J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Why I’m Sending My Child to an Underperforming Public School

Emerson Elementary class portrait 1916

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.

Great Teachers

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

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.

Summary

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.

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63 Comments

  1. Kudos to you. Education is what you make of it. There’s no guarantee that someone will do better just because they went to a private school. I’ve known plenty of kids who went to private schools and went down the path of drugs themselves or had poor test scores. I’m sure you as a blogger can also appreciate the “there’s more to life than going to school” to earn money as well. There’s some truth to the “your either building your own dream or building someone else’s.”

  2. Great post. I totally understand and agree with the reasons proffered for your choice. But part of it is situation specific and it is a situation that my children won’t have the privilege of benefiting from the way you daughter can. In my situation, that choice wouldn’t work. You state, “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.” For some kids, especially children of color or immigrants, they may be at a danger of losing the effects or appreciating the benefits of those advantages by having classmates who don’t share them. For your daughter, she is less likely to be enticed or ridiculed by the less advantaged classmates. She won’t have an entire group of people saying that her literacy or achievements or food choices make her not “black enough” or create resentment, hostility, etc. and set out to teach her how to behave. She won’t feel or see any pressure to conform to her “race” by slowing her learning process, not exceeding academically or creatively, or not using correct grammar, etc. and not having interest in “white” things. Assuming she succeeds, she doesn’t have to be accused of “selling out” by doing so. And she’s less likely to face out and out bullying by classmates based on race by her race. And for the parents you described who have that “black fear” thing going on, your daughter can go there and people will less less to be afraid of her so she won’t learn that racism or be empowered by it. Many people don’t understand what can happen to an advantaged or high performing black student who is confronted with peers who are actively making it harder. This is in no way a criticism of your choice or your reasoning. You make some very good arguments that I hope others will hear and I think they will work well for your daughter. For mine? Not so much. Your post brought up some very serious issues I’ve had to deal with all my life, as are my children currently. It’s very difficult to talk about and beyond the scope of this comment. And obviously I’m speaking in generalities and not all people, black or white, behave this way. But I’m also speaking from experience. Kids who have been disadvantaged can be very hard on kids who look like them but are different and it’s very confusing when it’s tied to race and heritage. And kids want to fit in. It’s a whole can of worms.

    Your daughter, your family, will add a lot to the school. I think your choice is valid and great. Your kid will meet lots of people and learn a lot and those families who never allow their kids to experience diversity of any kind are really missing out.

    For the record, my kids attend a suburban, public, high achieving, high scoring school. There is a pocket of disadvantaged kids who attend, who have historically, as a group, not taken advantage of (or been advantaged by) all the school has to offer, and who primarily come from the same neighborhood. And as I listen to one of my kids purposely speaking incorrectly I think so that she an relate to her people “the black kids,” it makes my head explode. And it makes me sad and angry as I watch so many of the black kids quit or never join activities, even the cheap or free ones because “that’s not what black people do.” It’s crazy. So I guess my point is that your daughter won’t have to deal with that part of it, and I wish my kids didn’t. I so wish they didn’t.

    • Thank you for your honest and heartfelt comment!

      One observation, as an outsider to African-American culture(s), is that there seem to be more cultural niches for young African-Americans these days. Black skateboarders, black nerds, etc. There are a wider array of role models, not just rap artists and athletes.

      But yes, I’m aware of the pressures that black kids face when they are called “too white” if they study hard and succeed academically. I can only hope those attitudes are changing.

      An interesting cultural element at Emerson is the North African population; the parents of these kids prioritize academics and education. But really, as far as I can tell, so do the African-American families. So I’m hopeful that when my daughter’s kindergarten class reaches high school, some of these ridiculous attitudes about what is “too white” or “too black” will have calmed down.

    • Dorian Edwards

      This whole subject needs to be brought to the attention of the public at large. This sounds like one of the main reasons why the perpetual motion machine called poverty keeps rolling along. I have witnessed it myself in the company that I work at in North Carolina. I can see the way the black workers on the factory floor treat the black computer programming that works with me in IT. I have seen it in the way black gas station clerks treat other blacks who drive up in 60K cars and speak without a hint of any kind of regional or dialectic accent. They look at them as someone who has ‘sold out’ and is ‘playing the white mans game’ rather than just playing the game called life that we all play and it makes no difference if we want to play or not. We have no choice but to play. In the black community is it a ‘bad’ thing to get ahead, to have a nice job, or a good education? I really think this needs to be written into a movie so millions of people can see it and think about it. It is a major roadblock to the black race.

