Polaneczky: A parent's school choice is nobody else's business

Meredith, the well-regarded public elementary school in Queen Village, has had to go to a lottery system for kindergarten in the fall.

When my daughter graduated from a Philadelphia public high school three years ago, my pride was twinned with relief that the public education system had worked out for my family.

My husband and I didn't know what to expect when we sent our only kid off to kindergarten 13 years before. But we hoped for the best.

We were in the same position then as many city families are today, as they wait to hear whether the public school they want their kindergartners to attend will have space for them in the fall. My colleague Kristen A. Graham interviewed some of these families for her story this week about Meredith Elementary at  Fifth and Fitzwater.

Because so many families have moved into Meredith’s boundary, the school has had to institute a lottery system to determine which little ones will attend the well-regarded but crowded school come September. The children who don’t make the cut will have to learn to tell time and identify shapes elsewhere.

I’ve been stunned by some of the negative blowback to these panicked parents, who critics presume are (a) swimming in dough but don’t want to spend it on private school, and (b) don’t want their “precious snowflake” children (as one critic described them) mixing it up with poor kids or kids of color in schools or neighborhoods less wealthy than Meredith’s.

For some parents, there’s obviously some truth to that. Race, money, and class enter into many decisions people make for themselves and for their children, whether their lives unfold in a city or not. 

Where to live and work? How to get there? Where to shop, worship, and socialize? Who to befriend, who to marry? Whether to make a home in a bustling apartment building or in a sprawling housing development? 

Yet somehow, race, money, and class are supposed to fly out the window when a family is deciding how to educate their kids? When it's one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make?  

Give these families a break, haters. And please cop to your own biases while you’re at it.

When my husband and I became parents 20 years ago, we didn’t think about our daughter’s future education until people told us we’d have to send her to private school or move to the suburbs because Philly’s public schools were terrible. We watched parents leave the city because of its “bad” public schools without once stepping inside one. Then they moved to a suburb for its “good” public schools without stepping inside one of those, either.

My husband and I couldn’t afford private school, period. We were lowly writers with the bank balance to prove it. But a move to the 'burbs would be pricey beyond the higher taxes and cost of a second car and transportation to our city jobs.

It would also require us to build a new community from scratch, a heartbreaking prospect. We had lived in our neighborhood for years and loved city life. We’d built a cherished village of friends and neighbors and strong ties to local businesses that anchored us in ways that the best small towns do. We felt secure and known by good people. And because we lived and worked in the city, we didn’t have long commutes, so we had more time to live life.

Our daughter’s education was important, yes. But so were the deep roots and way of life that sustained us in ways that greatly mattered. It would be unbearable to forgo one for the other.

When we toured Greenfield Elementary downtown, a school that similarly situated parents had raved about, we were impressed by its dynamism, staff, and families. We enrolled our girl there, and she did beautifully. She then thrived in middle school and high school at J.R. Masterman, whose diversity mimics that of the new city she now calls home.

Public schools work for some parents. Private, charter, or suburban ones work for others. It’s the parents' prerogative to decide which to choose. It's not their responsibility to explain their choice to anyone but themselves. 

The Meredith parents want for their children what all good parents want: for their kids' lives to turn out OK, for them to be happy. Education can play a huge part in that outcome.

Good for these parents for knowing that. And for caring. 

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