Part 3 – The “Hunger Games” vs. The Hunger Banquet

The Exeter Whale (photo courtesy of JC)

The Exeter Whale

Every September, the parents of New York City fifth graders begin the dreaded middle school process.  The process is commonly likened to “The Hunger Games” by disillusioned parents for its Darwinian system of reshuffling and categorizing 10-year-olds. Even in District 15, which has many “choice” schools, the middle school application process is truly grim. The Brooklyn Middle School “Hunger Games” – Part 1 explored those grim aspects, while Part 2, Reforming the District 15 “Hunger Games,” introduced you to District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity, who are trying to change it. This last segment will give you a sense of what it is like on the other side of that application year, at one District 15 school that isn’t yet considered choice. We will also explore perceptions of ideal educations and why I’m fine with “imperfect.”

I am now watching my child adjust to the new reality of middle school. We managed to find a handful of kids over the summer that would be attending the same school in the fall, so he could have at least a familiar face or two. This wasn’t terribly easy as our middle school was not popular within our community. Despite the school’s established programs, awards, great principal, close relationship with the School’s Chancellor and even a visit from a tech celebrity, the fact is my child’s school is a Title I school, meaning more than 60% of the students qualify for free or reduced school lunches. Another issue that turns parents away is the large ESL program.

The school is highly diverse and actually mirrors the ethnic break down of District 15 more closely than the choice schools, a fact illustrated during school meetings which are sometimes translated into 3 languages. The number of ESL students wasn’t really a concern of mine until I attended the orientation meeting. Because there wasn’t a translator, the principal’s exit directions were ignored. She instructed the parents in the auditorium to exit one section at a time to prevent a bottleneck. Everyone stood to leave at once. The only people seated were those who obviously spoke English and there was only a handful. In spite of the fact that I send my kindergartener to a school with a dual language Arabic Science class, witnessing the numbers of non-English speakers made me wonder if I’d made a mistake.

Did these issues really matter though? September was a blur of commute adjustments, documents and the absurd purchase and transport of school supplies (including multiple reams of copy paper). Only after we got through the September madness, could we then focus on what matters. I’d like to believe what matters is what my son thinks, but saying that seems like a convenient dodge. I can say he likes his teachers. He likes his classes, especially tech and math class where he has a designated a computer.  He is excited about his free Biomimicry after-school program. He has made new friends, with whom he communicates in English. As it turns out, it’s mostly the parents who don’t speak English, not so much the kids. He feels completely safe. His complaints only amount to two. He wishes he didn’t have to carry all his books around during the day. A locker would be nice. And he wishes he had outdoor recess. There is little to no outdoor space at this school and lunch is tightly monitored to maintain order, and justifiably.

As I started to ask parents about their kids’ middle schools, few seemed 100% happy. I am hearing just as many complaints from people who won the lottery at charters or got into one of the 3 choice middle schools in the district. The complaints I hear range from overwhelming amounts of homework to unapproachable, unhelpful teachers, to yelling and harsh discipline, to stressful expectations. When you ask many parents how middle school is going they look down and respond, “so, so” in the same vaguely defeated manner.

Yes, all these public schools are imperfect. My son’s school may be slightly more imperfect than others, but isn’t everything in New York is a trade-off? Why should the schools be any different? However, should I be okay with imperfect when it comes to my child’s education? Is this lazy resignation? Will I be putting him at a disadvantage later? My son’s complaints are credible; complaints that send some packing for the suburbs. When I described the linguistic makeup of the school’s parents to a friend, she said, “And you’re okay with that?” I countered that the school is safe, the teachers are extremely committed, the principal is rolling out the red carpet, and the math program is state of the art; but yes, my child is an affluent fish in a disadvantaged pool.

