I Thought My School Was Typical

I grew up with the problem that no one talks about. I lived through community members gently tip-toeing around subjects like race and class. You might not think your ten-year-old child notices these types of things, but they do. I watched a number of my White peers move away to “better” areas. I saw friends transfer to private schools in search of a “better” education. It didn’t take long to realize that the people leaving SEL and the people entering SEL looked very different from each other. I might not have known why this was happening, but I knew.

I entered kindergarten at Adrian Elementary in 2000. My best friend lived around the corner from me. My mom volunteered with the PTA. I rode a school bus and was excited when they served chocolate pudding in the cafeteria. For much of my childhood, I thought my school was typical. There wasn’t anything special or out of the ordinary. How different could things be?

I slowly learned that there was one particular aspect of my school that made it different from many others. You see, half of the students I went to school with didn’t look like me. I was a fair-skinned child with blonde hair and blue eyes. Every day I would walk into a classroom where 50 percent of my peers were Black. Did I notice the difference in skin pigmentation? Yes, but I never thought anything of it. 7-year-old me lived in a post-racial world. Skin color didn’t matter when I played on the playground or ate lunch in the cafeteria.

As the time to transition to Greenview moved closer, more and more people moved away. I saw countless friends leave the school I loved. While a handful were moving across the state or even across the country, most were relocating less than 20 miles away. They settled down in places like Solon or Hudson, or sometimes even neighboring Mayfield.

It wasn’t until I crept toward adolescence that the reasoning for my peers leaving began to solidify. My parents explained to me the social phenomena of “White flight.” As more and more people of color moved into neighborhoods and schools, middle-class White people fled further away from the city center. I began to understand why all my classmates moving away were White and all the “new kids” weren’t. It wasn’t at all a sheer coincidence.

As I progressed further and further in SEL, jabs at my school became more pointed and a regular occurrence. Friends who had left the district or went to private schools would tell me that I went to a “ghetto” and “dangerous” school. Often times they were simply regurgitating what the adults in their lives had told them. Work colleagues or general acquaintances would question my parents as to why they would send their children to Brush. “Don’t you want a good education for your children? Maybe you should consider private school.”

It’s no wonder that my peers and I thought we went to a bad school. We were constantly surrounded by the negative opinions of (often uninformed) community members. Our friends from other schools would warn of being stabbed in the hallway. Complete strangers would inform us as to why Brush doomed us to a life of mediocrity.

If there is one thing that you pick up from this internet rambling, it’s this: sending me to Brush and SEL schools was the best thing my parents could have done for my education. I took honors and AP classes from dedicated faculty who taught me how to think critically. I engaged in a multitude of extracurricular activities that allowed me to become a well-rounded person. At Brush, I was able to excel academically while participating in a phenomenal music program and pursuing a love of art. I learned incredible leadership skills from pitching for the less-than-stellar softball team.

Most importantly, I learned how to engage with people who aren’t like me. From the time I entered kindergarten until I graduated high school, I attended schools that were at least 50 percent Black. I had classmates whose parents worked two jobs. I interacted with people who didn’t possess the same religious beliefs I did. These experiences helped give me a worldview that extends beyond my privileged, White, middle-class bubble. You don’t learn anything from being surrounded by homogeneity. I am infinitely more prepared for life because of my time at Brush.

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South Euclid-Lyndhurst Schools have allowed me and my younger brother to be anything but mediocre. I’m currently a junior in Ohio State’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs and serve as Media Director for the OSU chapter of Students for Education Reform. My brother Colin graduated as salutatorian of the class of 2015 and is currently a freshman at Northwestern University. An education in this school district has enabled us and many others to create a promising future of our own.

My father often describes living in South Euclid as “ground zero.” This is where we truly figure out if people from different classes, races, religions, and general walks of life can live together as neighbors and thrive. It’s a difficult process that requires reflecting on our tumultuous history filled with discriminatory practices. By attending SEL schools, we made a statement: we aren’t running from these challenges. We’re ready to face this head on.