      • At Emerson most of the African American parents that I’ve met (including those from low income families) are very concerned with and focused on their children’s education. I’m not saying anti-education attitudes don’t exist, but they’re far from universal (within any ethnic group), and may be coming from major media (and potentially peers) more than from parents.

  3. I thought that these attitudes and stereotypes would have calmed down by the time I grew up, but it almost seems worse now, because they are so easily transmitted. Look at Twitter with the hashtag #Blackpeople or #whitepeople something. It’s tough. African families have a different history. In my area there aren’t many African families. The black population is large African-American in a neighborhood that historically housed “the help” for the nearby mansions. Very interesting historical dynamic, actually. I can’t really speak on whether the parents are prioritize academics when I don’t know them. But seeing how by the time they hit high school so few black kids are in honors classes, music or theater activities, or even sports, something is going on. And most of the kids attended the same elementary and middle schools. (We do have the kids to fake their residency to escape their poorer performing schools. Sometimes they don’t perform as well because they are not prepared for the rigorous academics or it’s culture shock. I don’t know.) But for the kids born and raised here, something happens and sometimes some kids can be very hard on the kids who stick with it, and the kids who stick with it start to look around and say, “Wait, am I doing something black people don’t do?”

    There have always been cultural niches for black people, but now the internet can make them easier to find for adults, which is great, not so much in high school. But in my area there are no real niches, just some kids who opt our of the majority of the minority by opting in school centered activities. My kids like all kinds of different things, I wasn’t and they weren’t raised on the athlete/rapper thing. But now they are being told that is wrong. And they don’t understand. Can’t wait for them to go on to higher education and find their own peeps, rather than being grouped into or pressured by people who may not be real friends. I’m in a particularly difficult and odd area, one that I plan to write about more. It’s really weird here and it’s not like other places I’ve lived. I’ve noticed that the high achieving black kids go away and never come back.

    On a lighter note — the sports thing!! Oh yes, families, routinely hold their boys back a year. Then the kids are more attentive, calmer and do well in school (have sometimes been taught the material before entering school) — and physically huge. No wonder our football team was so good for a while. Makes for great defense — 19 year olds playing against 16 year olds. That’s a big difference, especially for boys. Totally a big fish/small pond thing.

  4. JD, nicely thought out and well-reasoned blog. We made the same decision a generation ago, sent our three boys to a neighborhood Oakland public elementary school, and actively participated ourselves to effect progressive change within the school system. By the time our boys graduated from grade school and were moving on to middle and high school, we realized real change was not going to happen within our sons’ public school timeline. So being committed to public schools, for all the reasons you elaborate, we came to the conclusion that for our sons’ continuing public education we had to move outside Oakland rather than send them to private schools within. After graduating from Bay Area public schools, all three completed their education at the University of California Berkeley or Santa Cruz, and moved on to rewarding careers and to become successful participants in civil society. Our very best to you and your daughter! — Harry (& Loretta)

    • Hi Harry! We definitely expect to “adjust as we go” … but so far so good with OUSD. Your photography site is looking great.

  5. Marina

    You have some GREAT things to say, but it is not true that the youngest kids in the class tend to do better in high school. Starting students too young has a negative social/emotional impact which translates into academics later on. It is one of the reasons why lower elementary school teachers, including myself, were thankful when the Kindergarten Readiness Law was signed. I agree that “red shirting” students is detrimental, but please don’t extrapolate that younger students tend to outperform their older counterparts.

    • Hi Marina — thanks for your comment. I agree that starting too young could have negative consequences, but I based my assertion that kids on the younger end of the spectrum do better in high school on the following research paper by Jane Lincove and Gary Painter (which is also linked to in the Slate article I linked to above):

      http://www.utexas.edu/lbj/chasp/publications/downloads/kindergarten.pdf

      As summarized in the Slate article:

      “In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California analyzed national data collected over many years from 15,000 26-year-olds. They compared what became of kids who had been redshirted to what became of kids who had been young for their class but not redshirted. They found that the redshirted kids performed worse on 10th-grade tests, were twice as likely to drop out of school, and were less likely to graduate from college; the only advantage to redshirting was that redshirted kids were marginally more likely to play varsity sports in high school. “

      • Jenny

        Could also be that many parents chose to redshirt their kids because they were already somewhat behaviorally or academically behind in some way (though I confess I only read the abstract, so not sure if they found some way to control for that). That could explain why they were behind. You have two five-year-olds entering K, one can already read, the other can’t sit still. Who is more likely to be redshirted by their parents? Who is more likely to be doing well on tests 10 years later?

