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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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Thank you for your thoughtfully written response, Madgew.  I noticed that you wrote that your grandson attends a school that is 50% diverse, which is exactly the type of school that I was writing about.  You mentioned that he and his parents live in a neighborhood that is diverse, which is terrific for him and would be terrific for any child of any race.  These communities are the type that could, eventually, break down our systemic problem of racism, rather than perpetuating segregation which is so destructive to ALL.
    They type of schools I am objecting to are those in which the population is nearly all-white so that a child of color might see another child of color only once a day in the hallway, or have, maybe, only one other child is an class of twenty-five students, or know that there is another child of color in a class that is two years older than the kids in his/her grade.  This is not only the type of environment in which internalized racism will take root and flourish, destroying the child’s sense of self worth, gradually, as he/she matures and race becomes a more prominent issue, but it is also unhealthy for all of the white kids who never have everyday interaction with kids and adults of color, so that they know through lived-experience that stereotypes aren’t believeable, and instead, know that people of color are just like they are and are not inferior.  As white parents with children of color, which makes us members of families of color, why WOULDN’T we see schools that are diverse as better, and want to run as far and as fast as possible from schools that perpetuate segregation?  How COULD we see such schools as adequate, for ANYONE’S children?  Why, for example, would we think that an all-white school is adequate and appropriate for a “Kathryn” (non-adopted sibling to a child of color) when she is ALSO a member of a family of color and needs to be just as sensitized to issues of race so as to be an ally to her sibling? 
    You asked whether an interracial couple with a child should move so as to place their chiild in a racially diverse school that is 50% white, 50% AA.  FIrst, that child has built-in adult role models of color—his parents, and amongst his extended family members,, and they are likely to have lots more in their social circles.  Even so, he would have a better fit in a racially diverse school, rather than an all-white one.  His needs, however, are a little less pressing than those of a child of color growing up with white parents who do NOT have the built-in adult role models he has, and for whom a racial diverse school is a MUST-HAVE, in my opinion. 
    Nor am I encouraging parents to choose a school that is of low quality in every other way, other than being racially diverse.  However, they do need to do some soul-searching and real investigation to evaluate whether it is deemed of poor quality by ALL, or just by the white community.  If it is the latter case, then they may need to consider that the standards that the white parents they know and are listening to may be based in racist attitudes, which those folks cloak in order to not be revealed as racists. Unfortunately, far too many white people hold unspoken beliefs and attitudes which are behind their evaluation of diverse schools—that parents of color (often, more specifically, AA parents) don’t value education, so their kids bring lackluster enthusiasm to the task of learning, when this is untrue. 
    Few, if any people would consider themselves to be racist, today, when that is not PC, but may well hold very racist ideas and may behave in ways that do match with their beliefs about themselves that they are not prejudiced.  I’ve observed, for example, people who claim to be “colorblind” cringe when they realize that an AA clerk is going to be the one in the deli to handle their food, and we’ve all had conversations, I would guess, with people who claim to value people differences who, none the less, admit that they would not want their white daughter to date and consider marrying a man of color. 
  The real question the author of the article raises is whether or not the factor of racial diversity is enough of a priority for parents involved in transracial adoption to select for that even when the other desired factors don’t measure up.  My opinion is that if the diverse school her daughter is attending does not offer adequate academic challenge, perhaps she needs to expand her search, rather than trade the essential characteristic of diversity for the desireable one of challenging academic curriculum, so that maybe she can find a school that will provide a solid education AND offer the diverse context a transracially adopted child needs even more so than does a child of color living with his/her original, same race parents and siblings.  It doesn’t have to be either or.

By Jane Brown on Friday, June 03, 2011 at 4:29 pm.

Jane, one correction my grand kids school is not 50/50 but merely reflects the neighborhood in which they live. I really like all the thoughtful comments and I tend to agree that it is up to each individual what is right for their own children. I also feel that if you live a diverse life your children will as well.

By Madgew on Friday, June 03, 2011 at 4:41 pm.

Great share, good to read about the students experience in colleges and school. I would prefer to write my paper 4 me reviews soon about it as well. When you chose new school, one must keep these in mind.

By Blaze Carmelo on Thursday, February 08, 2018 at 9:05 am.
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Stacy Clark

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