It is the first day of school in the Denver Public Schools today. Parents, myself included, ushered their children to the elementary school in my neighborhood, located teachers, and saw their children into their classrooms. It was a rare moment of personal contact in a world where supporting a non-profit or political campaign often means writing a check, and civic organizations have given way to competing demands from work and family. Donuts and coffee greeted parents on the playing fields as student gathered. Few students appeared to mourn the summer vacation they were leaving behind. We saw many familiar faces of parents and teachers my daughter encountered in kindergarten at the same school last year.
It is the first day of school for my daughter's first grade teacher as well. Her teacher has a particularly daunting challenge. In a world of school choice and transitory parents, her roster had 36 children on it. Last year it was 37, but only 19 materialized on the first day of school. The rest ended up finding a slot in another public school, went private in the end, or simply moved on to a new city or neighborhood without notifying their old school. Who would think to do that? Moreover, when the dust settles, her class will likely have a smaller enrollment than the other first grade classes, which means that she will receive almost every first grader who transfers into our school in the middle of the year.
Although it is only first grade and is a public school, the children are not coming to her as blank slates or as a representative sample of the children in our community. The Denver Public Schools replaced busing, with neighborhood schools supplemented by school choice when the desegregation order that had dominated the district expired. As it happens, my daughter's school is one of the most "choiced into" schools in the district – it is in the top six out of eighty-four elementary schools in the District. This results from a particular combination of factors.
One important, but not particularly obvious, factor is that there is room in the school for children to choice in. My neighborhood is affluent. Many parents with school aged children who live in the neighborhood don’t trust the Denver Public Schools and send their children to private schools or choice into an entirely different neighboring school district. Also, to a great extent as a result of decades of parental concerns with the Denver Public Schools, valid or not, during the school busing era, the character of the neighborhood I live in has been impacted. Lots of childless single people and couples with no school aged children live in the neighborhood. There are far fewer children living in the neighborhood and far fewer of them attending the local public school than there were forty or fifty years ago. Schools further into Southeast Denver have more families with children and more families who choose to stay in the Denver Public School system.
Another important factor is that this school is completely on one side of the invisible lines that segregate Denver. The next schools over to the West and North are not. Parents who choose to choice out of their neighborhood schools are overwhelmingly middle class, white or both, and overwhelmingly live in neighborhoods that are low income, heavily minority in population, or both. (There are actually many Asian children at the school my children attend but, the vast majority of them are adopted. My children are among the few who actually live with an Asian-American parent). Often, they are seeking the closest school that they feel comfortable in (since they have to provide transportation every day in most cases), which is ours.
Our school also has a special program that covers some, but not all of the students. While there is no formal tracking in the first grade, parents do have some say in which program their children are placed in, and this influences the students in the class. My daughter’s class is the “ordinary program”. As a result it tends to have parents who either don’t terribly like the special program at the school, or were not bureaucratically adept (or lucky, there is a lottery) enough to find themselves in the special program.
The result, in my daughter’s case, is a class devoid of extremes. The upper middle class (almost no one admits to being rich), and the ranks of the working class and below are underrepresented. The class is ethnically diverse, although it does not “look like Denver”, but almost no one in the class is poor. As a highly choiced in school, many children aren’t from the neighborhood, and because the decision to undertake a school choice means transporting your children to school every day, it also means that the parents disproportionately are committed to their children’s educations and have at least one parent with a flexible schedule.
Of course, in addition to all of the sorting that goes on, even at the point where one might think that children come as a blank slate into the system, each child in her class has been profoundly influenced by six years of life before the first grade and by their own personalities. There are already children who are prone to be rough and children who are shy. There are notable differences in how prepared the children are to do school work, and notable differences in the children’s social skills. There are children who come from homes with strict discipline and children who come from homes with more relaxed expectations. Some of the children can read already, some can’t, and some are just starting to get the idea. Some are entering the first grade on the old side, others are entering just old enough to be eligible to join the class.
The point of all of this, I suppose, is to make clear that teachers, as important as they are, are not the only or even the primary effect on a child’s educational success. The level playing field is a convenient and socially valuable myth, but it isn’t reality. My daughter’s green teacher isn’t going to ruin my daughter and isn’t going to make her a genius either. In elementary education, enthusiasm can make up for a variety of instructional sins. Indeed, this is probably still true at the graduate level where I am a green professor.