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On the self-caricaturing concerns of high-flying parents

On the self-caricaturing concerns of high-flying parents

Did this article in The New York Times Magazine about a new school in New York City for the children of the intellectual elite make anyone else despair for the future of humankind?

Here is just a little taste of the self-caricaturing behavior of the high-flying parents–behavior with which, I hesitate to admit, I am not entirely unfamiliar as the parent of two children who attended private schools in Washington, D. C. and its environs:

A committee was created to manage events, like galas and book fairs and bake sales, even though, as a for-profit school, Avenues couldn’t hold any events that raised money. (Did Avenues even want book fairs, some wondered? That was debated, too.) A task force was formed to investigate the safety of the neighborhood after at least one mother fretted that her child had seen the upper outlines of a homeless man’s backside en route to a playground. The complaint became known as the butt-crack e-mail. Other debates waged over the classrooms (were there enough books?); pickup (it was mayhem); identification cards (the photos were too high-resolution); and the school uniforms (was anyone enforcing the policy?). “I think we underestimated the degree of their energy and creativity,” says Gardner P. Dunnan, the former Dalton headmaster and Avenues’ academic dean and head of the Upper School. “They would take over if they could. They are New York parents.”

Among the lessons I draw from this article: Americans are so worried about their children’s chances in our cut-throat meritocracy, that even those–maybe especially those with every conceivable advantage will still find material to feed their anxieties.


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Adam Spencer

Man, is “The Onion” good or what?

Sarah Lawton

Thanks for the link, Rob. This has to be a great way to start–connect on a heart level with the local school communities. My own congregation founded an afterschool tutoring program some 40 years ago that is now a well-known non-profit specializing in drop-out prevention and college prep for our neighborhood’s public school kids, and training for their parents as well: … Members of my congregation are still very much involved, though it is now an independent agency. (For those who knew him, our then-vicar, the Rev. Winston Ching, was instrumental in getting this project off the ground back in 1970s).

The other issue though is advocacy — for funding our schools, supporting our teachers, and walking the ubiquitous talk of giving a 21st-century education to all our kids. It also means surrounding our kids with other supports–housing, food, mental health services, health care–that kids need to succeed. (Recent attempts to decrease funding for the school breakfast/lunch program had me tearing my hair out. Wrong direction!).

C. Wingate

I live in what is surely one of the better funded school systems in the country (Montgomery County, Maryland) in one of the most intensely diverse suburban areas around–not just blacks but also Hispanics, Pakistanis, and whites up and down the social scale. Academically, the school system tries, but the teachers, and my kids, struggle with the social issues. Bullying and just random violence was an issue for every kid in our neighborhood in middle school; even now my daughter (fortunately well past that age) finds her classes continually disrupted by bad behavior. All the teachers I know complain constantly about discipline and classroom disruption. Maryland puts pressure on std. test performance but at the same time if kids are going to learn math, some degree of drill is essential. My kids have otherwise been protected from educational faddism but the behavioral issues are often overwhelming.

At the same time I see the private schools engaged in something of a facilities arms race which is very obviously driven by fears that visiting potential parents will be turned off if the physical plant is anything but first-rate. he chasing after alumni money has gotten similarly frantic. I can only hope that my alma mater (a top-flight Episcopal boarding school) has now run out of capital projects to fleece us for, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see in a year or a so a cry of well-acted despair in the alumni bulletin about how they now need to raise a bunch more money because the dorm rooms are so terribly outdated and shabby, the subtext being that parents with means will forsake the school in favor of St. Cuthbert’s, with its swank new student digs.

Rob Lamborn

As a parent of a child in an NYC public school, I appreciate your comments, Sarah. Do you know about the “All our Children” initiative in the Diocese of New York?

Sarah Lawton

Jim, good commentary, especially your final sentence. I read the article yesterday and was left feeling that if I tried to comment on it I would either be rendered inarticulate or end up on a crazy rant. But it’s important to talk about–not so much this tiny privileged set, but what is happening to the vast majority of kids who are in our public schools, where anxiety would be much less misplaced.

I value my kids’ urban public educations a whole lot. They have important life experience that money truly cannot buy (no matter how hard those parents in the article try), including a sense of belonging to a community that crosses class, color, language etc. lines in significant enough degree to matter. These are schools where brief glimpses of “butt cracks” would be the least of it, but really, the kids are alright anyway. Better off than their private-school peers, in some ways.

However, I see the problems with public schools — a serious lack of funding, for sure (we have an annual paper drive for the teachers, asking each family to bring in at least one ream; the kids share track shoes on the track team; I could go on and on). But we also have a twentieth century design for a twenty-first century economy, including recent school reform that focuses on “drill and kill” focused on reading and math instead of critical thinking and broad education across many subjects, including the arts. On top of which, class sizes are increasing significantly due to budget cuts (my daughter’s 9th grade classes had 40+ kids). Drill and kill is especially a problem in poorest schools. And the teachers hate it so much. It’s driving some of the best ones away.

One hesitates to raise these issues though, for fear of being used in the ongoing attack on teachers and public schools in general, or driving other middle and upper-middle class families away, in all our many anxieties.

But again, the vast majority of our nation’s kids are educated in the public schools. So much church discussion on education seems to focus on our Episcopal schools. Many of these do have a mission of reaching families who could not otherwise afford private school. But we will never reach significant numbers of children. I would love to see us advocating for quality and engaging education for all our kids. That means advocating for lots more funding for public schools. And the taxes to pay for them. We need to say over and over that ALL our kids are worthy of this kind of investment, from quality pre-K programs all the way through college and yes, also, 21st century vocational programs. The kind of broad, progressive, light-filled programs these anxious parents in the article want for their kids. Why not all our kids?

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