I’m a parent of two preschoolers in Indianapolis. I hear parents talk. I know many are enraged by a public school lottery that feels like a smoke and mirrors magic show at a Vegas casino. I know that a rising number of parents are at least marginally aware of the privileges they carry in their daily lives. And I know that many choose to live in Indy’s urban core because they want diversity in their children’s lives.

What I don’t know is why we are fighting among ourselves, essentially pointing fingers at other parents, and pretending our neighborhood Indianapolis Public Schools will be fine if we just show up there.

I initially began writing this article in response to Matthew Gonzalez’s February 2018 feature in Indianapolis Monthly. In that article, Gonzalez bravely, accurately asserts that misguided allocation of resources has effectively reintroduced segregation in IPS and other urban school districts around the country (“The IPS Magnet School Conundrum,” February 2018). But Gonzalez goes on to espouse something I’m hearing too often in parent circles: that parents who choose magnet schools are to blame, that we are the magic resources our neighborhood schools are missing, and that if we choose to apply to one of the magnet schools that lack racial and socioeconomic diversity, we surely do so out of fear and racism.

Nope. Nope. Nope. 

When I wrote “CFI” on my OneMatch application, I was not reacting to the student population in my neighborhood school. I am not rejecting diversity. I’m rejecting the outdated teaching methods and deficit-focused views of students that I predominantly hear and see in our neighborhood schools.

And if you don’t reject that, too, then you might be contributing to the pervasive, systemic social injustices in them.

Suggesting that white families flock to select magnet schools to escape diversity does everyone a disservice. Instead, ask me what I don’t like about the neighborhood school my daughter currently attends for preK, or what I don’t like about the neighborhood school we could choose for her to attend next year, or what I don’t like about dozens of other public, private, and charter schools I’ve visited as part of my job for the past 14+ years. My answers might surprise you.

I often wonder if part of the problem is that most people can’t articulate what makes a school “good.” A lot of well intentioned people have tried and continue to do so, tried to replicate or implement this or that in the name of improvement. It’s a lot like writing (the only other subject I understand deeply): lots of us recognize a good text when we read it, but most people can’t name the specific craft strategies a writer employed to achieve it. There are countless misconceptions about what writers do and why. Maybe that’s true of schools, too. Maybe lots of us aren’t even sure what makes one school feel more desirable to us than another. Maybe it would be helpful if I told you what I see.

When I walk through IPS neighborhood schools like the one where my daughter attends preK (a school that is 75% non-white), I mostly see this:

  • Students sitting at desks in rows, far enough from one another to discourage talking or seeing someone else’s work.
  • Behavior charts and achievement scorecards on walls and bulletin boards.
  • Student work on display that all looks identical.
  • Posters describing “rules”; signs listing what NOT to do.
  • Materials stored largely out of reach, possibly out of sight.
  • Books grouped by reading level
  • Textbooks and worksheets
  • “Hugs and bubbles,” or hands clasped behind backs, or other unnatural-looking rituals when students walk in groups in hallways.

These are largely the same things I see in our own neighborhood school (74% non-white). These are the things I’m rejecting.

What I see at CFI 2, CFI 70, and several other magnet schools (predominantly white, as noted in original IM article):

  • Students seated at tables or desk clusters, even in the middle and upper grades, often talking about what they’re working on, collaborating to solve a problem.
  • No behavior charts or achievement data visible that might suggest to a student that he/she is less capable or less deserving than anyone else.
  • Work on display that shows students interpreting and applying the same concepts in different ways, or solving the same problem via different strategies, rather than simply mirroring one model or supposed exemplar.
  • Posters and signs that remind students what they can do. Charts that list what students have observed in books, ways they have solved math problems. Interesting questions posted on walls. All of this often in students’ handwriting.
  • Not just common school supplies visible and in reach but also interesting materials (paints, clay, artifacts, specimens, games, etc) that are likely to entice children to create, explore, discover, learn.
  • Books arranged by genre or topic rather than level of difficulty. Books not confined to a single bookcase or “library,” but instead peppered throughout the room (in the math area, science area, etc) as if to remind students that texts, too, are tools that help people learn things and get various jobs done.
  • Real world texts like books, magazines, newspapers, and digital devices that people use to research and learn about things from different perspectives, instead of textbooks. Homework/classwork that resembles the work that professional writers, mathematicians, scientists, historians, and others do, rather than contrived worksheets.
  • Students traveling the hallways as conscientious adults do, leaving room for others to pass, alert to entry points and corners, and with hushed voices. Though they may occasionally need gentle reminders to practice these norms, they are trusted to follow without need for awkward artificial restraints.

I could list more differences that I’ve noticed: where the principals are and what they’re doing during pickup and dropoff times, or school library policies like whether or not kids get to take books home over fall break. I could point out that the neighborhood school my daughter attends for preK has not cleared the snow on its sidewalks even once this year, but I have gone to magnet schools for my job immediately after dropping her off and walked on cleanly shoveled paths. I could tell you that when I visit CFI for work, a student representing the class I’m visiting typically greets me at the office, introduces him/herself, shakes my hand, and escorts me to the classroom. I could admit that I cringe when I’m in my daughter’s school during morning announcements because they are mind numbing, ineffective, and patronizing: asking students to remain standing after the Pledge for uniform inspection, and introducing a “growth mindset” buzzword with an abstract definition that means nothing to the students, for example.

These are significant differences between schools, disparities that I wholeheartedly agree constitute “separate but equal” thinking.

The real question we as parents in IPS should be asking is not, Did we make the wrong choice for our child? But rather, Why are these schools so different? Do the powers that be in IPS even understand what makes CFI successful, or do they, too, mistakenly assume it has everything to do with the student populations there? Have we filled our neighborhood schools with the same resources, opportunities, and messages that we provide the faculty, students, and families in our magnet schools?

Here’s a hint: CFI’s success has nothing to do with “International Baccalaureate.” And it’s not about who the students are. CFI is appealing and succeeds academically because it is built on an educational philosophy that the faculty understands and buys in to; it has highly capable principals free from mis-micromanagement; principals with the power to choose their staffs; high quality, consistent professional development opportunities for teachers; authentic learning experiences for students; and, most importantly, teachers who choose their words and their actions intentionally, with a genuine belief in their students.

That’s what I wanted for my children when I typed “CFI” on my OneMatch application. That’s what I want for every child in IPS. I offer my observations with hope that we can stop pretending that our neighborhood schools will be better if the white families show up. We can’t just show up. We’ve all got to go in with our eyes open, with some knowledge of what to look for, what to demand. If we do that, we will have schools even “better” than CFI, schools that actually reflect the diversity of our community and the true capabilities of all our children.

Because frankly, I’m also afraid. Afraid that if parents stop demanding schools like CFI, there won’t be any.

Note: I submitted this response to Indianapolis Monthly and other news media in Indianapolis, but no one wants to print education commentary and/or they want it confined to short blurb on the “letters to the editor” page. Indicative of the problem, perhaps, that only a privileged few—non-educators, of course—get to write more than 2,000 words on education, and the rest of us are confined to 200-300 word sound bites.