Finding a “Good School” – Beyond the Myths
by Eileen Gale Kugler
Finding a good school filled with capable teachers, motivated students, and committed parents like themselves is one of a parent’s most important responsibilities. Concerned about media stories of violent or failing schools, many parents think back nostalgically to suburban schools of Ozzie and Harriet communities. Even if they didn’t attend a school like that themselves, these parents hope they can find one for their children. They review standardized test scores, assuming that the highest average scores always mean the best schools. They check out demographic statistics, fearing that high populations of minority students translate to schools where gangs rule, violence is common, and expectations are low.
Armed with little more than the most basic statistics, parents make decisions about where to live and where to enroll their children—decisions that impact their children, themselves, the community, and our society at large. Yet the assumptions guiding their decisions are often fraught with myths and misperceptions.
Some parents never learn that many diverse public schools have challenging curricula, high-achieving graduates, and low rates of violence. Even more important, they never consider research that clearly shows the value of being educated in a diverse environment. Because academic research and day-to-day experience reveal that a diverse student body benefits students of every race, as well as our entire society, the Supreme Court was flooded with supporting legal briefs—more than for any case in history—when it recently considered the importance of diversity in education.
Of course, a diverse student body doesn’t immediately translate into a positive educational experience. These schools require strong, innovative leaders who willingly accept the challenges that a diverse student population presents.
In choosing the best school for their children, many parents actually deprive their children of the most enriching environments, namely schools with a mix of students from different races, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic levels. On the other hand, parents who have experienced the extraordinary academic and social enhancements of diverse schools, including white parents like myself, would never trade them for a homogeneous environment where every student looks and thinks like ours. My involvement as a PTA leader in one of the most diverse schools in the nation, Annandale High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, made me grateful on a daily basis for the lessons my son and daughter learned in this school, both in and out of the classroom. Today, at ages 21 and 25, they are caring, intelligent broad thinkers, comfortable in any environment, talking to just about anyone.
My experience is far from isolated. I heard that enthusiasm for the gifts of diverse schools over and over again when I interviewed parents, students, and educators from around the country during the past few years. Not buying into society’s definition of a “good school” as predominantly white middle-class, these parents have learned that diverse schools expose their children to a wealth of knowledge shared by students with different backgrounds and life experiences.
Carolyn Tabarini, the former PTA president at Groveton Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, is thrilled that her children have the opportunity to interact with students from nearly 30 nations. “My kids rarely come home and say someone moved here from New York or St. Louis. Instead, they tell me someone just moved here from China or Bosnia or Botswana,” Tabarini said. “There is never a comment that the other child doesn’t speak English. The children always seem to be able to communicate.” Commenting that some middle-class children have never been exposed to people from other races or economic levels, Tabarini noted, “My kids are comfortable sitting down next to anybody.”
Contrary to the myths, diverse schools offer distinct advantages that are simply not available in homogeneous schools.
- Classes are more engaging when students learn not only from the teacher and textbooks but also from the personal experiences of other students. As elementary teacher Kate Andreatta from Binghamton, New York, told me, “nothing is more interesting to students than each other.” She used the children’s own stories to enrich lessons across the curriculum.
- Simple projects offer amazing opportunities for enhanced learning in a diverse school. At Annandale High School, where students hail from more than 85 nations, American government teacher Jennifer Burns randomly assigned her students into groups for a cooperative learning project on a Utopian government. My son was assigned to a group that quickly realized there were six religious perspectives represented within their group of eight students: fundamentalist Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, Sikh, and Muslim. They decided to investigate the relationship between church and state. Imagine the richness of the discussions as the students reflected the different messages from their respective houses of worship, as well as their different life experiences. They enthusiastically researched their topic and presented a challenging report to their class, which proceeded to engage in lively discussion of its own. How well prepared these students will be for the type of interactive global community they will certainly face in the future!
- Students learn critical thinking skills when their own perceptions are challenged. Tom Pratuch, a board-certified chemistry teacher in Northern Virginia, told me about a class discussion on the value of chemistry to society. Students discussed testing for safety in food, drugs, and cosmetics, eventually discussing animal rights and the pros and cons of animal testing. “What are ‘animal rights’?” sincerely questioned a student who had recently left a country in Africa facing famine. The entire class stopped to consider this profound question. Most of these students had never thought about a situation where you either ate the first animal that came along or you starved. This prompted a larger discussion of the relationship between humans and animals, a key aspect of science.