In the fifteen years my family has been associated with SEL, the demographics of the schools shifted dramatically. In 2000, the district roughly represented the community it served: it was filled with mostly White, middle-class students. In a decade and a half, however, the schools’ population has become predominantly Black and the student poverty rate has increased almost 2500%. Many people are willing to acknowledge the recent influx of minority families into the public schools but not willing to do so for the equally important half. Middle-class, mainly White families have left our schools. It’s time we become comfortable addressing this fact. Like my colleague, Sally Martin, mentioned in her essay “The Problem No One Talks About,” race is a very difficult thing to discuss. But we have to start somewhere. We have to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

-Beth Fry

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The Problem No One Talks About

When Beth Fry and I started the SEL Experience Project blog our goal was to highlight all the positive outcomes and stories from the South Euclid Lyndhurst School District and to have an “honest” conversation about the rumors and negative perceptions that have resulted in an erosion of support for our schools. The “honest” part is the hard part. It’s hard to talk about race and social class. I don’t feel qualified myself. I’m uncomfortable doing it, yet someone has to try. I’ll start by sharing my family’s story and do my best from there.

In 2001 we moved into our home on South Belvoir in South Euclid. Before long we were hearing negative stories about the schools. We were told that we “couldn’t use the schools”.  At the time our school district had excellent ratings, yet there was so much negative neighbor-to-neighbor talk. Frankly, I didn’t think much about it since our extended family had a long-standing tradition of Catholic education. We just enrolled our son in Catholic school and that was that.

It wasn’t until 2008 when I became South Euclid’s Housing Manager that I began to fully grasp what a high price we were paying as a community because of these negative perceptions. To be sure, our city like many others, was hit hard by the housing crisis. Almost 20% of our housing stock has been in foreclosure. Much of that was a result of predatory lending, but compounding that and predating that, there has been a long and disturbing trend of families moving away in search of “better schools”. During the crisis this occasionally showed up in the form of “strategic defaults”—people who could pay, but decided to stop paying on a mortgage. In some cases, these people purchased other homes elsewhere, then walked away from their South Euclid home. While strategic defaults weren’t widespread, I saw cases I could tie directly to negative school perceptions. In meeting with Realtors, I heard over and over again that the poor reputation of our schools was creating a problem with property sales.

Our homes are selling to young professionals, single folks, and empty nesters, but not to as many families with children. As a result we are seeing a trend of smaller household sizes. Rental properties have increased in South Euclid and other inner-ring suburbs as a result of the glut of bank-owned properties that were sold to investors and because of homeowners who have moved and rented out their homes. Many of these homes are now occupied by lower-income families who use the schools.

As we lost middle class families and more lower income folks began using the schools, we saw a shift in the demographics of our school district. In 12 years, our schools went from being predominantly white to predominantly black. Our school poverty rate increased over 2,400 percent and we became a Title 1 school district, which means that more than 40% of our school population is on free and reduced lunch and our district is eligible for special federal subsidies.

The schools no longer match the demographics of either community they serve. Both South Euclid and Lyndhurst remain predominately white and middle class, although the level of diversity in both cities continues to increase. As a result of the increased poverty levels of the schools, our test scores and state rankings have decreased. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy—as residents convinced each other that the schools were no good and decided to flee, it became clear, based on the ratings, that they had indeed become far worse. Except that they haven’t, and that’s where this gets complicated.

When our son Chris was in eighth grade he announced that he did not want to remain in private school for high school. This came as a shock to my husband and I and I’m embarrassed to admit that we fought him on it. In the end his stubbornness won out and he was enrolled at Brush High School. Little by little we realized that in spite of everything we’d heard, there was absolutely no truth to the negative rumors. Chris loved Brush and received a great education. When he graduated in 2014 he got an impressive scholarship and is now a sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The dedicated faculty and outstanding programs continue to exceed our expectations. Our daughter Sarah is now a freshman at Brush after spending eight years in private school. She loves the school, especially the fact that the other students are kind and accepting, something that wasn’t always the case at her former school. On her first day at Brush, the first group of girls she encountered in the cafeteria immediately waved her over and invited her to sit with them for lunch.

