Before we moved to the nearby Ewing suburb outside of Trenton, NJ, my younger sister and I often walked home from school back to the rowhome we lived in. Those walks, about a five-block trek from Bethany Lutheran School, the small private school we attended, was about 5 blocks from our rowhome in Trenton. The nearest neighborhood school was Stokes Elementary; I know this because Stokes was on our path home every time we walked. It was two blocks from our house, and on warm days when we all walked home, those kids would join us on the sidewalk, seemingly matching my sister and I stride for stride.
We made a game of those walks home; not surprising if you know me then or now. Those walks were musical journeys; I passed the time by making my sister and I sing the same popular songs that we sang in the car with my mom, and fell asleep to at night. At the same time I also pretended our walk was full of imaginary obstacles: the uneven sidewalks were electrified floors in the X-Men’s Danger Room; the honking cars, actually Decepticons, evil robots in disguise, and the glossy-windowed storefronts of local businesses were the moon base lairs of Magneto. I knew though that by the end of singing 2-3 pop songs as we hopped along Parkside Avenue, we’d be home, refreshing our imaginations while doing our homework.
Earlier this month, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a west coast based organization focused on family choice and portfolio cities, brought together a cross-section of educators, board members, administrators, community leaders and funders together to host a series of conversations about the state of portfolio work happening in cities across the nation. The convening was anchored in looking at the progress that we’ve all made here in Camden; talking to our advocacy partners at Parents for Great Camden Schools, learning about the nature of the Camden City School District and renaissance schools partnership in and visiting the campuses of a couple renaissance schools, getting to see them in action.
They also invited me to participate as a panelist in a discussion on school choice and how it pertains to families. Alongside David Pickens from DC School Reform Now and Tosha Downey from Memphis Education Fund, we discussed the merits, challenges and opportunities around instituting choice systems. Conversations like this are great; when you spend time working in your own bubble, you can easily convince yourself that you’re the only one experiencing the grind towards quality choices for our families.
There were a couple of common challenges we all shared, but here’s some of the key highlights that I’m mulling over post-conference:
Under the Banner of Choice, Families Choose Schools for Reasons Different Than Our Tools/Policies Based Around ‘Quality’ Measures.
That’s not to suggest that parents don’t care about quality—they do—but there’s a couple of other considerations for parents. Some of those reasons that came up during the conference were:
- The “word of mouth” report from other parents or people in the community plays a significant role
- The school’s after-school programming and extracurricular activities matter a lot to parents
- And lastly, distance: like many of us, families yearn for access to a school that’s good, safe and nearby. The more we make this simple thing a grand destination, the greater the degree of difficulty for too many of our families. This is something we’ll be covering more over the next couple of months, but travel and transportation is a tricky, complex issue for Camden families. It’s not a cut-and-dry problem nor are the solutions simple.
In the meantime, children and family members are making long walks, tricky plans and hard choices on how to go to school everyday. Some of the routes that they take are imaginative, some are precarious, many of them, for schools and families alike, untenable. It means that for everyone involved, safety, logistics and proximity become paramount concerns in a city still working to address many of those issues for its citizens. Until then, parents will make all sorts of choices to get their children into schools that give them some peace of mind.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that.