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School daze

The troublesome quest for the “better” school

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My son is entering junior kindergarten in September. “Can I go now?” he asks, when I point out the dream school, a sweetly shabby place with a big park (for him) and a well-regarded art program (for me). I grip his mitten a little tighter and shout: “With God as my witness, you will go to this school! I don’t care if I have to plant myself on the jungle gym like that Butterfly woman in the Redwoods!”

He thinks it’s funny, but I’m not laughing. The school I want him to attend is four blocks north, but according to city boundaries, the school we are supposed to attend is a big red one three blocks east. “Why don’t we go to there, Mama?” he asks. “Because Mommy’s a ball of contradiction.”

Big red is 75 per cent ESL, with a largely Chinese population. Dream school is racially mixed but its ESL population is only 33 per cent. One of my Cool Mom postures has been to scoff at the flash-card wielding yuppies who live downtown and send their kids to private schools several Prius rides away. Why live here, I sniff, if not to embrace the community?

Our neighbourhood is an urban mash-up of cultures, but with real estate madness, it’s suddenly become an expensive place to live, and those with money spend it on their children. The dusty textile stores are closing, replaced by Baby Yoga and drop-in centres offering Child Anger Management courses. Mostly, I try to tune out the mechanical drone of children being engineered rather than raised, a sound that appears to be the theme of my generation.

I have lengthy, heated arguments (with myself, admittedly) in which I righteously go after the public-school traitors: If involved, caring parents abandon local schools, doesn’t the system weaken and collapse? And isn’t public education the foundation of our social democracy, this great land we call Canada? I am extremely persuasive.

But in some way, we are turning public school into private school. In Ontario, a school can declare itself “closed” to out-of-district families if in-district kids fill the spots; but if a child attends the daycare affiliated with the school, he is all but guaranteed acceptance. In my neighbourhood, parents will choose daycares before the baby is born, based on the school they want their hypothetical child to attend. This sounds like a push for perfectionism that is the way of madness for parents, and yet, I’ve had J. on the wait list at the dream school’s daycare for two years.

In Vancouver, a friend of mine in a parallel neighbourhood – formerly Italian, now culturally interloped – has her own strategy: She’s enrolling her kindergartner in a French immersion program. “It’s like getting private education in the public system,” she told me.

Parents have always made housing decisions based on schools, but now real-estate agents publish ads pushing schools as much as property: four bedroom, garage, hot lunch, firm anti-bullying policy. Even as condos flood the area with middle-class residents, many schools in formerly working-class neighbourhoods remain at 70 to 80 per cent capacity. Where are those thousands of parents sending their kids then? The “hot” schools out of district, presumably, with all the other yuppies.

Now there’s a rumour that my local red school is so underpopulated it might close. I wonder about those unknown children, about what losing the ESL programs will mean for their futures and what my own children might have learned next to them. I wonder about what is lost.

So parenting, once again, throws into relief my own limits as a person: I am not willing to sacrifice my child for the greater good this time, which is perhaps how the private-school Prius parents feel, too. I want J. to be challenged academically, and maybe, in some deeper place that only white people have the privilege not to visit, I worry for him, a blond boy in a class of Chinese students, up against the loneliness of difference. Education is our first major decision as parents, and now, our first major compromise.

“When do we start?” J. asks when we walk past the school. And to myself, I say, We already have.