The Benefits of Sending Your Privileged Child to an “Underperforming” School

Published by The Equity Initiative on

By Courtney E. Martin, Columnist,

Image By Aaron Burden


The private school down the street from our house is very good at advertising exactly why it’s awesome. They have a beautiful, comprehensive website and a big canvas banner outside the sprawling campus that reads:

“Park Day prepares students to be informed, courageous, and compassionate people who shape a more equitable and sustainable world.”

It also has a tall 10-foot fence and a gate that opens and closes when parents drive in to drop their children off. My daughters and I sometimes catch a glimpse of the chickens wandering around inside and what looks like a super fun playground. Someone once tried to get us the code but we were told there was a crackdown after too many neighborhood kids found their way in. It costs $25,790 a year for kindergarten.

If you want to play at the public school down the street from our house on the weekend, you can just stick your arm through the fence and open the gate. Our little ones know it well — the astroturf is good for somersaults and picnics, there is a perfect little window under the baby slide for pretending to sell popsicles, and there’s even a weird little tree house where you can sit and wave at the people riding by in their cars. There are usually at least a few other families there, killing an hour in the sometimes endless abyss of a Saturday or Sunday with toddlers.

Our neighborhood public school is approachable, but it’s not trying to sell you anything. The website is perfunctory and sometimes outdated. The principal is happy to chat but won’t make any hyperbolic promises. It doesn’t claim to have the power to turn your child into Mother Teresa or Elon Musk. It succeeds on some fronts and fails on others. It’s a school. It attempts to educate small humans. Every day, starting at 8:30am. With or without the adequate funding. Usually without.

If you’re trying to decide where to send your kid to school, it’s pretty logical to ask yourself: what might my kid gain from going to the most highly rated school in town? That school is, very likely, really good at answering that — whether it’s public or private.

If you are trying to be socially-conscious, you might even ask yourself: what do other kids lose if my kid doesn’t go to the neighborhood, public school? That’s a good question and there are a lot of important answers. Those kids lose the friendship that your kid might offer, and in a roundabout way, the whole system loses out on your family’s energy, loyalty, and resources. The “public” part of public schools gets eroded when too many parents get understandably seduced by the places with the pithy taglines and the great websites.

But let’s flip the script. Let’s explore a different question: what do white and/or economically privileged kids gain from living in diverse neighborhoods and going to their local, public schools?

First, a very important table-setting for this exploration: The most critical reason to send your privileged kid to public school: integrity. If you believe in the common good, of which public schools are the most fundamental building block this country has to offer, then participating in that system makes good sense. Contributing through your attention and cultural capital, offering up your most precious resource — your love for your child — and letting that love expand and benefit a bunch of kids who are also deeply loved by their parents, but quite possibly, not in a position to forgo the failing, neighborhood school — well, it’s aligned. It feels right.

The modern American culture of parenting would lead you to believe that you can’t prioritize the common good and your own child at the same time — that the only way to be an excellent parent is to get the measurable best of everything for your child, which inherently means turning a blind eye to what other people’s kids endure. What if, instead, what is healthy for your child — not “best,” but healthy — is to receive no end of love and only proportional resources, and to witness parents trying to fumble their way toward closing the gap between their values and their actions each and every exhausting day?

A related, foundational reason: equality. Our public schools perpetuate racism and classism more systematically and effectively than almost any other institution we’ve got in this country. If you want to fight white supremacy and the legacy of slavery, public schools are a decent place to start.

Shannan Martin and her husband both grew up in small towns, heavily influenced by their all-white Evangelical Church. “We thought our duty was to live as safe and protected a life as possible,” she explains. But when they moved to Goshen, Indiana — the RV capital of the world — they decided to enroll their three children in a Latinx-majority public school, despite their neighbors’ warning. She explains: “We sent our kids to a ‘failing’ elementary school where, they told us, there would be drugs, evolution, gay people, and gangs.”

“It is the best thing that ever happened to us. I cringe to know how much a part of the problem I once was,” she says.

“I can only hope I continue to grow in ways that grind my old paradigms into dust. We have been here long enough to wake up to the overwhelming goodness of being part of a rich and diverse community. We understand our presence here does not enhance the lives of those around us nearly as much as their presence enhances our lives.”

So what are the most oft-cited gifts? In over 100 emails I’ve received and dozens of conversations I’ve had, here is what I heard:

Your kid doesn’t just learn diversity, but lives diversity.

The census projects that America will become “minority white” by 2045. Demographer William Frey puts this oft-cited statistic in perspective for children entering school right now:

“Minorities will be the source of all of the growth in the nation’s youth and working age population, most of the growth in its voters, and much of the growth in its consumers and tax base as far into the future as we can see.”

To be clear, that means demographics are going to shift dramatically; the flow of actual power — economic and political, especially — out of white, male hands may take longer. Even so, white children raised in white dominant spaces are inherently less equipped for the workforce, not to mention world, that they are entering into. The rise of artificial intelligence will also mean that so-called “soft skills” — like getting along with a wide range of humanity — will become more and more critical. Our children, particularly our white children, will be deeply disserviced if they come of age in segregated enclaves that teach them about racial difference without giving them the opportunity to actually live with and among those racially and culturally different from them. They will be less effective communicators, collaborators, inventors, and artists. They will be less wise and generous citizens and neighbors. In a world increasingly intolerant of white obliviousness and fragility, they will be set up for a kind of social and emotional failure.