Not much has fundamentally changed about the curriculum at the district since it had excellent ratings. District wide, there are over 30 AP and Honors classes, scores of extracurricular offerings, a STEM program, opportunities to earn free college credit while in high school, 58 sports teams, including a gorgeous stadium, and world-class music and art instruction. There’s even a farm to fork program that brings local produce to our cafeterias, and the impressive Excel Tech program, that allows students real world training in over 22 vocations. It’s not a stretch to say that if all of our residents decided to start sending their kids to the district, our rankings would quickly be back to where they were 12 years ago. That’s the frustrating part. Now, we’ve come to the hardest part.

The unspoken but prevailing narrative is that if you’re black and low income the schools are just fine for you, but if you’re white or middle class, the schools aren’t good enough. There are plenty of code words and phrases that people use to say it, like “the schools have changed”, but what is really being said is that since the schools are predominantly attended by minority students, they must be inferior. I like to think that we’ve come a long way in terms of equality and acceptance in our little community, but this is still a chasm that sometimes feels insurmountable.

Worst of all, the students are aware of the negative things that are being said—they read all those nasty remarks on social media and Cleveland.com. Sarah was told by her former school peers that if she went to Brush she would probably be stabbed and have no friends; that it’s a “ghetto school.” I never thought that something as simple as sending my children to a neighborhood school could be considered an act of defiance, but in way it is. Another private school mother who sent her children to Brush told me her story. She explained that she and her kids took a lot of abuse for using the public school, but that she felt it was the best thing she has ever done for them in terms of preparing them to live in the wider world. Academically, her children have excelled. They received impressive college scholarships and have gone on to seek advanced degrees.

After having worked on our storytelling project for the better part of a year, I can say that one of the most surprising things I have discovered is that our graduates tend to be highly motivated by social justice and by and large want to go out and make the world a better place. Many already have, and we love to tell those stories.   But all this negativity has taken a toll on the morale of our students, faculty, and the community at large. It needs to stop. By far, our school district is one of the largest pieces of our municipal infrastructure. It’s not disposable and neither are our communities.Beth & Sally B&W

Our city is recovering. Due to a lot of hard work and innovation on the part of city staff, we’ve seen over $100 million in residential and commercial investment in our city since 2010. New homes are being built and values are increasing. Unfortunately, our residents are limiting our success. By saying negative things and continuing to feed the destructive narrative about our schools, we are undermining our own property values and perpetuating a cycle that is harming us all and further dividing us. The only way this is going to be solved is the same way it began—by changing our everyday conversations over the backyard fence, at the grocery store, and on social media. Our kids are worth it and our neighborhoods are worth it.

–Sally Martin

 

Why are we doing this? What’s the point?

Strong public schools lead to strong communities. When the strength of the public schools is called into question through misinformation, everyone hurts. Local government, businesses, and families must scramble to face the effects of this new perception. Most importantly, the students are hurt. As Harvard professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam noted in his bestseller Bowling Alone, “trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity within a child’s family, school, peer group, and larger community have wide-ranging effects on the child’s opportunities and choices.” We are at a crossroads in the communities of South Euclid & Lyndhurst, Ohio: our public schools no longer represent the community they serve. Through gossip and hearsay, many of our middle-class families no longer trust the public education system as a viable option for their children. It’s time to change that.

The SEL Experience Project believes in a better South Euclid-Lyndhurst City School District. Formed in the spring of 2015 by a concerned parent and a recent graduate, this grassroots organization aims to share the real stories of our public schools. We have both experienced firsthand the incredible opportunities available in the public schools and are passionate about sharing the real SEL. It’s time we, as a community, take responsibility for the state of our public education option. It’s time we recognize that childhood development and learning is influenced not only by family and school, but by community as well. When we divest from public education, we relay the message that these students don’t matter. Every student matters.