        • That could certainly be a factor. And absolutely it’s a good decision for many kids. As a trend, it seems to be waning (at least in Oakland). My guess is that kindergarten “redshirting” will be a non-issue in a few years (some kids will enter later if appropriate, but it will no longer be perceived as a competitive advantage).

  6. I’ve been reading your block for a long time now, and have found your world view to be very well informed and always interesting. My husband and I recently moved back to the Bay Area from Scotland and we are currently in the process of buying a home. We are thinking about settling in Temescal because of its proximity to BART (which we both use daily for our commutes), the walkability, and because of the diversity. Many people have pointed out that once we start a family we will reconsider our location, and it may be better to move somewhere with a better school district in anticipation of starting a family, but I feel similarly to you about how parental input strongly influences academic performance and childhood development. I appreciate that you recognize your privilege, and write thoughtfully with that in mind. It’s good to know that you are happy with your decision so far, and maybe some day we’ll see you in the neighbourhood.

  7. Linda F

    Great perspective! I also chose to send my kids to public schools…. and not the ones with the high test scores! The big fish in the little pond theory works VERY well in high school, where the “fish” compete for the high 10% of their class. Much easier to achieve when the school isn’t full of doctor/lawyer’s kids! My kids excelled & were admitted to the colleges of their choice and have turned out VERY well, despite (or even because of) their opportunities in public school.

    • Thanks for sharing that Linda. Eventually all high-achieving “little pond” kids will get a rude shock when they land in the big pond, but if they already have some skills and confidence built up, it won’t hold them back. I’ve read that Bill Gates was shocked and dismayed to find that he wasn’t the smartest kid in his Harvard math course. But by that point it didn’t matter.

  8. I went to Emerson in the 1980’s after the newly opened John Muir was quickly shuttered and the whole city got bussed all over.

    The life lessons I learned in 2nd and 3rd grade at Emerson I would not trade for anything.

    Kudos

    • Nice! Just around the time we enrolled our daughter, I learned that my grandmother had gone to Emerson as well (around 1920). I had no idea about the family history when we moved to Temescal.

  9. Jody London forwarded me your posting on the Emerson blog. I am the superintendent of schools in Oakland, an old friend of the Strharskys(our kids went to the same school before they moved), and the husband of a former Emerson Principal (Caroline Yee). I visited Emerson a month ago, and posted that visit on my Facebook page (gary yee).

    I loved reading your thoughtful analysis and clearheaded embrace of your local school. I look forward to meeting you at some time/place. email me at [email protected]. We won’t always be on the same page, but I too care about our city.

  10. I also got here via Jody London’s recommendation. Nice articulate defense of public schools. Rock on, and Ride for a Reason.

    • Thank you! And thanks for your work on Ride for a Reason — a great fundraising program for local public schools.

  11. Hi J.D. I wanted to write you privately but see you prefer comments. So here we go. (I will be more careful in this post though.) Thank you for writing this post! I see a lot of what you describe heightened when you get to the middle school period. (I live in your middle school district.) You might know that there’s a big exodus of middle class / professional families from OUSD at that time. (I’m now curious what you think of private security patrols too. You might know that there will be a patrol in your neighborhood starting Nov 4.)

    • Thanks for the comment Irene. I’d actually been hearing good things about Claremont (middle school). My neighbor’s son goes there and is having a good experience, and the twin principals (Richardson brothers) seem to be turning things around. At least they are getting a lot of good press:
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/25/richardson-brothers_n_2363091.html

      • Irene Yen

        Yes, the twins have gotten a lot of press! They’ve been on Ira Glass’ This American Life and some local tv coverage too. Our elementary school (zone adjacent to yours) 5th grade families last year sent its largest group of kids to private schools. This will affect this year’s group of 5th grade families as the social influence is strong.

        • Irene — do you happen to have access to actual enrollment numbers from Claremont? I heard they were actually overenrolled this year, in part due to receiving more students from Chabot and Peralta (who traditionally feed private middle schools, or Montera). So I’m wondering if the middle-class exodus is reversing already.