White kids who grow up in multiracial communities are less racist. Daily, nuanced interactions with people from other racial groups wire their little brains. They have so much lived experience, so much data (good and bad and everything in between), that they’re less likely to fall back on the dangerous, singular stories that Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche warns us about in her powerful TED talk: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

It’s great for everybody if we raise less racist kids, not just kids of color. Whiteness is often treated as a default state, rather than an actual culture in and of itself. Even Robin DiAngelo, one of the nation’s foremost experts on whiteness, writes: “It has taken me many years of intensive study and practice to be able to recognize and articulate how I am shaped by being white, and this in itself is an example of whiteness (while there are exceptions, most people of color do not find it anywhere near as difficult to articulate how race shapes their lives.).”

If white kids are exposed to a range of cultural norms — how this Ethiopian family eats, how this Latinx mom talks about God, what this black father likes to do when he gets home from work — they can begin to see whiteness for what it is, a racial category with an invisible suitcase bursting at the seams full of optional values and practices. Owning your privilege shouldn’t be optional, neither should mindlessly adopting white cultural norms. White kids who are blessed to live with and among families unlike their own will have less of the kind of work DiAngelo describes ahead of them. Kids who grow up in multiracial environments are more likely to be aware of how white culture shapes them, and have some valuable perspective on selectively adopting or rejecting it.

You and your kid get to be part of a community with non-white values.

One of the dominant norms of white privileged culture, in its contemporary form, is an emphasis on independence and a very particular and narrow kind of excellence. Our favorite parenting books are filled with advice about how we might shape our children into high achievers. We even plaster this ideology on our bumpers: “My kid is an honors student.” The dark side of all of this opportunity and emphasis on “winning” is that a lot of kids are left feeling like losers; sometimes to the point of questioning their own intrinsic worthiness.

What if your kid isn’t an honors student? What if your kid has a learning disability, but is an awesome gymnast or the kind of person who really senses when people are upset and knows how to help them out of a funk? There are no grades or bumper stickers for that.

Schools that aren’t majority white are, according to dozens of emails I received from parents, far more welcoming of kids who don’t fit a traditional mold. Amy Knueppel, whose child has Down syndrome, explains, “As any parent of a child with special needs will tell you, most schools with high test scores aren’t thrilled to hear that our kids will be attending their schools. They don’t like the fact that our kids bring extra work.”

She visited their neighborhood public school in Indianapolis with some trepidation. It had a bad reputation among her friends and low ISTEP scores, (the annual No Child Left Behind test designed by the Indiana Department of Education). But she felt instantly embraced: “For this school to welcome my son with open arms was almost surreal.”

And the initial feeling hasn’t worn off: “These are schools that don’t have the money that our schools in the suburbs have, but they promote an inclusive environment for all students, which is worth far more to us in the long run,” Amy explains. “I’ve gotten gasps and shocked looks when I tell people where I’m sending my son to school. I just smile and say that a school that can see the value my child adds to a class and that is willing to educate him fully alongside his peers, with the accommodations he needs, is the best school for him, regardless of location.”

Maggi Johnson of Seattle, had a similar experience at what she described as her kids’ “diverse inner city school.” One of her children needed to get pulled out of class regularly for speech therapy. Worried, Maggi asked the counselor if she should anticipate him getting teased and what she might do to prepare him for that. The counselor didn’t skip a beat before responding: “At this school? No—there is no normal here, so there’s no teasing kids who are different. The kids are used to everybody being unique.”

And it’s not just the kids who appear to have permission to diverge from whatever white-dominant spaces might consider normal or excellent. The teachers get to explore a wider range of teaching methods, too, according to Anne Kelterborn, an educator in Red Bank, NJ. She explains: “I have taught in both urban and suburban schools, and I have found that the ‘struggling urban’ schools tend to embrace far more creative and committed educators than in suburban schools.”

White parents express learning a lot from the ways in which their peers, mostly parents of color, show up in and outside of the school. Amy Wheedon, of the D.C. area, felt like the parent association was a gauntlet of sorts at her kids’ mostly white elementary school. “Parents competed to lead new initiatives,” she explains. At their far more multiracial middle school, things are different: “Parents come out to celebrate their kids—at games, banquets and honor roll assemblies. Their jobs are tough enough; they aren’t looking for other ones. They want to leave work and have fun and spend time with their kids. Once I understood the difference, I was finally able to connect with the parents and help support the school by creating more opportunities for those types of interactions.”

The economic pressure is often lessened in less white-dominant spaces. Krista Dutt, whose white kids attend a majority-minority school in the Chicago-area, explains, “We barely make ends meet, so being in a school and a neighborhood that people are surviving, not trying to beat each other at making the best birthday party, the best Valentine’s, or trying to prove that they don’t need the village is really great.”

