Trigonometry Or Empathy?

Many Oakland parents send their kids to expensive private schools, but their children are missing out on diverse experiences as a result.

Parents want what they think is best for their children, especially when it comes to education. In fact, they are ready to invest themselves and their money to ensure that their children receive “what’s best.” But what is “best?”

As a ninth grader at Oakland Tech High School (as well as a graduate of Oakland public middle and elementary schools), I experience the adventure that is public school every day. I have had both extremely good and extremely bad teachers. My good teachers have provided a rigorous, well-managed classroom, in which academic learning flourishes. On the other hand, my not-so-good, sometimes-crazy teachers have introduced me to the stereotypical chaotic classroom in which kids throw erasers and blown-up condoms. All of these experiences have been a part of my education. But a diverse and sometimes chaotic public education experience is also important for learning empathy for others, and perspectives and stories different from my own, and for developing life skills.

Diversity in a school is the integration of a variety of races, cultures, and classes into a child’s academic environment. Today, private schools are generally much different from public schools. Most often, private schools are disproportionately white and serve affluent communities that are sheltered and blocked off from the rest of the world. A public school, on the other hand, may have less rigorous academics and bigger classrooms, but provides an inclusive and diverse environment for the students. Diversity in a classroom means a student is learning not only about math and science, but also about empathy and the lives of others.

For a school project, I interviewed students, parents, a teacher, and a school board member to learn their opinions and perspectives on the role of diversity in education. “The different perspectives that students from different backgrounds provide can enhance a rich learning environment,” said Elizabeth Gessel, a mother of two boys (one Claremont Middle School eighth grader and an incoming sixth grader), when I asked about the impact of diversity on student learning and academic achievement. I understood this to mean that, not only can diversity lead to life skills, but those life skills can aid in creating a good academic environment in the immediate future. Ms. Gessel also noted that she feels she is “providing [her] children with the tools they need to navigate an increasingly complex social environment” by sending them to their neighborhood public school: Claremont.

Life is complicated, and once a child leaves home (whether that be on an everyday school morning or to college), there is nothing a parent can do to prevent him or her from encountering obstacles. Sheltering children sending them to only elite, affluent private schools may lead them to believe this is how the entire world is, and limits their opportunity to understand and relate to others who are less privileged.

Kiakima Simon, a mom whose kids attend Emerson Elementary School, recounted how her daughter had been going to a preschool attended by almost entirely white, Jewish children. After attending Emerson for less than a year, her daughter “started including different skin colors in her drawings.” The impact of diversity, although oftentimes subtle, can change a child’s outlook for the rest of his or her life. In our increasingly segregated communities, school is an important place to experience diversity. Ignorance of the outside world, and its diversity, can only lead to a child’s narrow-minded views, and pictures of an all-white world.

Private schools often offer amazing academics with top-notch instruction. Parents send their children to private schools because they truly think the schools will be more beneficial to their children. And, academically, they often are. Many of my classmates attended private schools for middle and elementary school, and described their schools as having “more discipline.” Two classmates attended private Catholic schools in order to have the opportunity to have a Catholic education and enjoyed there experiences. However, they both mentioned that neither school was diverse: “not even a little bit,” one girl said; “maybe two African-American kids and five Asian kids,” said the other. I asked about the transition from private school to Tech, and one of the students bluntly described it as “a culture shock.”

By sending your children to your neighborhood public school, you are helping them by giving them the chance to develop empathy and navigational skills. When a parent opts out of the public system for his or her child, “everyone loses,” said Oakland school board member Jody London. “The world is diverse and it’s important to learn how to get along with all sorts of people, and also to have the welfare of the entire community in mind.”

Oakland public schools are improving significantly, but when many parents look at schools for their child, all they see are the test scores. It’s time to look past that and see the rainbow of children playing on the blacktop as a learning opportunity for your child. Sending your child to his or her neighborhood public school can teach your child to walk in someone else’s shoes and embrace the differences. 


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