          • wisecelery

            J.D. – Claremont is at ~490 students this year. Jennifer Vetter wrote a piece for the Rockridge News that reported on the #’s from the different elementary schools http://www.rockridge.org/news/claremont-school-news-enrollment-soars-support-auction. Chabot community has been organized for >5 years supporting Claremont. Peralta is the school I referred to with the highest # of 5th graders sent to private schools last year in recent history (I have a 7th grader). Until recently, Peralta has not been a neighborhood-based school. So when my 7th grader was a 3rd grader, 99 of Peralta’s 300 students were Emerson zone kids.

          • oops – somehow changed my name. just wanted you to know that that was Irene giving you more info about Claremont

  12. Will

    Hi J.D., I found this blog post via Oakland Local. It looks like we’re neighbors. My oldest daughter will be starting kindergarten next year. I assume we’ll send her to Emerson, but I’d love to learn more about the school. Any advice on how to actually go about that? Thanks!

    • Hi Will. School tours are generally Thursdays at 8:30am … but you need to call the office to let them know you’re coming. Also there is a casual play-date 1st Saturdays from 11-1 at the big playground at Shafter and 48th. Ask for Kia (my wife) and/or Myra — one of them is usually there and can introduce you to some other parents.

  13. You have captured beautifully the essence of the urban public school experience for the middle class family that makes this choice for their child/children. I agree with every point you made. We made an entire documentary movie, GO PUBLIC: A Day in the Life of an American School District, to capture what you have so eloquently expressed. http://www.gopublicproject.org

    One of the remarkable aspects of public education is also the incredible range of needs that are effectively served daily. We had 50 camera crews follow 50 subjects (teachers, students, administrators, support staff, volunteers) on 28 campuses for 1 day to capture what a day in the life of an urban public school looks like. Since 15% of the district we documented has children who qualify for special education we decided to follow multiple students with special needs. We documented a 3rd grade boy confined to a wheelchair, a 7th grade boy who is severely autistic, a kindergartner with down syndrome in a K/1 inclusion class, a special education teacher and a early intervention school psychologist who works with 3-5 year olds who have developmental delays. She and her team help those children become kinder ready.

    We followed 45 other people as well, but one of our goals was to capture the remarkable diversity of need that is served daily in our public schools. We should be celebrating our public schools not fearing them. We should be advocating for our public schools not condemning them. We need more articles written like the one you wrote J.D. Thank you for choosing public school for your daughter. Thank you for investing in your community. Thank you for sharing your important perspective so eloquently with all of us!

    Blessings and GO PUBLIC!

  14. Hi JD, I’m a Temescal neighbor, enjoyed your post & posted it on FB. Some good push back from folks there on some of your points — especially possible classism/elitism in the “big fish” trope, and emphasis on test scores. I’d love your direct response there if you want to chime in:

    https://www.facebook.com/sean.feit/posts/10202609180734820

    Great blog, enjoyed reading other posts as well. (Nice electro tracks as well… yum.)

    Warmly,
    sean

    nadalila.org (my blog on Yoga & Buddhism)

    • Hi Sean — thanks for sharing the post. Glad it is generating some discussion. I guess the “big fish in a small pond advantage” could sound elitist … but the bottom line is I’m sending my kid to the local public school because I like the teachers, atmosphere, and community involvement. *Every* kid has the potential to benefit from a more diverse, less elite, less narrowly competitive public school situation (the “small pond”).

  15. Hey there JD! I’m one of those people you know! *wave*

    You don’t discuss what, for me, was the most important deciding factor in choosing a school – educational philosophy. Traditional american educational style, whether in public or private school, is not for everyone. PD proscribes to a progressive educational style. A style that is holistic and not one size fits all.

    Before having a kid I was staunchly in your camp. Public school was the way! Insert all the reasons here. And, of course, I believe that public school is a great thing and I’m so glad it is available and it is the right choice for many people. Emerson was my first choice when we joined the lottery. It is a lovely school.

    But…
    I was deeply wounded by my perfectly acceptable, middle class, high test scoring public school education. When it came right down to it the thought of sending my kid into a system that didn’t acknowledge me as an individual with an individual learning style, makes me want to barf. Choosing a school became a deeply personal thing thing for me. I’m in a situation in which I can do something different for my kid so damn straight I am going to.

