differences between teachers at different schools with similar education and experience potentially opens up a different set of problems.
But if we allow free movement between schools, if families can indeed make decisions in their children’s best interests, and if we continue to have community perceptions (again, real or perceived) of good schools and not so good schools, we need the best teachers and leaders at the perceived not so good schools and we need to pay those teachers and leaders and more.
I'm sure this invites a flurry of emotion, responses and many “what abouts” (what about this? what about that?). Most educators join the profession to enact change. Most educators are the best of us who desire to teach, serve and lead our next generation. They do so often without adequate pay or the resources to fully do their jobs. Putnam again writes, “in a market economy the most obvious way to attract more and better teachers to such demanding work is to improve the conditions of their employment”. This means increasing the pay and placing higher value on the teaching profession overall, but it might also mean admitting teaching 3rd grade at School A may be harder, more demanding or comes with more complex issues then School B.
I think both options are doable to provide a more equitable learning environments and opportunities for all students.
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