You and your kids get practice being uncomfortable.

A more accepting school community, of course, doesn’t mean that your kid won’t experience discomfort. In fact, they will probably experience discomfort so often that they will get better and better at not just enduring it, but learning from it. Parents of white kids attending schools where they are the racial minority have told me fantastic stories about discomfiting and defining moments. Krista Dutt, for example, recounted how MLK day went for her kindergarten-age son. During a talk about the civil rights era bus boycotts, he excitedly shouted, “I would have gotten to sit in the back of the bus?!” The teacher, who had actually had very few white students before, wasn’t sure how to handle it (she later told Krista’s husband).

“Oh my, it was a week of great conversation with my little boy,” said Krista with a good laugh. At only five years old, her son is already starting to confront his own privilege: “He experiences a lot of shame when realizing that his friends don’t get the same rights as he does,” she explains.

The key word there is friends. He’s experiencing disequilibrium because he isn’t just learning about the civil rights era as an abstraction, but as an era of American history with direct reverberations all these decades later, in his own little classroom, on his own little block. Imagine this little white boy as a young white man, two decades from now, navigating a world full of productive discomfort and unfinished revolution. How better prepared might he be because he has been a part of this school community?

Alison Kirkpatrick of San Diego sent her first kid to private school and the next two to a poorly rated public school (and enthusiastically champions the latter choice). Her daughter, one of only a handful of non-native Spanish speakers in her Spanish honors class, came home and reported that none of her peers were giving her the time of day. “They thinks I’m just a basic white girl,” she told her mom.

As any mother would, Alison felt protective, but she also recognized that this was a defining moment: “For an hour a day, she knows what it is like to be in the minority, to find the rules confusing and feel like you’re a step or two behind, perhaps being judged and laughed at,” Alison explains. “I think most parents want to avoid that situation for their kids, but I think it’s a really important one.”

Alison told her daughter: “Be friendly, be yourself, be open about your life.”

After a few weeks, she started sharing stories around the dinner table about moments in her Spanish class when she got another student to laugh. It sounds small, but it’s actually big. Alison’s daughter doesn’t have to make a big empathic leap to understand what it feels like to be the minority in a given group of people. She’s lived it. She’s coped with it. She’s less likely to take her own sense of belonging for granted or to be oblivious when someone else is feeling isolated.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has done critical work on the importance of nurturing a growth mindset in children. In short, her research has led her to believe that kids who see qualities as things that can be developed, rather than traits that you either possess or don’t, tend to thrive. Kids with a growth mindset aren’t shooting for perfection; they’re driving toward improvement. Few white parents have applied Dweck’s work to living in an increasingly multiracial society, but it’s powerful.

A white kid with a growth mindset around race knows that discomfort is a good sign of learning; they don’t fall apart at the first sign of confusion or critique. In contrast, white kids who have been educated in perfectionist, homogenous environments and rarely weathered discomfort are likely to have a fixed mindset towards race. They are more interested in winning social entrepreneurship awards, than becoming wiser within unlikely, sometimes challenging, and deeply rewarding relationships.

Parenting, as it turns out, is a fairly new framework for what those of us with kids are up to. The term didn’t even exist until the latter half of the twentieth century, when upwardly mobile Americans started living in a more atomized way, separate from grandparents and aunts and uncles. Prior to that, caring for children was something that a wide range of people did, including older siblings and cousins. There wasn’t such a sense of needing to “do it right” by reading the right books, eating the right foods, saying the right things, and yes, getting into the right schools.

Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor, points out that many of us — particularly white and privileged people — now approach the role of raising humans like carpenters. In short, we try to carve them into our own image of what a successful adult looks like. Her suggestion? Think of yourself more akin to a gardener — you create the right conditions and let nature do the rest. “Our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child,” she writes in her recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter. “Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”

If you send your kid to a school where they are surrounded by other kids quite unlike them — racially, culturally, religiously, socio-economically — you are providing a pretty rich and interesting ecosystem within which they can grow. Gardens, like communities, are healthiest when they’re diverse. If you plant your kids in a monoculture, expect less richness.

Jessica Jennings, a white parent in Providence, Rhode Island, whose daughter is attending a poorly-rated neighborhood school with lots of racial diversity, is trying to be a gardener. She recounted this simple, beautiful story that speaks to the power of relationships given space and time to bloom:

It was a beautiful fall day. My then kindergarten-age daughter, Thea, discovered that a few of her school friends were at our neighborhood park — Chelina from Cambodia, Yosselin from Guatemala, Devina and Tazaiah, both African American. They were lost in play for nearly two hours. On our walk back home, I said to her, ‘You know, Thea, these friends at the park — your friends from school — may have been coming to the park for years, like when they were 3 and 4 years old and when you were 3 and 4, too. But you didn’t know them then because you didn’t go to school with them. Isn’t that crazy?’

My daughter, who is very nurturing and loves her friends, responded, “But I would be sad if they weren’t my friends.”

I said, “But you wouldn’t be sad, because you wouldn’t know them.”

Thea said, “But I would still be sad.”

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