    After I had a kid I started reading about brain development and then when it came time for pre-school, educational styles. The more it came home to me that our educational system was a truly terrible fit for me as a kid and I want no part of it now. Some people care about learning facts and taking tests and I couldn’t possibly care less. In fact, PD can b TOO academic for me. 🙂

    I’m cognizant of the weird and outrageous privilege surrounding me and my ability to choose and pay for an education of my choosing for my kid. I’m grateful for it and I’m running with it. The whole journey leading up to it caused me to go back to school and change my career and I am now devoting my time and energy to bringing natural, outdoor, play-based, self-directed learning to kids in whatever way I can. I’m very excited about how that is unfolding for me and I truly hope to make a difference in my city.

    Cheers! Squeeze that cute baby of yours for me!

    • Hey Laura! I think almost every parent is going to prioritize a good (and good fitting) education for their child. There are worse things to spend money on than education … so I hope no private school parents take this post as an attack on their choice. And I only use Park Day as a counter-example to Emerson because I live literally next door to the school (and they are good neighbors).

  16. AR

    To respond to the “but private school education is more progressive” comment–I’m sure that test-score obsessed, overly rigid or academic public schools exist (and I too would not choose that experience for my child), but we found when we checked out our local OUSD elementary school (another one that is supposedly “low performing” based on test scores and serving a generally less privileged group of kids), that the teachers and overall school climate didn’t fit the negative stereotype at all– the entire school community seems committed to progressive/constructivist, individualized, developmentally appropriate, inquiry based education.

    Of course, there are absolutely limits on the amount of individualized attention that kids can get given the current class sizes– I have no idea what Park Day’s class sizes, but I bet they are way smaller. But I see that as a simple lack of resources, not lack of sufficiently progressive educational philosophy or technique.

    If I do ever think that public school is squashing my child’s curiosity, intellect or personality, well, then, I will speak up! First with the teacher and then with the principal if necessary. And the beauty of being a public school parent is that in doing so, I won’t just be speaking up as the consumer of a private good, but part of the public school community. (Either that or I will just be that myopic, complaining, PITA parent…we’ll see! 🙂 ) But a couple months into kindergarten, so far so good!

    • Agreed … finding the same thing at Emerson. In terms of class size there may be a budget for teacher’s aides for the K classes (fingers crossed).

  17. Caitlin

    I work in an under-performing public school in New Orleans. Almost 100% of the student body is African-American and poor, and many of the kids are behaviorally disturbed. We have a positive school climate, but at the same time, we have emotionally volatile children growing up in broken homes who throw punches for nothing every day at recess. I know that for many of these kids, school is the safest, most stable part of their lives. But for kids who do come from safe, stable homes, this conflict-prone student atmosphere could provoke anxiety and disrupt learning.

    I realize this picture may have little in common with the Oakland school you’re talking about. But academically, your school might share the problems that we face with high-achieving students. We have exceptionally committed staff, but we have limited resources and large class sizes. Since the majority of students are scoring below grade level, lessons must be aimed at catching them up. I feel sorry for the relatively few students in each class who master a concept on the first day it’s taught, and then have to sit through two more weeks of the same thing so their struggling classmates can learn it. We also have built-in remediation periods every day, which are unnecessary for these higher students. We just don’t have the resources to provide the enrichment they need, so they are being held back.

    • Thanks for your comment Caitlin. You describe a difficult situation. My impression is that things are somewhat better at Emerson, though I’ve only directly observed the K classes, which is not the whole picture.

      The problem you describe — how to best serve a wide range of aptitudes — is universal, not just related to under-performing schools. I wonder how many teachers are using tools like khanacademy.org to let the the gifted kids move on to more advanced material, as well as helping kids catch up (if they missed a lesson or need extra time on a particular concept).

  18. Ken

    Hi J.D.

    We’re in Minnesota and face a similar choice, but between two public schools. Both are roughly same distance from home, one is the “good” suburban school with high test scores, the other is a more diverse, lower performing magnet school with an arts-focused curriculum that we really like. We’re leaning toward the latter for a lot of the reasons you wrote about here.

    But I’m curious to know if you would have made the same decision — or embarked on exploring the value of the underperforming school in the first place — had tuition not been a factor.

    • Hi Ken — we have a number of high-performing public elementary schools in our area that we could have applied for (though admission would not have been automatic if the school was over-enrolled). But Emerson was our first choice school. In addition to liking the teachers and diversity, being able to walk to school was also a big plus.

