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Adoption Blog: The Yin and the Yang

If You Give a Mom a Cookie… When Choosing a New School Leads to Questions of Diversity



One day I visit a private K-12 school in our area. I'm here looking at the high school program to see if it might be a good fit for my 13-year-old daughter, Kathryn, who will be entering high school in the fall. During my tour, I mention I have a 7-year-old, so the director takes me to see a first-grade classroom. I stop outside the door and stand openmouthed in front of a collection of snowman stories stapled to the wall in the hallway. The stories are written in tidy, well-punctuated sentences, with most of the words spelled correctly. My daughter Hanna is a first grader. She does not write like this. Why not?

Do you know the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? (Basically one thing leads to the next until you end up right back where you started.) I just got a cookie. 

Suddenly, I wonder what my daughter is actually learning in first grade at her A+-rated public school. Hanna, who was adopted from China as a baby, seems pretty smart. I always thought she was excelling. Maybe she's not. How come I don't know?

Some days later, I am volunteering in Hanna's classroom. I sit in the back stapling homework packets. Hanna sits at her desk looking around the room, playing with her bracelet, unengaged.

"Psst, Hanna?"

She turns.

"Why aren't you doing your work?" I whisper.

"I finished."

I tiptoe over and look. Sure enough it is all done. The other kids are scribbling away.

Oh no. She could be writing snowman stories and instead she's fiddling with her jewelry. How long before she loses interest in school? I tend to idolize teachers and hate to complain. But what if I've been missing something?

As the mouse story goes, the private school visit was the cookie, this observation in Hanna's class is the glass of milk to go with it. Now I have to go find a straw.   

Here it comes. My neighbor hears me raving about the snowman stories at the private K-12 school and my concern Hanna may be bored in class. She arranges for Hanna to spend a day at the private Christian school right down the road where her children attend.

When I drop Hanna off at the Christian school in the morning, the principal, my neighbor, and her daughter all walk us to the first-grade classroom. Hanna and I feel like visiting royalty. Outside the door of this first-grade class, I spy stories about leprechauns tacked to the wall. Once again, I marvel at the tidy handwriting and coherence. That, and all the kids can spell leprechaun. (I had to look it up.)

Hanna's day starts with pancakes and jellybeans, due to a coincidentally timed fundraising breakfast. Mine starts with an in-depth conversation with the first-grade teacher, followed by a chat with the principal.

"I want Hanna in this school right now," I say to the principal, shaking my head in amazement at what I've just witnessed these first graders doing in class.

"Are you serious?" the principal asks.

"Well, I don't want to get crazy, but I really like what I see.”

"Hey, get a little crazy," the principal smiles. "Go home and pray about it." She gives me her cell number. How do I tell the principal our family doesn't go to church?

Prayers aside, I walk out fairly convinced I want to move Hanna to the Christian school right away. I think about all she could learn, how nurtured she would be here. (I have already forgotten all about the K-12 private school that started things—it is too far from home and expensive.)

Days go by and, as I think about Hanna leaving her current school, doubts settle in. Hanna's school is comfy and familiar, like home. Hanna likes her class and her friends here. Kathryn went here for six years. I know the principal and most of the teachers. The principal and many of the teachers know and love Hanna. The principal knew of Hanna before she existed, when she was mere adoption paperwork and hope. That kind of love and loyalty is hard to walk away from, even for leprechaun stories.

When I tell Hanna's teacher and principal I am thinking of moving Hanna from the school, they react strongly. Her teacher spends an hour and a half going through her curriculum, showing me the ways in which she slips extra challenges into Hanna's day. She offers to send home harder work. The principal offers us our pick of teachers for Hanna next year. She considers skipping Hanna up a grade, whatever I want.

I ask Hanna what she wants. She wants more challenging work. She likes the prayers at the Christian school and the idea of going to school with her best friend from next door. She also likes the pancakes, cupcakes, and ice cream she had that day at the Christian school. Apparently, in addition to the fundraising breakfast, a parent brought birthday cupcakes and every Friday is ice cream day. (There's an ice cream fee in the tuition.) What child wouldn't like all of that? 

I think about what I want. I want Hanna to be happy, to use every bit of her bright mind. I want her to be nurtured and have a sense of belonging. I wish for her to have a connection to spirituality. (Yet, as a non-churchgoing parent, I am cautious. I don't want to be hypocritical either.) Academics are important, but so are other things, like comfort and friendship and, in Hanna's case, diversity. This last one is a big one.

There is much less diversity at the small, private school, which has only one class per grade. As Hanna grows, will she be the only Asian child in her grade? As the mother of a multicultural family, I have to think about these things. From what I've read about international adoption and identity, Hanna needs to be around people like herself. If her family, her school, and her community are primarily Caucasian, what will happen to the positive self-image I am supposed to be helping her build?

