Elisa taught in the 1996 Mississippi Delta corps.
When I pulled up to Fairview German School, parents who had been camping out front for over a week had just finished their morning routine of taking down their tents before the students arrived. In Cincinnati if your neighborhood school is failing—and many are—getting into a magnet school is largely on a first-come, first-served basis. That means parents camp out in the cold for days to try to secure for their kids one of a small number of spots in a more successful school.
Photo by Shannon Sherrard
I had volunteered to hold a spot for a woman whose kids went to my kids’ preschool. She’s a single working mom with three children. Talking to her about the logistics of making this camp-out work made my head spin. And she’d done this before. Six years ago she’d camped out to get her oldest daughter into a Montessori magnet school. They loved the school but it was across town and she and her daughter felt like she’d missed out on a lot of the social aspects of school because of its distance from their home. So even though her other children would automatically have spots at the Montessori school, she was at it again—camping out to win a spot at the magnet school in her neighborhood.
Obviously, no parent should have to camp out for a week so their kid doesn't have to go to a failing school. But there’s another problem with this system. In order to be able to camp out, you need things like a job that has vacation time so you're not docked pay, as well as a huge network of friends and family who can step in to take care of your kids and/or relieve you periodically so you can check in at work, shower, see your children, or just warm up. These are luxuries that not every parent has, especially in a city where childhood poverty is the third highest in the nation, at 48%. For most Cincinnati parents, camping out just isn’t an option, no matter how dedicated they might be to their kids’ education.
This reality is played out in the demographics of Fairview, where 22% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged in a system where 70% of the students meet this definition. In recent years, CPS has made some steps to make the system more equitable. Prior to the camp-out, the school system conducted a random lottery for admission to 30% of the seats in the incoming class and only students in low-performing schools were eligible to enter.
But even with these efforts, we continue to see a gap in both the economic and racial profile of students at the magnet schools versus the general CPS population. There were 27 spots at Fairview German School post-lottery, and of the 26 families already camping out, the vast majority were white. In a public school district that is 67% black and 24% white, the ethnic breakdown at Fairview is almost the exact opposite at 24% black and 63% white.
Let me be clear that I think EVERY child deserves a great education. I am on the side of EVERY parent sitting outside in the cold to gain access to a better education for their child. In fact, the family I was actively helping is white and I was thrilled when I found out they got a spot. But we have to admit that there's something seriously flawed with our system when the population camping out for spots at the best schools does not reflect the general population of CPS.
I've been fired up about educational equality for a long time—first as a corps member, then as a founding teacher at a charter school, and now on staff at Teach For America. But having conversations with the parents of my kids' friends about where the heck they are going to send their kids to school has brought a different perspective and a new kind of fire.
I'm feeling a lot of things right now. I’m grateful that we are able to afford a home in one of the few neighborhoods with a successful school. But I’m angry that kids living in the same city in the same school district can’t access the same quality of education, and that the system for getting into a handful of strong magnet schools doesn't open up opportunities for kids from all economic and racial backgrounds. I've been talking about why we need excellent schools for my kids for the past 15 years, but "my kids" always meant my students. Now "my kids" really does mean my kids and my kids' friends, as well as all my students.
While our current system for accessing magnet schools clearly isn’t equitable for all kids and families, I won’t pretend to have a better solution. What I do know is that whether it’s a traditional public school or a magnet school, in my neighborhood or any of my kids’ friends’ neighborhoods, we need to figure out how to make every school a school worth camping out for. And we can’t wait for "one day." We have to do this NOW.
Elisa was a 1996 Mississippi Delta corps member and a founding teacher at a public charter school in Washington, DC before joining staff at Teach For America. She married a born-and-bred Cincinnatian and they reside in the Queen City with their twin three-year-olds.