  19. Hayley

    Yay! Let’s send our kids to common core public schools! We can be progressive and turn our kids into brainwashed zombie fascists! Common core propaganda is the best!

  20. Judi

    Did you consider homeschooling?

  21. Judi

    Yes, that makes it trickier. I do know several two-career families who homeschool, but usually at least one parent has a really flexible schedule, or they have family (sibling/grandparent) help. Of course, many HS families have one full-time working parent and one part-time working parent; the first for benefits and insurance, the second for a flexible source of extra cash. People can work it out if sufficiently motivated (unaccredited or unsafe school, unhappy kid, strong convictions), but it is a hassle.

    Thanks for responding.

  22. SNP

    JD–we’re new parents renting in South Berkeley, but looking to buy/move to Oakland. Some searches about OUSD landed me here and, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and your opinion. My husband and I are die hard public schoolers, and while I know in my heart that it’s the absolute and only way we will go, with our kid(s), it’s helpful to have some validation, particularly in light of the constant conversational buzz about how “bad” Oakland schools are. There was a recent NYT op-ed about the indifference of parental involvement in children’s school performance (http://goo.gl/EHpVSA). I disagreed with it, but was wondering if you had thoughts on that matter? Please keep blogging, we’ll be avid readers!

    • Thanks for the comment and glad you’re enjoying the blog! I read the op-ed piece — seemed inconclusive at best, and the things they were looking at (helping with homework, talking about school) aren’t really the things I consider to be “parental involvement.” At Emerson I think most parents would consider parental involvement to be:
      1) raising money for school programs like music, poetry, art, and science (ideally this wouldn’t be necessary, but OUSD and public schools in general have tight budgets)
      2) supporting and working with faculty and students on issues like preventing bullying, organized school drop-offs, field trip ideas, and so on

      Emerson is going great … here are some links to some of the programs the PTO helps support:

      Poetry Inside Out
      http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/site/Default.aspx?PageID=2092

      Choral Music with Contare Con Vivo
      http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/site/Default.aspx?PageID=2077

      And some pictures from Emerson’s Facebook page:
      https://www.facebook.com/EmersonSchool/photos_stream

  23. cheryl holland

    hi: I really liked this article–probably b/c it reflects my & my husband’s beliefs about the huge amount of intangible benefits of a public school education. And we have anecdotal proof, of a sort. We have a son who just entered 6th grade & a son about to finish college. Both attend/attended public school throughout their elementary years. When our older son & his little pals were about to transition from preschool to kindergarten, and we were newish parents of a first child along with all the other preschool parents in same boat, there was that panic that parents have when they think public schools are awful thing to do to their child [we live in Los Angeles]. All of the parents, save us, opted for private school whether they could afford it or not. We could afford a private school, but decided against it based on the theory that private school’s detriments outweighed its benefits. We based this theory on our own beliefs & also on our pediatrician’s telling us that of his 6 kids, the older of whom he had sent to elite private schools & the younger of whom he had sent to public, the ones who attended public school had been much more successful on many levels.

    I found a public school near us in Hollywood called Valley View. Valley View is actually the district school for a wealthy enclave called Outpost but all the kids who lived in Outpost attended private school. So, students, primarily latino, were bussed in from a poorer district in LA whose school was overcrowded. Test scores at Valley View were ABYSMAL. However, I wanted to look at the school b/c it was so close to our house & part of what we valued about attending a nearby public school is community fosterage. When I visited Valley View, I really liked the principal & the kindergarten teacher, so I enrolled my son. My son had an amazing time at Valley View and his classroom of 12 students included not just latino kids, but a couple of children whose parents had just moved from Europe [netherlands & germany] and who didn’t have the prejudice about using the local school, a persian child etc etc. Our son went on to Walter Reed Middle school, also very ethnically diverse, with a greater variety of ethnicities beyond latino [persian, asian etc] and then North Hollywood High which, b/c of its extremely academic program, is considered one of the best high school in the U.S. NoHo High also had a very very ethnically diverse student body where “white” kids were the definite minority.