- Students are open to new approaches and new ways of thinking, not assuming there is only one right answer or solution. Betty Paschall, recognized by National PTA for her parent outreach efforts as PTA president at S. Ray Lowder School in Lincolnton, North Carolina, described the difference she sees in her youngest child, the only one of her three to attend a diverse school. “She has learned to be more open to learning, to ask more questions, and to not be afraid to interact with different people.”
“[My child] has learned to be more open to learning, to ask more questions, and to not be afraid to interact with different people.”
A student from Jackson, Mississippi, a community where middle-class parents banded together as “Parents for Public Schools” to preserve the economic and racial diversity of the public schools, told me that she felt one of the strengths of her high school was that students listened to each other, even if the comments were challenging. “Respecting others’ opinions makes you a much more intelligent person,” said Taylor Butler.
Not only are academic benefits dramatic, social benefits extend far beyond the pleasantries of getting to know someone from another culture. Our entire society gains from the lessons learned in a well-run diverse school, for example:
- Students accept difference of all types. Diane Brody, the president of the Fairfax County (VA) Council of PTAs, told me how her young son developed alopecia areata, an autoimmune skin disease that resulted in his hair falling out when he was in 1st grade in a very diverse school. Although the teacher let him wear a hat, he eventually just took it off. Not one student noticed he didn’t have hair. “The kids just saw this kid is brown, this one is black, this one has a turban, and this one has no hair,” Brody said. “I took him to a few conventions of people suffering from the disease so he could meet other kids with the same condition. We heard horror stories about reactions of students in other schools, including special private schools. I came away with a real appreciation for the power of a diverse classroom. I could not have paid for him to go to any school in the country to have a better experience than he did.”
- Prejudices and stereotypes break down when students have the opportunity to get to know peers from other backgrounds on a personal level. At a high school basketball game, one white mother noticed that the star player wasn’t doing very well. “Mom, don’t you know it’s Ramadan and she hasn’t eaten all day!” replied her daughter. When 9/11 hit, students in healthy diverse schools didn’t see their Muslim classmates as potential terrorists, they saw them as friends who might need a little support in the days ahead.
- Students gain an appreciation for what they have. Want an antidote for the spoiled child syndrome? Send your kid to a well-run diverse school. Students learn appreciation for what they have from peers who not only share a room with siblings and cousins, but have a hard time finding a quiet place to study anywhere in their home. There are extraordinary lessons to be learned from Shukri Sindi, a young man who spent four years in a Kurdish refugee camp after the last Gulf war before coming to the United States. With the encouragement of his art teacher, he won national art awards by translating his searing memories of those days to the canvas. He eventually earned a full scholarship to Pratt Institute to study architecture and currently has a job in that field. He told me how grateful he is to have “received the best education one can have.”
After exposure to many students who rose above similar life struggles each day, one middle-class student told me it was hard to deal with college peers from his social class who seemed to waste money carelessly. He was appalled when a classmate was unfazed that she lost a substantial amount of money by dropping all her courses late in the semester. “Can you get a refund?” he asked her. “No, but my bad grades won’t be reflected on my GPA!”
Of course, a diverse student body doesn’t immediately translate into a positive educational experience. These schools require strong, innovative leaders who willingly accept the challenges that a diverse student population presents, building a school on a foundation of high expectations for all students and respect for each individual. For administrators and faculty to accomplish this, parents must play a critical supportive role.
When it all comes together—a student body that is diverse racially, ethnically, and economically; a strong principal and faculty; a supportive community—magic happens. But parents will never find out about these places if they don’t look beyond statistics. It’s time to visit the neighborhood school. Talk to the principal. Talk to the teachers. Talk to other parents. You may be surprised at what a “good school” looks like.
And your personal involvement in that school may impact far more than the education of your own children. A vibrant diverse school benefits everyone’s children, and it can be a beacon for building a strong diverse community beyond the school walls. In the end, we all benefit. The experience of being part of a thriving diverse school can’t be bought or measured on standardized tests. I found it enriched every member of my family, and its lessons guide my life every day.
Eileen Gale Kugler is a national advocate for diverse schools, working with parents and educators to build strong schools. She is the author of Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids (Scarecrow Education Press, 2002). Her e-mail address is EKugler@EmbraceDiverseSchools.com.