Why We Send Our Kids to the Poorest Public School
For the past 14 years, my full-time vocation has been "mom." I have spent a lot of time making decisions about what's best for my three children: which preschools they should go to, which sports teams they should join, which instruments they should play. Eight years ago, I was well on my way to figuring out the life I wanted for them.
Then God stepped in.
In 2005, at the height of the housing boom, my husband's job took us to Charlottesville, Virginia. We left our suburban (lawnboy- and maid-included), 4,000-square-foot parsonage in search of a house just as lovely in the city deemed the "best place to live in America." As we looked at houses, we didn't think much about the school systems for which they were zoned. We called the private Christian school tied to our new church, assuming we would educate our kids just like we did in our old city. But $10,000 a kid wasn't going to work on a campus minister's budget.
That's how we ended up at the poorest public school in the city. Our kids are white; 79 percent of their classmates weren't. Our kids speak English only; 45 percent of their classmates didn't speak English at home. Our kids can live comfortably above the poverty line; 82 percent of their classmates couldn't. The PTO had three members and an $800 annual budget. The teachers seemed burnt out, and new refugee children were being dropped off weekly, sometimes in pajamas, never having seen a school building or indoor plumbing.
One of the first people I met in Charlottesville was an older teacher at the school. I told her I was worried about sending our oldest into first grade. She asked, "What would make you stop him from going here?" I thought about it for a minute. "I guess if he got beat up by another student." Her follow-up question to this young and fearful mother: "How many times?"
That first year I wept and worried. There were kids starting kindergarten who didn't know that an alphabet existed; kids without books at home; kids without parents at home, babysitting each other while their parents worked two and three jobs. I spent a lot of time that year asking God, "Why me?" as in: "Why did I have to be exposed to so much poverty?"
And then I spent a lot of time repenting. I could change my situation if I wanted to. Most of the other families couldn't. I asked people at our church and in other cities what we should do. Almost everyone said, "Leave." "Your children will suffer," they added. And then someone gave me an essay by John Perkins, the wonderful Christian community developer, and he said, "Stay."
God Was Already Present
So we stayed. We met the Christian teachers at the school. One of my son's "brown" classmates asked him if he would pray for his dad, and they began praying and playing together, and eight years later remain best friends. We met the staff of a ministry providing tutoring and mentors for these kids. God showed us that he had been there long before we arrived.
But I still wept and worried and wondered what I could do. Almost simultaneously I had two pastors, including my husband, say, "Trust God with your children." I was mad. I didn't want to trust God. I just wanted things to change.
So I partnered with another mom in the neighborhood. We spoke at school board meetings. We pushed to hire a new principal and a full-time ESL coordinator. We figured out a way to raise $3,000 for the PTO through bake sales, grantwriting, local business donations, and the best darn bingo night you've ever seen.
Just as I was getting a handle on the school setting, beginning to trust and to join what was being done to fight the achievement gap, God opened my eyes to something called the opportunity gap.
Because teams were formed around schools, our kids fell headfirst into a soccer team of African refugees. We now had race, class, language, culture, and religious barriers to navigate. Imagine a phone conversation something like this: "Hi. Mr. Mohammed? This is Jennifer Slate. William's mom? Yes, I'm white. Well, anyway, I'm calling because you'll need to sign up your son online for the fall season by Monday. Do you have a computer? The registration is $100, but we can probably get him a scholarship. But he needs to wear cleats instead of tennis shoes. And will you be able to give him a ride every Saturday? Oh, you work every Saturday. Well . . . I can pick him up and keep him for lunch after the game. We'll just pack some ham sandwiches. Oh, he can't eat pork."
And this was one child in a community of dozens. One of dozens who wore jeans to games because they did not have cool Adidas soccer shorts. One of many who used cardboard from cereal boxes in their socks as shin guards. One of several who asked if they could have chicken nuggets when the team went out for ice cream because it would fill their tummies better that night.
But God was already working in these places too. He had sent two families ahead of us. They had met these African families a few years prior. They had coached their teams, coordinated rides, and found grants for swimming lessons. And swim team scholarships. And extra swimsuits, goggles, caps, and beach towels. They took kids camping, and tubing, and to University of Virginia games. They became family, having kids stay with them when parents had to leave town. And they graciously let me tiptoe behind them, filling in where I could, slowly learning African geography and history, slowly remembering to buy all-beef hot dogs and pizza without pepperoni. Slowly learning how to think about children other than my own.
Is All This Worth It?
I was still crying all the time—and realizing that charity wasn't enough. I had to return to what the pastors had told me to do: Trust. Could I trust God with my children? Could I trust God with my resources? Could I trust that God himself was working for the common good?
Along the way, I met a few of the African parents. I began to hear stories of what they saw before they made it to the refugee camps: friends and relatives murdered, children and siblings left behind. Stories of coming to a place, knowing nothing about the future. I thought about what they had to teach me about trusting that there was something good ahead for my children.
I began to make decisions about my children's lives in a different way. What if I didn't only think about the fabulous life I could make for my three? What if I stood up for not only what was good for mine, but was good for all? What size car would be big enough to carpool other kids? What sports league should we play in so that everyone could participate? Could my husband and I set aside time to coach teams that they could join? Could we pick up extra granola bars every week? Could we make sacrifices for others to have a childhood experience equal to our own?
It would be fairly easy to take my children back to an all-white, all-Christian, all-moneyed, educated world. And in times of doubt, I think about doing it. Like when my children miss out on amazing class field trips. And when our son's basketball team has to wear uniforms that are two sizes too big, and one player wears duct tape around his shorts to hold them up. Or when I am tired of spending money and sharing with others. When I am tired of having my comfort interrupted and confronted. When I doubt that any of this is worth doing at all.
But it is worth it. Not only for the other children to have experiences of dignity and hope and joy, not only for my children who are learning that everyone is not just like them, and that the world doesn't revolve around them either. It is worth it also for me. I am trusting God, and trusting that the "best life" is this one that he has given us. Trusting that he is the One ultimately working for common good, trusting that he is inviting me to work with him, and with all the other families, teachers, coaches, and neighbors here.
It takes more than a village to raise a child. It takes a kingdom.
Jennifer Slate is a wife, mom, and writer living in Virginia. She hosts as many themed-costumed parties as her family can stand.