My husband, the only Latino in the group of prospective parents, stood next to the only African-American in the group, a mother. They watched a group of adorable elementary school students sing a song in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As the lyrics, “we shall overcome” sang through the air, my husband realized that all of the students were either Anglo or Asian. He stayed through the rest of the tour and information session at the amazing school we were considering for our daughter. He told me all of the things he learned about the school later that night, but when he reported the abysmal lack of diversity, it eliminated this school from consideration.
I just couldn’t have my girls be a part of that group. This was a group of elementary school students, so I’m sure that the song had been accompanied by a well-thought out series of lessons and activities about the civil rights movement, and that the students had learned about racist oppression in this country and beyond. But the irony of singing those lyrics in a school where there are almost zero black children was too much! If that school, which prides itself on teaching about social justice, was so apathetic about its lack of diversity, it could never be the right school for our two amazing Latinas.
For us, 2012 has been about finding the right preschool for Marisol. Like Ana, we value our cultura and would love a bilingual preschool. Unfortunately, what we have discovered, is that even for preschool, we won’t be able to find exactly what we want.
The upside of this process is that it’s made us realize what our needs and wants are when it comes to education, even just at this early stage. When we talked about what we wanted in a preschool we had initially focused on safety, caring and qualified staff, and an emphasis on play. We hoped we could find a bilingual preschool that met our needs, but the only bilingual preschool in our area was disappointing on several counts and we quickly ruled it out. Sadly, the preschools that are more in line with our philosophy of parenting and how we would like our children to learn tend to be very homogenous and not racially diverse.
In our area, the more diverse preschools tend to be more crowded, have less qualified staff, and out-of-date child development philosophies. Some of this seems to come down to class. The better preschools are very expensive in terms of money or time. We can’t afford to pay $1,200 per month for a part-time preschool program. However, we can afford to pay a lot less than that and work one morning a week at our kid’s preschool because our work schedules are flexible. Many middle-class families don’t have that flexibility and that means that many Latino and African American families don’t have those preschools as options. (Coincidentally, my best friend of the last 25 years, and I are both preschool shopping right now. I keep joking that if both of us enrolled both our daughters in a single school, we’d double the number of minority students in one fell swoop!)
My husband and I know we are lucky that we have the time to invest into one of these awesome preschools (one has chickens, a little river, and playhouse bigger than the first-story of our home), but we can’t help wishing that the “best preschools” were also the most diverse, instead of the reality, which is that the opposite is true. So we are going to have to settle. We are at the point where having three or four other Latino or African American preschoolmates for the girls is “diverse enough.” It’s infinitely more than zero, we keep telling ourselves.
I so wish it were different. I wish more children of color were at these great schools. It’s troubling to see that the class/race divide starts so early. I’m holding out hope that we can get our girls into a charter kindergarten and elementary school that is diverse by virtue of being part of a lottery system, and not dependent on how much money or time parents can afford to spend on their children’s education. I’m really curious to know if the recession has made these more expensive (in terms of money or time) schools less diverse, or if this is how it has always been.
What I know is that we don’t want our girls to be the “token” students of color. We don’t want them to always feel like outsiders, or aliens. We want them to be proud to be Salvadoran, Mexican, and American, without it making them feel estranged from their peers. We would love to send them to a good bilingual school, but that will be, unfortunately, largely a matter of good luck.