Emerson Elementary class portrait 1916
I live in a middle-class neighborhood (Temescal) in Oakland, California. I’m lucky enough to live very near two elementary schools. Park Day School is a private school, with tuition costs of roughly $20K/year. As far as I can tell Park Day is an excellent school, and some of my friends are sending their kids there. The other nearby elementary school is Emerson Elementary. That’s where my daughter goes, despite the fact that average test scores are quite low.
Why did my wife and I choose to send our daughter to Emerson? The obvious reasons apply. We support public schools, who accept all children from the community, instead of picking and choosing the easy and/or bright kids (the rambunctious son of an acquaintance of ours was rejected from Park Day’s kindergarten for “behavioral issues”). I don’t think that sending your kid to private school makes you a bad person, but I do feel like I’m doing the right thing by my community. It’s also nice to save the money on tuition.
But the main reason I’m writing this post is to explain why I think my daughter will get a better education at Emerson, despite the low average test scores, some students with behavioral problems, and tight budgets.
Kia (my wife) decided to become active in the Emerson PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) a couple years before our daughter enrolled there. She made the commitment to get to know the school, and to do what she could to make the school better before our daughter started there (fund-raising for art and music programs, improving school grounds, increasing parental involvement, etc.). She was able to get to know many of the teachers, and observe them in the classroom. At least for kindergarten and the lower grades, the teaching quality at Emerson is so high that we did not even bother to submit a classroom preference when we enrolled. Both kindergarten teachers, Ms. Campos and Ms. Aiello, are excellent.
High-quality “value added” teaching (meaning that the teachers positively influence test scores) in primary school can have positive economic and social effects that reach into a young person’s twenties and beyond. Here’s a nytimes article that discusses the same study.
I’ve heard nothing but good things about the teachers over at Park Day, but if all other things are equal, I’ll choose the public school. Sending your kid to private school undercuts the public school system, depriving public schools of state funds. Sometimes there’s a good reason to do this, but in this case teaching quality isn’t an issue.
Of course, all things are NOT equal. Park Day has more money, and a carefully selected student body. Overall, the private school receives more kindergarteners who are better prepared, have a head start on their education, are better behaved (the most difficult kids are not accepted into the school), and on average come from homes with all kinds of economic and social advantages. So let’s get into that.
Test Scores Are Not Contagious, and the Benefits of Being a High Rank Student
Emerson gets some disadvantaged kids. 63% of the students are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. A stable two-parent family is the exception, not the rule. Many of the kids didn’t attend preschool before starting at Emerson. Predictably, many of these children do not excel academically in elementary school, despite the best efforts of their skilled and motivated teachers.
My own daughter comes in with some advantages, including a great preschool experience, a culture of literacy at home, a stable family life, good nutrition, etc. She is not going to suddenly lose these advantages by having classmates who don’t share them. This seems to be the biggest mental disconnect of parents who obsess over standardized test score averages while school shopping. Your child’s academic performance is going to be influenced by their readiness, their innate ability, the quality of the teaching, and additional support and instruction they receive at home. Having classmates who are economically and/or socially disadvantaged (and thus possibly behind academically) is not going to bring your child down.
In fact, the opposite may occur. There is an academic benefit to being a high-ranked student that is just as strong as having a good teacher. In other words, being a “big fish in a small pond” can have an enormous positive influence on your child’s confidence, which can impel them to study harder and achieve even more.
I’m not making this up. High achieving students do better in worse schools (especially boys, and more competitive students).
Around 2009-2010, Oakland parents started enrolling their children in school later, so that their kids would be the oldest in the class. They did this en masse, so much so that our preschool had to add a classroom to accept all the redshirted laggards. Why did they do this? All because of a chapter in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers that described how almost all professional hockey players are born in January or February (the oldest kids in the class are bigger, get the most time on the ice, get more practice and acquire skills more quickly, and maintain that advantage until the pros). Never mind that this advantage doesn’t translate to other sports (like basketball) or academics (the younger kids in a class tend to do better by the time they’re in high school). Middle-class Oakland parents are trendy and want every advantage for their child. [Edit: To be clear, I include myself in this category! Our daughter was not near the age limit but we might have easily made the same decision at the time.]
Now that Gladwell has gotten behind the “big fish in a little pond” theory of success, I wonder if we’ll see trendy Oakland parents flocking to the lowest-performing schools. ;-)
Diverse Social Interactions, and a Diverse Worldview
Our daughter went to Temple Sinai Preschool in Oakland, and overall had a great experience there. The only thing that bothered me about that school was that it was overwhelmingly white. It’s a Jewish preschool, so to some extent that was to be expected, but my daughter was starting to exhibit some disturbing stereotypes about African-Americans that really bothered me. Once, at around age 3, she pointed to a picture of a middle-class African-American couple in a magazine and asked “Are they homeless?” Homeless people in Oakland? Check. Mostly African-American? Check. Lack of social exposure to African-Americans in general to balance her worldview? Check. No wonder she said that. The last item I could actually do something about.
Emerson is currently 58% African-American students (the remaining 42% being Hispanic, white, Asian, and multi-ethnic kids). A couple months into the school year, and I’m relieved to see that my daughter has friends of all skin shades. At this point she has fewer racial hang-ups than I do.
As an aside, when Kia told other parents at our preschool that our daughter was going to Emerson, she encountered in several cases an attitude that could only be described as “fear of blackness” (if not outright racism). While I understand the impulse of a parent to not want their child to be culturally isolated, Emerson is a diverse school, especially in the lower grades. It looks a lot like Oakland. To me, that’s ideal.
Of course, diversity is not just about black and white. 20% of of Emerson students are classified as “English language learners.” Check out the breakdown of languages spoken in the homes of these students:
Languages spoken in the homes of “English language learners” at Emerson
There’s some American melting pot for you. Once again, I see this kind of cultural diversity as a clear benefit. My daughter will have direct experience at a young age that 1) English is not the only language in the world, and 2) there are other cultures worth learning about.
Sending your kid to any school is really an experiment. I’m not making a 100% no-matter-what commitment to Emerson, or to public school in general. We’ll have to see how it goes. And as for our friends who have chosen private school for their kids, I respect those decisions. Each kid is different and has different needs. All a parent can do is to try to make a good choice, and then observe closely and adjust course as needed. Here’s what I’ve observed so far at Emerson:
- my daughter likes to go to school, at least on most days
- academically she is progressing very quickly, learning to read and write and do simple math problems
- in addition to basic academics, good programs exist for art, music, and poetry
- parental involvement is high
- teaching quality is high
- the school is being led well by principal Kathy Hatzke
- teaching and admin staff are open to ideas and suggestions for how to more effectively educate our children (especially if backed by empirical research); they are not “set in their ways” but rather are hungry for progress and improvement and creating better systems
On the downside, some of the kids definitely have some behavioral issues, primarily around poor concentration and emotional control/anger management. But these same kids are sweet and good-natured most of time, and still have tons of potential even if the odds are stacked against them. Their parents and teachers haven’t given up on them, and neither have other adults in the community (myself included). Ultimately you have to ask yourself (if you are a parent considering sending your child to a public school with poor test scores): why are the scores bad? Is it bad teaching, or is the school taking on the hardest kids, with the fewest social and economic advantages? If it’s the latter case, and the school has other good things going for it, there’s no good reason to fear sending your child there.