    But here is where the anecdote comes in: all those preschool kids that went the private school route? We stayed friends with the parents & kids through the years. So when my older son was leaving for college, we had a party for all his friends & their parents, both from his public high school & from his preschool years & all the friends in between. Those kids that went to some of the most elite private schools in LA? Not any better off, college acceptance wise or education wise, than the my son’s public high school friends and, in fact, much worse, depending on how you measure these things [is it of value to be exposed to the more entitled, homogenous private school world or not?]. The parents of the private school kids? Bitter, bitter, bitter. It appeared they had started to realize during last few years of high school that perhaps the emperor was not wearing any clothes and the $400k [ a low estimate based on 13 years x $30k of private tuition] they had spent on their child’s private school education had not netted them any better result than if they had opted for public school back when their child was coming outta preschool. And, to add insult to injury, they were still on the hook for paying for 4-7 more years of schooling [college & maybe grad school]. They were mad.

    While the private school parents mingled with the public school kids at this party, there was this almost shock of recognition that the public school kids were amazing. EVERY SINGLE PRIVATE SCHOOL parent at this party eventually congregated at this one large table in my backyard & lamented what fools they had been all those years before. And, that if they had to do it over again, knowing now what they know, they would’ve made different choices etc etc. It was hugely interesting to hear them talk. The primary topic was the realization that one does not need to pay for school to get a great product [pointing at the public school kids milling about in my backyard with their prestigious college admissions & their maturity & their equally bright if not brighter futures etc etc]. And, in fact, the opposite may be true: Given the intangibles you are more likely to get a great product with a public school education.

    What are the intangibles my son received from public school? Well, there were many but I will mention a few: when a new little girl joined his first grade class from ethiopia, I said one day “tell me which girl she is? I don’t remember what she looks like” curious to see how he described her since this little girl had very dark skin. He said, “oh, she is the one that smiles a lot & has her hair in 2 braids.”

    When my son was 13 and in middle school, one of his fellow students told him how he earned extra money for his family on the weekends helping his dad deliver flyers. Unbeknownst to us until after he did it, my son then went to a restaurant near our house in Hollywood and asked for a job delivering flyers. He did that thru-out the summer he turned 14, on his roller blades. The next summer another school friend told him about his night job being an usher at the Hollywood Bowl and my son did that, as well, biking to work each night & being “employee of the month” several times. The work ethic of his schoolmates–not just academic work ethic– but real life work ethic is one of those intangibles. [P.S. this work ethic has served my son VERY well during his high school & college internships.]

    In high school, my son learned to love kimchee and a variety of other cultural foods, grazing off the lunches his friends brought to school. He had friends/dated girls of diverse ethnic/socio economic backgrounds & was duly inculcated into their worlds. While in high school, he obtained a highly coveted paid internship at Jet Propulsion Lab and was voted “intern of the year.” He returned to work at JPL several times during his college years at Purdue [4 year academic scholarship in engineering] & is a very highly sought after graduate–with full time job offers from JPL, Yelp, Bloomberg, Apple, nokia etc etc etc [this is where delivering flyers at age 14 pays off].

    Our older son is the proof in the pudding so we are following the same route with our younger. Our younger son is enrolled at Thomas Starr King Middle school with a student body population which is 60% latino, 12% asian, 20% anglo & 8% “other.”

  24. cheryl holland

    you are welcome. i forgot to say that we spent some of the money “saved” on private school tuition by taking months long biking or backpacking trips with both boys to various destinations in the world…Now that is a valuable “intangible” :))

  25. Hey J.D. I’m also a musician living in Temescal. I’m doing school research for my 4 yr-old daughter who’ll be going to kindergarten next year, and this post was really helpful re: Emerson. Thanks!

    • Nice! Please introduce yourself if you see me around. There is also a kid play-date at Emerson 11am-1pm every first Saturday … sometimes I come by and my wife Kia is often there.

  26. Adri

    Very interesting. I found your blog while searching “a month without alcohol” lol, (yeah going on a detox from red wine as well), and just kept reading. We just moved from Austin this past summer, my kids have always attended public schools, well first of because there’s 3 of them (boys) so it’ll be very expensive, and second because some of the very points you have written here, multicultural and variation.

