The Racial Divide Between Elementary Schools

As a child, I attended public school. I didn’t have a choice, it was all my parents could afford, there was zero chance with my parent’s financial status that I’d ever get to go to private school. Even attending public school, I thrived as a student. We lived in a good school district in the state of New York, and public schools were well-funded in the 1970s. My public school was almost completely homogeneous. As someone else described it to me, my elementary school was “all-white, made up of Italians, Irish and Jewish kids”. My sisters and I were the only non-white kids in our elementary school. Generally there was no racial tension other than the occasional degrading remark about our lunches or our last name.

Fast forward almost forty years and then it was my turn to enroll my own daughter for elementary school, I was a big proponent of sending her to public school and I didn’t even give a second thought to the racial make-up of the school she would be attending.

We visited our local public elementary, and we enrolled her. First grade was promising, we loved her teachers and she seemed to thrive, even with the few problems we did encounter. Second grade was equally satisfying, but we could start to see the issues that did exist continue to fester.

Additional programs seemed to disappear each year with funding to public schools being cut year after year. Field trips for students seemed to get fewer and fewer each year. By the time third grade came around, there were no field trips that year. And it was third grade, where we encountered “the straw that broke the camel’s back“. By the time third grade was half over, we realized there was something seriously wrong.

Our daughter was completely bored, and she hadn’t learned anything new the entire first half of the school year. The teacher was too busy covering second grade again for those students who didn’t grasp it the first time around, and he wasn’t finding time to deliver new materials to those students who did get it. By the time enrollment for fourth grade came around, we started discussing options. We could try and apply for a different public school in the district (a tough proposition with no guarantees), or we could pull her out and put her into a private school.

We investigated various private schools and settled one where she was tested for proficiency (and no surprise, she was deficient in third grade knowledge), and where she got to try out the school for a day. She loved the one day she sat in on the new school. We thought it was going to be an uphill battle to convince her to switch schools, but she actually asked to go to the new school after visiting. We had our work cut out before she started fourth grade. She had to learn everything she missed in her third grade year, a daunting task with only one summer to do it in. We did our best and this past fall she entered fourth grade in a private school, something I swore would never happen back when she was a toddler.

At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the title of the piece, “The Racial Divide Between Elementary Schools”. If you recall, I mentioned that when we enrolled our daughter in public school, I didn’t give a second thought to the racial make up of the school. To me, it was just what it was, something that existed and that I had no control over.

But, the difference in racial makeup of my daughter’s two schools was something that hit me in the face when she started her new school. It was immediately and obviously different. Just to get this right, I looked up the statistics on Great Schools. Her public elementary school is 42% Hispanic, 28% White, 18% Asian, 3% mixed race, and 2% Black. If you look at the statistics of her new private elementary, it is different, but not so much that you’d think that much of it. Her new private school is 55% Asian, 30% White, 13% mixed race, 2% Black and 1% Hispanic.

The rest of what I’m going to say is based on observation not actual statistics, so I might be a little off, and don’t mean to offend by my statements. The way I’d actually describe the public elementary school would have been that it’s mostly Hispanic, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong and White. The way I’d describe the private school she goes to now is that it’s made up of Asian Indians, Chinese, Russian, and those of Jewish background. Why do I bring any of this up? I think the racial divide between these schools only helps to drive and continue to enforce the economic divide that exists between these ethnic groups. I’ve written about the income disparity between Asian American sub-groups in a separate, previous 8Asians article.

I don’t know what can be done to help the children of the ethnic sub-groups that go to public schools, and I certainly am disappointed that we weren’t more successful with our own experience in our local public school. I never thought that I’d be the one with a child in private school. But I am glad she’s finally excited about school again, and looks forward to attending every day.

As a final footnote to this, for those of you that are interested, I am happy to report that there really has been no difference at all in the reaction of the teachers, students and other parents on finding out that our daughter has two dads. Everyone has been great and supportive. So at least in that respect, I can say that for tolerance, public and private schools have been an equal experience.

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About Tim

I'm a Chinese/Taiwanese-American, born in Taiwan, raised on Long Island, went to college in Philadelphia, tried Wall Street and then moved to the California Bay Area to work in high tech in 1990. I'm a recent dad and husband. Other adjectives that describe me include: son, brother, geek, DIYer, manager, teacher, tinkerer, amateur horologist, gay, and occasional couch potato. I write for about 5 different blogs including 8Asians. When not doing anything else, I like to challenge people's preconceived notions of who I should be.
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