A colorblind society may be nice in theory, but in reality, our family is more colorful. Should Hanna's outer world reflect a similar colorfulness? I wonder. My neighbor rattles off the different backgrounds of the kids at the Christian school and tells me not to worry. There are even two girls adopted from China just like Hanna, she reminds me. For a time, I swing back and forth on this pendulum of thought: Am I weighing diversity too heavily in my decision, or maybe not enough?>

As Kathryn's high school search continues, she settles on a school in the city, where she, pale as a ghost, is the minority in a sea of diversity. Ironically, my younger daughter of Chinese heritage seems drawn toward the private school's smaller, less diverse community.

Does it really matter where my daughters go to school if they are happy, safe, and learning? This is one of those questions that is raised by multicultural families. It's a question to be answered differently for my two daughters. For Kathryn, I don't think the racial makeup of her school is a deciding factor. For Hanna, maybe diversity matters a lot. Or maybe it doesn't and I'm overthinking. (My friends, without children adopted from another race, think the latter may be so.)

Over the next weeks, I think a lot about what will be best for Hanna in the long run, weighing heavy topics of race and religion alongside academics and economics. (Public school is, after all, free. Though the costs I care about most are not monetary.) 

Ultimately, I decide not to move Hanna abruptly but to start supplementing her learning at home with educational workbooks and Chinese vocabulary flash cards. Maybe I will move Hanna this fall or next year. There is still much to think about in choosing a school. As the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie story goes, I have ended up right back where I started. 

Any thoughts or suggestions? I welcome your insights and experience. Sometimes I find parenting like walking through the dark with a flashlight. In the circle of illuminated light at your feet, you can only see so far ahead.


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13 Comments

That is definitely a difficult decision.  I completely understand wanting your child not to be the only non-Caucasian in their class.  We moved school districts just for this reason.  Luckily, so far the school has met or exceeded our child’s academic needs.  But if it wasn’t, we would look at the local private schools, which are mostly all Caucasian.  Then my children would be “the Hispanic ones.”  But could they live with that label, if that meant their educational needs were being fulfilled?  I don’t know.  I would think it would matter to them.  But perhaps I, like you, am overthinking it.  It’s hard not to when you are their mother and want to protect them.
So, I’m no help with this.  But I can say that I understand your way of thinking.  Good luck to you in your decision making!!

By Danielle Pennel on Friday, May 13, 2011 at 9:20 pm.

It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this sort of thinking!

By Stacy Clark on Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm.

You are NOT overthinking this. Our kids absolutely need diversity and same-race friends and role models. The school decisions are so loaded because you need to weigh so many additional factors.

Keep in mind that while a school (private or public) might have much to recommend it, there can be hidden issues around race in that community that your white friends don’t know about. A friend of mine sent her Ethiopian daughter to a Waldorf school in a nearby liberal, progressive community and the child was subjected to racial teasing. Staff refused to deal with it and denied that there could be racism in their lovely school.

I guess my point is, I think you really need to dig around and ask around for more opinions about the school before uprooting your child. If there are few students of color at a private school, ask the principal why that’s the case. Does the racial make up of the school reflect the make up of the overall community? If it’s a function of tuition costs, do they give out scholarships to promote diversity? Can you talk to some of the non-white families at the school about their experiences?

By Sharon Van Epps on Monday, May 16, 2011 at 7:40 am.

My husband and i are caucasian, and my sons are both hispanic. My older son is very dark complected and his social worker used to think that he may be bi-racial (he is the handsomest little boy ever IMHO). When i was picking pre- school, diversity was definately a deciding factor. Since then- teh education has became more important. I do go out of my way to join diverse play-groups, attend a diverse church, and just make sure he sees people that in his words “look like him” in his life on a regular basis. The schools in my area run hot and cold. The public school is horrible, but the private school that we can afford (there are bigger ones that are more diverse) is mostly caucasian. I was scared that this would be an issue- but since like i said before he is exposed to all different types of people- it hasn’t been a problem.
Some good ideas that have worked for us is- joining a boy scout (girl scouts in your case) group with different ethnicities, summer reading groups at the library, and looking into different summer day camps. We have also found an adoption playgroup bc for my kids- race isn’t as big of an issue as being around other adoptive families.
Sorry this is turning into a book- but one more little piece of advice- (and it sounds like you are great at this) stay active in your childs academic life. Even at the private school continue to volunteer, ask questions, and make sure that your child isn’t being put into a “box” bc of race or the fact that she was adopted. smile

By Eshotwell on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm.

Such an ongoing issue for parents of all children. I know lots who have done it both ways but usually go to the school that is the most academically/emotionally spirited school for their children. And then add the diversity in outside activities if the school is not diverse enough. Also, mix multicultural activities into your “other activities”. When kids grow up and have been educated the best the parents can do they reflect back and find the good first. The importance of friendship and the neighborhood is what they remember, I think, most. I am sure you will reevaluate until you find what is right for both of your children.  Great article, Stacy.

By Madgew on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 4:52 pm.

Hanna’s mom makes some comments that concern me - first, that diversity is only important to Hanna and Hanna’s education/development needs because she’s not white; secondly, that her friends who’ve adopted but not internationally or across racial lines think that she is making “too much” of the diversity issue/question - these thought patterns are exactly why we still have so far to go on the entire diversity question in this country!

The need for diversity and the acceptance of building a diverse, multicultural society is EVERYONE’S concern - the fact that so many white people think this isn’t “their” issue speaks to both white priviledge and to the fact that, for so many people who aren’t faced with the race/color question each day, they have NO IDEA whatsoever about what it means to be black/brown/yellow in America. And, since they take the attitude that it isn’t their issue, it also means that they have little or no real concern about changing things or making a truly positive difference with regard to how we grow our communities as places of tolerance and acceptance of all people.

When you value diversity, the diversity question comes into play with every decision you make about your child’s life experience - where to live, which play groups to join, where the child goes to school, what summer programs and extra-curricular activities to choose, etc. The fact remains that most white families in the United States don’t truly value diversity - for many, it’s a trend/change that must be tolerated at some level but many prefer to avoid it at all cost, for as long as they are able to do so.

By Camilla317 on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm.

I am fortunate to live in an area where my adoptive daughter has both a diversified community and a challenging school district with high standards and involved parents.  A double bonus is that I am near Chicago with a rich Chinese community.  Like you, however, I over think too, so here are my thoughts, because I want to do the right thing for my daughter as well to give her all the support she needs to develop. 

First and foremost in my mind, school must be enriching or there will be trouble at some point in any child’s life.  I have experienced just that with the brightest of bright in the best of schools.  One can always find social diversification in after school activities and social groups.  School should be held to a higher standard of performance, not just a social one. 

When I was choosing a preschool for my little girl, diversity was certainly high on my list, but so was interaction, and play.  She was an older adoptee, and socialization was lacking in her life before she came into our lives.  Even now after one year in elementary ed, she struggles, but she is challenged to a very high standard with all the other students.  She is very happy. After one year, she is reading, and writing.  She had absolutely zero skills when she started the school year.  And this is a public school. 

Follow your intuition.  You know what is best for your child.  I would go with that first reaction and enroll her.  Either avenue, you will be there to support her.

By mbtepp on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 3:16 am.

You asked for honest feedback, and I hope that you will not be offended by mine, when I offer my opinion that we are acting as poor models for our children and conveying something other than what we probably think that we are when we choose all-white schools over racially-diverse ones.  Because what those choices say about us is that we merely pay lip service to the ideal of racial-ethnic diversity, but what we truly believe is higher quality are the schools that are preferred by, staffed by, and attended by whites.  These are not appropriate schools for transracially adopted youngsters who desperately need as much everyday immersion in multiracial and multi-cultural environments as we can possibly find, even if that means moving to another community.  Frankly, I believe that we act in our child’s best interest when we consider moving if there is no adequate school that is racially diverse, and instead, settle for an all-white school because its the only one that has the other characteristics that we are looking for.  Transracially adopted kids have a tough enough time, as it is, in developing healthy racial-ethnic identity, which is FUNDAMENTAL to their well-being as adults. And they will be adults for a long, long, long time. 
  Kids who grow up in all-white communities and schools nearly-to-a-child develop internalized racism.  They view people of color as exotic, “different” (from themselves, their parents,  their teachers,and their peers), and inferior.  The last thing that they want is to be anything like them or to be assigned to their racial-ethnic group, and so it is with a real shock that they realize that their is no escape from that and feel themselves to be inferior.
  We also need to know that while its terrific for our kids to be immersed in diverse groups when they participate in sports or music or art activities outside of school, this does not adequately substitute for immersion in a racially diverse school.  We only have to compare the amount of time they spend in school to the amount of time they spend engaging in that activity to understand why. 
  Let’s examine one way that that happens.  White kids stereotype—we all know that that happens and we can’t pretend that it won’t happen because they are “nice kids” in a :‘nice” school.  Our kids get—in a nearly-all-white school—a frontrow seat to that.  Although the nice wihte kids are unlikely to stereotype our kids’ racial-ethnic group in front of them, our kids sense/know that they do this, or they are informed that they, as individuals, are just-like-white-kids and are the exception to the rule, as far as being members in their own racial-ethnic group.  Even if the white kids never utter a single stereotype about their, particular racial-ethnic group, what our kids “catch” is the messaging that its better to be white.  The way they try to deal with this is to say that race doesn’t matter, or to participate in making insulting comments about various racial-ethnic groups including their own, so as to show themselves to not be sensitive about being “different.” —THAT is what the KIDS have taught me about what it is like for THEM to grow up in nearly-all-white schools.

  Feeling “different” and inferior is THE biggest complaint amongst transracially adopted youngsters.  I feel a great deal of compassion for them when they reveal the realities of their lives at school. I feel even more worry about those who do NOT complain, but give off plenty of signals that they are developing internalized racism and are trying very hard to pretend to themselves that they never think about race, or that it doesn’t matter to them what others say to/about them at school.
  I am also going to share my opinion that I get concerned when I see adoptive parents urge fellow adoptive parents to lead with their heart instead of their head, or trust their gut, or believe that they know best—when that is not always the wisest course to take.  I have seen and heard plenty of adoptive parents share uninformed opinions or make toxic decisions with the best of intentions!  There is plenty of evidence-based, professional wisdom out there for us to not rely solely on our own opinions or those of others who do not have expertise in his area, despite the fact that an agency has entrusted a child of color to their care.
  One more thing. While it is more than OK to ask your child to give input, it is NOT a good idea to base your decision on her wishes when she is so very young as to not have any idea what race and race politics will play in shaping her personal identity in her lifetime.  This is an ADULT decision to make, and asking a child to give input may burden that child unfairly if the choice does not work out so well.

By Jane Brown on Friday, June 03, 2011 at 2:51 am.

I agree in principle Jane but what if you are an interracial couple and you choose a neighborhood for it’s schools and it is mostly white. Do you purposely move to an area that is half and half (if there is one)? I think you land where you feel most comfortable and where the education is rigorous. Here in LA most schools in very segregated economical areas are awful schools and a lot of the middle class school are as well.We tried busing in and out during the 70’s when my kids were at public schools. It didn’t change anything so finally it was stopped. At my grandsons school (kindergarten) it is a charter school and takes only people from the neighborhood which is diverse but I am not sure on all levels and all races but it reflects the neighborhood in which the kids live. Each family is expected to pay $900 a student to facilitate all those things LAUSD is not providing. The kids walk to school and play in their neighborhood. I am not sure searching for another area is the answer. It is an adult decision and must reflect your neighborhood and your area. This one does. It is the best around but because they demand the parents have to participate (there is no recourse if they don’t) but most do as they value education above all else. ANd they love the feel of a neighborhood school. I as well think it is great when I see almost 800 students walking to school. As the neighborhood changes so does the school and I think it reflects what their lives are like. Is it perfect and so equal in all areas, absolutely not but much better than private school that is based totally on economics and the rare minority whose parents are athletes or stars. And they are picking schools that are best for their kids and not taking into diversity at all but what school will give their kids the leg up. No easy answers.

By Madgew on Friday, June 03, 2011 at 3:53 am.

This is an interesting and deeply nuanced conversation. At the heart of this discussion is that we all care about our kids, and want to do and what is best for them, or we urge caution because we know what it’s like when it seems the best thing has not been done.

As the one who started the post, there is no offense meant or taken. I value the insight of other parents and professionals. Raising a child is no easy business; raising a child adopted from another country enhances the challenge in ways a parent could never really imagine before adopting internationally.

If there is any doubt from my original post, I will tell you, I believe in the beauty and value of diversity and believe my friends, family and neighbors do, too. Embracing differences, identifying with similarities and being sensitive to the unique needs of individuals and cultures… this is important to all of us, without question. And, for my daughter, who was adopted into a family of another culture and race, there is an added complexity.

My daughter is happy, healthy and thriving in the only family she knows. Yet, when she looks across the kitchen table, she sees a mother, a sister and a father who look like each other, but not like her. If she also went to a school where no one looked like her, would she start to feel “different” and as if she did not belong? The experts say this is important to a child. I think it must be, especially as a child grows and looks to find her place in the world. So while academic quality and diversity are equally important for both my children, in Hanna’s case, I had another layer of things to consider in choosing a school.

So after all the worrying and wondering, here’s what I chose: the private Christian school. When I looked closer, I saw there is considerable diversity in our corner of the world—it has grown around us naturally and by design. It exists in Hanna’s karate class, at piano, in the grocery store—and at the private school.

The private school is smaller, but far from an all-white school. There are fewer kids in this academically rich and nurturing community, but there is much diversity. And, if it turns out years from now the population changes markedly, then I will move her to a new school if that is what’s best.

For now, I think Hanna will be nurtured and challenged at this new school. She’ll learn Spanish and eat ice cream on Fridays alongside kids of many races and religions. I think she’ll be happy there and feel like she belongs. We’ll see.

When I went to turn in Hanna’s registration paperwork at the new school, the woman behind the counter beamed and welcomed me with open arms. She has two daughters at the school, both adopted from China.

By Stacy Clark on Friday, June 03, 2011 at 4:20 pm.
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Stacy Clark

Stacy Clark

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