The Kindergarten Conundrum

May 1, 2013

This week, my husband and I handed in the paperwork to enroll our older daughter in Kindergarten for the 2013-2014 school year. Amazingly, she was chosen for a top notch magnet in the LAUSD system -- which not only has incredible test scores, but also happens to be 60% "non-white minority" (a magnet requirement). I knew when I put in our application that this school checked off every item on my personal Kindergarten Wishlist, and though we considered moving out of LA to find her a better school, we knew we couldn't leave when we got the acceptance letter. While this is really only the beginning, the enrollment still feels to me like a finish line to a long and winding race. And where we ended up still seems like the luck of the draw -- if not for the magnet school lottery, there would've been little we could've done to get her into a school that performs this well.

Let me start at the very beginning. When our older kid was born five and a half years ago, my husband (then boyfriend) and I had just moved back to the town in Connecticut where I grew up. The town is solidly upper-middle class and has always had an excellent school system, but we only lived there (and could afford to by renting from family) because it was the town where my mom and aunts decided we should raise our kids. As long as we were there, I never had to give a second thought to child care or put in extra effort to research the schools we would send the kids to. Having my kids grow up in the same town I grew up in was also one less scary experience to worry about -- it probably wouldn't ease my kids' growing pains, but it would probably take some of the guesswork of adolescence out (for me, anyway).

But plans change,  and for myriad reasons, we decided to move back to Los Angeles, where the kid was conceived. It was, in no small part, due to the fact that I didn't want my kids to have my childhood. I always feel funny criticizing my hometown and upbringing because I now realize the privilege of growing up in a school system that had up-to-date textbooks, reasonably-sized classrooms, and no gang violence. But growing up in a predominantly white town as an Other left scars, too.

At school, racism was a constant in my life. At home, I was under constant pressure to both assimilate and outperform. Wedged between the two, even the most innocuous things had unintended consequences. I was never allowed to have friends over, and I never wanted them over anyway because I always had to deal with stupid comments about my dad's broken English and how our house smelled weird. My parents signed me up for Tae Kwon Do at an early age to help me stand up for myself, but since none of my classmates seemed to realize that Asia wasn't just China, it only opened me up to more ridicule at school.

Racism was even prevalent in my own family: not only was I not allowed to hang out with the few friends I had that were also POC's (because they were bussed in from Hartford and my parents didn't want to drive in their neighborhoods), but my own cousins, who grew up in the same predominantly white school system, berated me constantly for being part Chinese. That last one has actually been such a shameful secret for so long that even at 30 years old, I still feel weird admitting it out loud. My cousins still do this to me -- quite openly actually, and every time I see them -- and I still have to pretend I'm okay with it because it's just easier for me, but I feel like they'd be mad at me for outing the family dynamic. White people wouldn't understand it, but Asian people (myself included) wouldn't either.

To my extended family back in CT, wanting more diversity is simply not a good enough reason to risk sending my kids to the kind of L.A. schools they hear about. The idea was that, as long as we were around white folks who had the time and resources to obsess about their kids' early education, we would be okay. But I didn't want my kids to be around all that racial baggage.

The flipside is that, after moving to L.A., the odds were high that my daughter would've gone to a school more crowded and with less resources than the school she would've attended in CT. I'd heard nightmare stories about how difficult the LAUSD system was to navigate, and how neglected and broken these schools were. Many of our parent friends at preschool were in a hysteria all year trying to get their kids into a decent Kindergarten. Countless hours were spent poring over testing statistics and school orientation packets, and attending information sessions. I was told I'd have to take time off from work and line up at open enrollment schools, just to get my kid's name on a waiting list. I work and have another child -- finding the big kid a school was another full-time job in itself that I just couldn't swing.

And what's the profile of an underperforming school anyway? Our neighborhood is low-income and predominantly Hispanic. The elementary school she would be going to in this neighborhood has 62% of its student body learning English in school, and 88% of the students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch program. It's safe to assume that most, if not all of these parents work.

The biggest complaint of the neighborhood school is a lack of parent involvement, what seems to be the panacea for all educational ills. "Parent involvement" doesn't just mean making sure your kids get their homework done, reading books to them, and recognizing when they're having trouble with a subject. It means teaching your kids how to settle issues with other kids without resorting to violence, and it means being present enough so that they wouldn't have to seek attention by bullying others. It also means making sure the classrooms are stocked with what the teachers need, advocating for your kids when administration has to get involved, and fighting for enrichment programs. Parent involvement requires a lot of time and energy, time and energy spent away from your other commitments like your job and family. Anything short of being utterly obsessed with your child's education seems to signal a lack of parent involvement these days, actually. Many parents in this neighborhood work low-paid jobs -- some even work multiple jobs -- and can't even take a sick day without feeling the financial strain. I'm sure it's not that they don't want to be more involved in their children's education and lives; it's that they simply can't.

The great thing about the LAUSD magnet program is that it was designed to foster diversity in schools and give kids like the ones in our neighborhood access to better educational resources. By virtue of being a system that requires extra research and paperwork, you're put in a pool of other parents who take an active interest in their children's education -- parental involvement is built in. We're incredibly lucky that the magnet program came through for us, and I still feel really weird about taking this spot knowing that another child who is equally deserving of these resources won't get in.

Upon getting our acceptance letter and attending the tour and information sessions to this magnet school, I had to consider all the factors that got us there. Not simply the fact that we are an Asian mixed-race family and live in a predominantly non-white community. Other kids in our neighborhood would've equally been deserving of the spot, if not more. But I was one of the parents who had the internet access to do all the research -- from alternative school choices, to how to apply to the magnet program, to the test scores of each school, to deciding what schools to apply to. Moreover, I actually had the time to do all this research, and the transportation to attend the information nights, and the insurance to pay for all the necessary physical examinations and immunizations required ahead of time. My kid is entering Kindergarten already knowing how to socialize and read and write because we had the resources to buy her books and read them to her and send her to preschool. Apparently, it's access to those kinds of resources -- not necessarily the teachers or administrators -- that make all the difference.

This magnet school will give my daughter the opportunity to be around more Asian American kids than both neighborhood schools she would've gone to in Connecticut and Los Angeles. I have no idea what kind of experience she'll have. I know simply putting her in a more racially diverse school will not shield her from ignorance and racism. I don't know what kind of problems she'll have growing up here, and I don't even know how I'll be able to help her deal with them. Raising the girls in Connecticut would've at least been a familiar beast. But just as my parents came to America through luck of the draw to try to give me a better shot, I like to think I'm doing the same for my own kids. And we'll navigate the new experiences and issues they'll face together.


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.