Before entering the school choice fair in New Haven I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of observing parents and educators in the process of deciding about the future of children. This discomfort stems from my place of privilege, which I feel is necessary to discuss before recounting my experience. I am a student at a prestigious liberal arts university who has, in some ways, overcome or been lucky enough to succeed in the failing American education system. I do not have to worry about my childs future because I do not have a child. Therefore my observations about this issue must be taken with a grain of salt and I acknowledge that I do not have personal stakes in the school choice debate (as of yet) nor do I have the right to make judgements about the people who do. My first reaction to the fair was that of sadness. I was upset because I saw the huge turnout of working class parents who were taking time out of their evening in the hopes that they could negotiate a good education for their children and was aware of the disadvantages they were bound to face. Going into the large gymnasium, watching the parents interact with their children, assuming they were just getting off of work, was in a non-condescending way heartbreaking because when educational policy is discussed in America the actual people it affects are often forgotten and reduced to numbers and statistics. And my job, as a college student, was to observe them and document their very real experiences. Every child has a right to an equal and adequate education because education is essential to human growth and development and yet the fate of many students is left up to an algorithm. This is what was on my mind when I went to the school choice fair.
The school choice fair in New Haven was a large, highly sensory event. There were over 30 different schools across grade levels and of many types: magnet, charter, neighborhood, interdistrict, intradistrict, STEM, arts and many other specializations that had unclear distinctions. The attendance was large and the atmosphere was over stimulating. Most displays were modest as were the numerous event goers, dressed in casual wear. Many parents had their children with them. My group decide not to approach booths that had many parents asking questions as we felt it was inappropriate to take time away from them. However the booths we did get a chance to chat with seemed excited and enthusiastic to talk about their schools. As I said before, the true distinctions between the schools seemed unclear. Some focused on STEM and some on Arts for example, however beyond that each school had different specializations that seemed incomprehensible and mainly irrelevant. The most impressive school for me was Nathan Hale, a neighborhood school that was based in the community and gave preference to those who had a sibling and lived in the neighborhood district. The principle explained the choice fair as a “recruitment session” and told us that his school did not need to recruit students for extra funding because they always had 100% enrollment and very few open choice spots. He stated his purpose of coming to the event as primarily for representation purposes, or school pride. Nathan Hale impressed me because it seemed founded on the foundation of a “normal” school and it did not offer extraneous programs just good education. I found out later it is in a high income area.
My take away from the fair was that it seemed impossible for a parent, particularly a working class parent,to navigate. I felt skeptical of many of the schools designations and pedagogy, however this is due the fact that I have some knowledge of education. For a working class parent I imagine that the decision between schools would rely mainly on how good the booths could pitch their school. Of course this is an assumption which I do not claim as fact. The overwhelming abundance of schools still seemed unable to be parsed with my limited knowledge of education.
The New Haven website on school choice is just as indistinct and confusing. Each school has a section titled “our school may be for your child if…” or some other variation, however the qualities they advertise as specific to their schools could apply to any child and don’t lend much help in differentiation. For example, King/Robinson school may be right for your child if “your childs favorite question is why?” but that could apply to any child. It goes on like this. I believe the only way to actually choose a school for your child requires some deep knowledge of school performance and teacher quality that is not easily found via internet nor fair.
School choice is good in theory, but if you do not have the tools to make an informed decision, or more concretely. if you are unable to go to a school choice fair due to work or transportation issues, if you do not have stable internet access, if you simply do not know what your choices are it is impossible to choose. Not to mention the fact that despite you making a decision the lottery system may bar you from enrolling your child into your school of choice as it is random and full of prerequisites. School choice has been linked with segregation efforts and inequality and yet it is all that is offered to New Haven residents. This fact makes me deeply uncomfortable as it should make anyone.