So, let’s explore educational perfection. I have another friend who recently went back to visit her alma mater, Exeter. She went on to graduate from Yale which she felt paled in comparison to her high school experience.  How could that be? Well, Exeter is so glossy, it has a Scanning Electron Microscope. It has a fully articulated humpback whale skeleton that the students themselves helped to extract and prepare on Cape Cod. Exeter is so elevated that it held a Hunger Banquet to raise awareness of economic inequality.

“During the banquet, students were randomly assigned to an income bracket.  The low-income group was given rice and water, and sat on the floor. The middle-income bracket received rice and beans, while the high-income group was served steak and shrimp at tables with tablecloths.”

Are you confused by my counterintuitive argument? Why describe the perfection of Exeter, if I’m trying to justify sending my child to a middle school dominated by low-income ESL learners? This is why. A NYC middle school is a lot more like real life than Exeter. Exeter children have to be made aware that most people don’t live like them through simulations because they have few if any, real human interactions with true economic diversity. I applaud Exeter for exploring others’ reality, but doesn’t an Exeter education seem a bit like academic Disneyland? Is it really necessary to give your child the kind of education that includes a vacation on the Cape to organize whale bones? What are your expectations after Exeter? Is everything a let down after that?

Now, I won’t have to worry about giving my child depression because I sent them to Exeter, but I do have to ponder the damage created by attempting to cultivate other perfect situations, the ones I can afford. I don’t want to set my child up for a continual lifetime of disappointment by constantly manipulating the environment to perfectly suit them. And I certainly believe there is something beneficial (and delicious) to living rice and beans first hand. Nevertheless, that nagging question still lingered about who my child will be competing with down the road. Are colleges measuring everyone by the bar set by Exeter? Yes, my child might develop some emotional intelligence by having diverse social interactions, but does any college really care about that?

I was recently introduced to one of the most expensive schools in the city, Avenues: The World School in Chelsea. It is an innovative start-up that offers Mandarin and Spanish immersion classes. Here a Chuck Close self-portrait hangs on the walls and parents rally for more organic low-carb snacks. Each child has a 10 person “success team” and yet parents still voluntarily organize to improve the perfect for-profit school they pay $45,350 yearly to attend. For these parents, it’s about exerting control over every aspect of cultivating their Ivy League candidates…er, children, but simultaneously worrying that achievement may still be out of their control.

“In fact, when the nearby Grace Church School was researching whether to start its own high school, it asked top college-admission officers what was lacking in New York City applicants. The answers coalesced around the idea of values, civic engagement, inclusiveness and diversity — in a word, humility.”  – The NYTimes Mag.

If humility becomes a measurable criterion for college admissions, then my child is being very well served in his humble public middle school, where there is actual diversity not controlled virtual diversity. If you want a real Mandarin and Spanish immersion experience, come to a middle school in Sunset Park.

Lastly, I want you to know, I have made peace with our imperfect middle school “choice.”  I sat next to some people having a conversation in which a newcomer was seeking school advice from another parent when a neighbor at another table chimed in. He had two daughters from a first marriage, and then “because of love” (Yes, that’s literally what he said) he acquired two step-sons. The daughters went to an exclusive private school in Brooklyn and the step-sons went to various public schools. His daughters are now out of the private school and in college. The man felt his daughters were insecure and unable to adapt to change where his step-sons could more easily juggle imperfect situations because everything about their public education had been imperfect.

Having accumulated a mental spectrum of educational possibilities — from the “Hunger Games” played out in public schools to “Hunger Banquets” played out in princely private institutions — the neighbor’s observation led me to a profound realization. To be the perfect parent you must allow your child to experience some level of imperfection. To do otherwise might be to rob them of skills necessary for adaptability: empathy, flexibility, focus, and problem-solving. In this tech-driven global economy, adaptation is more relevant than ever. For those reasons, I send my child to an imperfect school. This is the mantra that I am saying over and over again this week. Let’s see how next week goes….



  1 comment for “Part 3 – The “Hunger Games” vs. The Hunger Banquet

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: