The Competitioners



For the last two days I’ve been exploring the San Francisco public school system.

I’ve heard from different quarters that the schools here are terrible. They’re overcrowded, undisciplined, and rancid with low test scores. Independent of the merit of the local schools, though, I’m more disturbed by the fraught tone of the conversation – if we moved here and didn’t get our daughter into one of the few good places, she’d apparently be damned for life because the remaining schools are so abysmal.

We moved to the rez in part to escape that kind of noise. And as a consequence my daughter has pretty much grown up in Indian country. Our schools, if not at the bottom, are considered pretty far down there. Most non-native outsiders tend to move when their kids reach school age rather than suffer the degradations of the local system. And yet I’m pretty sure that our daughter has turned out just fine.

So how bad could San Francisco schools be? It’s a pretty wealthy urban area with a lot of highly educated people, after all.  With my radiation infused state of mind, I thought I’d poke around a little and try and find out.

San Francisco education options basically consist of private schools and academies, public schools that are ostensibly assigned through an ethnicity-based lottery, and public charter schools that have a highly selective admissions process.

Private schools have never struck us as right. Let’s face it. We send our kids to private schools because they’re, well, fundamentally private. And we like this because we like to think that we are somehow different, I dare say better, then the public. Our child is better because the other public kids are a) dumber, b) poorer, c) less well-mannered, d) have different values or religion, or e) perhaps something else. My friend described attending a private school orientation meeting early in the season. The auditorium was 95% white with a scattering of Asians and perhaps one black face. And the school administrators repeatedly emphasized how much they valued diversity. Which was odd. It didn’t matter that in the end the school attracted a largely white audience, that some of these parents may in fact have been drawn to the school because it was predominantly white. It’s okay, it’s all okay, as long as you value diversity.

And putting race aside, if the education is any better, it’s still mainly accessible to those who can afford it. Where is the fairness in that?

So how about the public charter schools? A handful of these have been recognized as being some of the best in the city. Test scores head and shoulders above the rest. High admission rate to college or academic high schools (more on this later). And they’re free. But there’s still a catch. It’s called the admissions process.

I first visit one of the KIPP Academy charter schools that dot the city. The secretary at the radiation oncology center described this particular one as the best school around. She lives in Chinatown, has struggled admirably as a single mom and has worked really really hard to do right by her kids. The middle school apparently brought the best out of them.

When I visit, the messaging throughout was great. A photo of the recent graduating class reveals a neat mix of kids largely of pan-Asian, Polynesian, and South and Central American ascent, a gene pool and cultural variance that my daughter would immediately feel at home with. Cheerful hall monitors stand at each corner to help corral the kids along. Between classes the kids, dressed neatly in blue slacks and academy shirts, move with quiet purpose through the corridors. The walls are emblazoned with the names and banners of upper-tier colleges, pictures of Obama, and dictates to try harder, to strive as hard as possible to succeed. We WILL go to college, one slogan announced. Another at the entrance of the school commanded simply: Be Nice.

I like it.

But things are not so simple. The secretary explains that there are gross inequities in the San Francisco school system, that it’s divided between the very rich and very poor and that this charter school was committed to serving underserved populations that might not normally be college bound.

Our school is highly competitive, she adds. You have to compete to get in.

I let this sink into my skull.

Okay. Time out. Let me tell you about my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Six years ago we were moving to Hopi and being white-upper-middle-class-parents-coming-from-seattle-who-have-fraught-worried-conversations-about-school-systems, we had called the local school before arriving and asked what we needed to do to enroll our daughter. What was the admissions process? Could they please send an application?

Our question was greeted with a long silence. You just send your daughter to our school, the secretary finally answered.

So now six years later I decide I’ll enter the San Francisco competition. I fill out an inquiry form. I give our name and address and my daughter’s age. I hand it to the secretary. She nods her head and looks it over quietly. We accept most kids in 5th grade, she explains. And very few kids drop out, she says. It’s very competitive.

I try to decode this. Is it because we’re white? Because we’re economically or socially advantaged? Or because my daughter will be in 7th grade? Or because we’re coming from outside the district? Truthfully if my daughter is rejected on any of these grounds, it’s probably fair. There are probably a ton of kids in this city who are in greater need of a world-class middle school that will help them get into college. On what grounds should my daughter be so entitled?

The secretary smiles politely and I understand then that that’s the end of it.

So maybe we’ll give up on the charter schools and throw our chit into the general public school system. If you want to attend a public school in San Francisco, the rules are kind of simple. You rank your top 5 schools, you enter the lottery and you go where they send you. Of course all of the upper-middle-class-parents-having-fraught-worried-conversations-about-the-school-system have researched the test scores and chattered amongst one another and sure enough they’re all ranking the same schools, the ones that they sense are the best.

I visit one of these schools in the Marina district. Again, it appears to be a great school. Expansive, orderly, great parent participation, pretty well funded – each year the PTA raises over a hundred thousand dollars to fund wonderful extracurricular programs.

I like it.

Best of all, I’m told by the office staff that the majority of kids go onto one of the few academic high schools. Academic high schools? When I was growing up they were all supposed to be academic. But I guess now in San Francisco, there are only one or two public high schools you can send your kid to if – hold your breath – you actually want them to learn something. And even though they’re public schools, you still have to apply. And the application process is very rigorous.

As for this wonderful public middle school that will help my daughter get into an academic high school? It’s also very competitive to get into.

But there are still ways to work the system. Other local parents counseled that you just need to choose the best school and fight to get in. Attend the meetings, write letters, make appeals – basically throw a well-mannered tantrum. If you want to get in, you need to be very nice to the school officials, a middle-school employee counseled. I conclude that victory favors those who are the most persistent and artful. If the student is already well equipped and perceived an asset, or if the parents are schooled in persistence and the right cultural mores and manners, they’re slightly better equipped to get in.

I ask the secretary to tell me about other schools – which are considered particularly good or not so good? You just have to go visit, she says.

I ask if there’s a time of year when their school grants tours. The secretary gives me a cold stare. We don’t give tours, she says. Very few kids drop out and very few slots open. So if our daughter’s going to be a seventh grader? She shrugs and smiles.

For my last stop I choose a middle school ranked online as being near the bottom. In the office I ask an administrator how other parents would describe their school: Nifty, medium, or uneven.

She doesn’t like the question. I have no idea, she says.

I try a different tack. I’m new to this area, I say. People tell me San Francisco schools are a mess. But I don’t know how bad it can get. What would make one school worse than another? Again she declines to answer my question. Are you a good school? I ask. We have a good school, she says with a forced smile and directs me to the parent liaison.

The parent liaison is a nice guy, but speaks carefully. Your daughter may have a hard time here, he explains. We have children from Asia, from Middle East, from black comm-

My daughter is the only white kid in her school, I say.

He smiles, visibly relieved. Oohh, he says. Then she will feel very comfortable here.

A group of students walk into the room. All are from China, most speak English as a second language. He asks them to talk about the school, but they are very shy. He explains that they have a special bilingual class in English and Cantonese.

Wow, I say, somewhat impressed. If my daughter wanted to, could she study Cantonese?

He looks at me a little puzzled. Why yes, he stutters, if she wanted to, of course.

And it dawns on me that no one has ever asked this before. This class is not really intended to teach other kids Cantonese.

All the kids, of course, want to go to an academic high school, he explains, but not many are accepted from this school. They will have to work very hard. He cites a school in Bayview – an economically depressed and socially underserved area. If your daughter goes to high school there, she’ll be able to go to college anywhere. It’s a very poor school, everyone else in the school is black and latino and doesn’t apply to college, he explains. Because your daughter is white she will apply and she will get in.

Not so artfully stated, but in the end I appreciate his honesty. And perhaps that really might be the best course. Send our daughter to what’s considered the worst school possible and if she can prosper there in that barren soil, then she can probably do well anywhere.

But still I’m confused. Why should any of the least advantaged be pushed aside? Are they terminally least advantaged? KIPP schools seem to prove not. They take a subset of that same pool of kids: the blacks or latinos or poor or underserved or disadvantaged or different or whatever you want to call them – that same block of kids that everyone fears and dismisses and they drop them into different conditions with a different set of expectations and they manage to excel. Their test scores are off the charts.

Which illuminates even more the tragedy for those who are not selected. Sorry. We only have so many lifeboats. And they’ve already been filled. Those in steerage are going down with the ship.

In the end my bottom-of-the-heap-middle-school-liaison says I can contact him anytime. He asks if I would like a tour and one of the girls, only a year nearly arrived from Hong Kong, shows me around. She likes her school very much, some kids are nice, but other kids are noisy and mean. The classrooms are packed to the walls, the overall feeling a little abraded and worn. Aside from the huge class size, it feels a little bit like home.

I like it.

And what would they say at home? Why, they would say that everyone has a role. Puebloan culture values heterogeneity. Each and everyone of us comes from a different place. We each have different knowledge and different experiences and different perspectives on the world. And when we come together we share all that knowledge and experience. We each have a chance to contribute and we must respect the unique contribution that each of us is equipped to make.. And when we all come together, we come to comprise something unique. We call it Society. You might even call it a civilization.

When our daughter Mazie was a little girl in Seattle she sometimes would pretend to host little sports events. “The competitioners are all in their places,” she would eagerly announce. “Ready! Set! Go! And the competitioners are off and racing!”

But in Puebloan society people in general do not race. Rather, they run. And when you run, you run collectively, you run together for some higher purpose. In this worldview there are no competitioners. If you do run hard, you do so in part to encourage the fellow beside you to run even harder.

What comes from a world in which we condition our children to win? We’re talking here about the universal right to have your mind and body and spirit developed to the best of its abilities. A right for which none of us should have to compete.

In a world in which we’re taught to be competitioners, in which we triumph at the expense of others, then do we not err colossally? How collectively can we possibly win?

If we win, by definition there will always, always be someone who loses. And if my daughter is more persistent in her quest to get into the best middle-school to prepare her for the best academic high school, who in the end will be the loser? Probably some kid who did not get my daughter’s spot. But perhaps even my daughter.  Is my daughter any more deserving?  Probably not. And even if she were, at what cost?  And who will be the one to pay it?

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One thought on “The Competitioners

  1. Thanks for that, Andy. Very interesting. I don’t have kids, but I have heard the same stories about the public schools in San Francisco and Oakland. The notion of competition as a paradigm to structure society and our lives around is indeed a sick one.

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