    We are an American-Mexican family, I was born and raised in Mexico and my husband is a white american. Our kids look basicaly white cause I have a fair skin color as well. Anyways, after debating if I should homeschool the kids because we had no luck fitting in a “good Oak school” we were able to place them in one that has worked for us so far; long story short, sometimes Im afraid they will pick the “bad” just as they are changing some of their vocabulary already, then I remind myself that the whole purpose of moving to Ca in the first place was to be able to provide the experience of living in a much stronger and city like community. I kept telling my husband “Austin is a pink bubble and we need to get the kids out of their comfort zone”. So much for my sense of adventure, right? One thing I know for sure, my kid’s are learning so many unwritten social skills, understanding behavior patterns and learning to make new friends, hopefully by the time they get to be independent they go out the door with an open mind, a problem solving skill, an understanding of races, people and culture that no one but a public school can offer. I still cannot believe its been almost 7months since we moved (time flies) and the awesome weather we have here everyday.

    Congrats on your blog and succes!
    (Please pardon my grammar errors, english is my second language)

  27. sk

    This post was like music to my ears…. Or eyes? Either way. I’ve had such a hard time finding information/opinions/anything about this topic.

    We currently live in Pittsburgh,PA and the public school situation here seems… odd to me. We first started looking for a new home a little over a year ago. While we were looking at houses in different neighborhoods, we encountered a lot of warnings about seemingly nice neighborhoods to the effect of, “That’s a nice neighborhood, but the public school is terrible, so make sure you save money for private school.” On the surface, it seemed like good advice. Indeed, the aforementioned schools do not rank highly in our state for test scores or graduation rates. When I looked a little deeper, though, I found that for example, the neighborhood public school is largely African American, while the competing local private school is mostly white. Despite the fact that the neighborhood is pretty evenly split.

    Ultimately we decided to move to a neighborhood that we liked, worked well for our work commutes, had nice parks and walkable streets. We completely disregarded the school we were zoned for. My son is not yet 2, so we have some time to think about it. This may seem naïve, but there are so many options for schooling in this city (public, charter, private, and even an option to go to a public school you are not zoned for through some kind of lottery system) that it just became overwhelming. Additionally, the only public schools that perform “well” by many folks’ standards are outside of the city. And we knew we wanted to live inside the city limits for a variety of reasons.

    The public high school that my son is currently zoned for is 97% African American, despite the fact that the neighborhood is close to 75% white. And ranks terribly (bottom 15% in the state) But like you, I want to support public schools, and believe that socioeconomics often play a greater role in a schools ranking. I am hesitant to send my child to a private school just because it seems to be what others are doing… well, other white people, I guess. But it’s just been so hard to find information about the schools other than test scores and graduation rates. I have no idea if the teachers are good.

    Anyway. Good post.

  28. Hey JD–found this online, and was curious as to how you are finding things two years on regarding Emerson and your daughter’s education and well-being.

    • We were really pleased with both K and 1st grade. Great teachers!

      2nd grade has been hard so far. Our 2nd-grade class had some challenging kids, our teacher became overwhelmed and resigned. Major crisis! Parents and administration came together and just recently Emerson found a highly qualified, very experienced teacher to take over the class for the rest of the year. So … definitely some challenges, and both kids and parents were feeling the stress of the poorly managed classroom.

      I intend to write about the whole situation in more detail towards the end of the school year, but at the moment I am feeling relieved and hopeful. My daughter is in good spirits and once again happy to go to school. Academically she is ahead in reading and I’m reasonably pleased with her progress in science, math, and history. Geography is lacking so far, but it’s only 2nd grade.

      It has been a hard year for Emerson with more than one teacher leaving, several new teachers, and new systems and programs partially in place that don’t have all the kinks worked out. Demographically the school is changing very quickly (still mostly black and brown but way more white kids) and this presents its own challenges in terms of cultural change and everybody adjusting. While I will continue to put my kid’s well-being over any kind of school loyalty, I don’t regret going to Emerson and I’m happy to be part of a diverse community, and also to be able to go to the neighborhood school just blocks from my house.

  29. Nanette Swisher

    I stumbled upon this post while searching for information about Emerson. My grandmother Hazel Dogali was a teacher’s assistant at Emerson for many many years. She was also on the PTO before that, starting in the early 60s as my mother and uncle attended Emerson. My grandparents lived on Cavour street their entire lives. My grandfather passed away in 1997. My grandmother moved up to Oregon with us as she grew older. I am trying to make it back down there to do some more hands on research. Would like to know if you knew of anyone I could speak to at Emerson that may help aid my research about my grandmother’s years there as an assistant? I have one school picture of my grandmother while she taught there that is all. I was mostly curious if they kept any old photos of the old school and information on its history…. Any help would be greatly appreciated!!!

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