School choice has been a significant part of my life, even when I didn’t have a term for it. My parents were both educators, and my mom taught in international and private schools. As a result, I attended the schools where she taught. My parents chose private school education and their own brand of “vouchers” in the form of an employee benefit. When my mom interviewed for teaching positions she was simultaneously deciding if the school would be a right fit for her children. My mom used her professional experience to be an advocate for our education. And while it often seemed like school choice, in the form of attending private schools instead of the neighborhood public schools, was not a true “choice”, but a “must”; that was not the case. In middle school I attended our local public school for one week in seventh grade prior to realizing they had a corporal punishment policy that I was not down with! I also attended the university’s lab school for a short time but missed my friends. However, I first truly exercised school choice during the summer prior to my freshman year in high school.
I am an African American woman who was adopted by a white family at infancy. My mother was a secondary, private school, English teacher and my father was a college professor who wanted to teach, not research. As a result, we moved a lot. Going to small private schools with my siblings and my mom made those moves a little easier for me. We were a unit on an adventure together; and we conquered each move as a family. Things were always a little harder for me, though. I was not only the only Black person in my family, I was also the only one, or one of a few, at my schools. In 1984 we moved from Miami to a suburb of Baltimore. My siblings had now all graduated, and I would be the only one at home for all four years of high school. My mom accepted a teaching position at a private, all-girls school. I was given the choice to enroll there or attend the neighborhood school. I had a choice to decide what would work best for me. I was an introvert, but I did like to socialize. I was an intellectual, but I loved sports. I would be new to the state and wouldn’t know anyone in my neighborhood. I was the only Black person in my family and wanted to explore my Black identity and I was interested in dating Black guys. Although I knew that the education would not be as rigorous, the other opportunities that would develop my identity and round out my life experiences lead me to choose to attend the traditional public school. I didn’t know it then, but this choice shaped my belief in education for my own kids and for students across the nation.
When I began my career as a teacher I did not consider teaching in public schools. I recognized that my public high school education had not prepared me for college as well as my private middle school education had. I blamed the lack of diversity in private schools for my choice to attend public school, and I was determined to help better integrate private schools so students of color would not feel the same need to leave their private schools in order to “find themselves”. I was the champion for students of color. I attended diversity meetings, introduced cultural relevant practices, and attended recruitment fairs as the face of color for future teachers and families. I took on the role of the Diversity Coordinator, and I became the representative of the minoritized. At that time, I believed that school choice was about getting into “the best school”, or the most rigorous school, which I believed were the predominantly white and affluent private schools. I didn’t realize, until I had my own children, that I was perpetuating the American ideal that white and affluent was better. I looked at my high school choice as a sacrifice, when, in fact, it was a saving grace that helped to later shape me into a confident, self-loving, Black woman and mother.
As I matured and had my own children I began to realize that what my mother offered me my freshman year was a choice to look at my options and find the best fit for me. Looking back, it was not actually a choice between private and public. I remember now that I was given the opportunity to apply to other schools there (coed private, magnet, etc.) My mother gave me the opportunity to examine myself and my options, and then to determine which scenario would allow me the greatest growth. This revelation hit me after I married a military man, which meant many moves and many school decisions.
My son is also an introvert. While we were moving and in transition as a family, he attended the private schools where I worked. It helped him feel secure and gave
My oldest daughter is very different. She needed a small environment where she wouldn’t fall through the cracks. She needed to be in a school where everyone knew each other and there were high academic standards for every child. She needed a safe environment where people would hold her feet to the fire, and not let her fade away. We chose a high-performing charter school (where I was the principal) for her in middle school. It allowed her to grow and be comfortable in her own potential. She chose to go to the local high school for her sophomore year. She felt comfortable in her academic identity by then but wanted a more diverse environment that would foster her personal development.
My youngest daughter is currently attending the same charter school as a middle schooler. She loves everything about the environment and may choose to stay. Th only reason it may not be the best fit for her is because she is a competitive athlete, and she may want to attend a traditional public school for greater competition and exposure. I am grateful that my three very different children have been able to find schools that are the right fit for them during different stages of need in their lives. They have attended private, public, and charter schools; and each school was the right fit for the child at that stage in his/her life.
Reflecting on my experiences as a child, a mom, an educator, and an administrator, I ask myself, “What does school choice mean to me?”
School choice means the freedom to choose the best environment for your child’s social, emotional, academic, and situational needs. The choice may change from stage-to-stage, and from child-to-child, but it must be rooted in a deep understanding of your child and the local options. School choice is about great parenting, advocacy parenting. It is your right and your duty to ensure that your children have every opportunity to bloom. And when there are no good options, it is your right to demand them, by any means necessary.