On February 17th, at 2 in the afternoon, I got to witness a “topping off” ceremony at my son’s school. This involved the placement of the “final beam” that solidified the foundation of our new elementary school building. On that beam are the signatures of all 300 plus students and staff of the school, tying my son to this building, where he began his school career, for the rest of its existence.
I loved the ceremony, but I am also aware of its meaning, as I look back at where I was slightly more than a year ago.
When I took Braxton to his potential new school for Kindergarten round-up, I was feeling fear and uncertainty. I had found that as people around me had gone through the process of choosing a school for their child, all my previous beliefs seemed to be in question.
I am a high school English teacher in an urban public school. This is a role I have proudly had for 14 years and any opportunity that I have to boast of my school, my students, my staff, I have always taken it. And not just because I AM proud, but because we often seem to need it. Because being a teacher or student in any school in my district means, in a lot of ways, always being on the defensive.
My school, Burke High School is one of 7 high schools in the Omaha Public School District. The largest school district in the State of Nebraska. We serve an incredibly diverse group of 51,000 students hailing from every part of Omaha and almost every part of the world. And with that size, with that diversity, come so many amazing things, but its fair share of challenges.
Our schools appear in headlines fairly regularly. It is considered acceptable to make broad generalizations about us as though they are true, because sometimes, some of our kids and staff make poor individual choices.
We have lower test scores, which to some people means we have less educational quality. We have high rates of poverty and there are all sorts of assumptions that come with that.
Which brings me back to where I was on that day with my son for Kindergarten round-up. When I was in school, I lived in and attended school in the Millard district, which is a more affluent part of town. Before I taught in the Omaha Public Schools, any district but my own wasn’t really even on my radar, let alone all the politics surrounding it. However, as soon as I became a teacher in the OPS, I intended to place my children in district schools as well.
And that seemed to be a no-brainer, until the time came. Then I found myself listening to the ways some people talked about us. They always had raised eyebrows, sideways glances and whispered comments. Or even overt comments vowing to “never send their children there”. People I knew were moving just to get away from us.
And I started to wonder if I should do the same, to “make the best choice for MY child”, that everyone seemed to think couldn’t be a school in the Omaha Public Schools.
So I looked into other options. I started to question our choice of a neighborhood school.
I wondered. What did those whispered comments, raised eyebrows and sideways glances about my district contain? Did they contain danger for my child? A lesser education? Did they contain bad teachers? Bad kids?
So, I went to the Kindergarten round-up scared, with transfer paperwork in hand. I feared what I would see when I walked in the door. I watched the kids, the parents, the teachers with those same raised eyebrows and sideways glances. And what did I see?
I saw excited kids and parents. I saw warm, friendly adults inviting me to their building.
Then came the classroom tour, and surely in here, is where I would see “those” kids and “those” teachers, right? But all I saw was engaged kids, having fun with their experienced, warm, friendly teachers.
And most importantly, I saw a neighborhood school, of which the attendees were proud. There were enthusiastic smiles, decorations for the 100th day of school, students wearing their bulldog gear.
And I asked myself, what was I actually scared of? And I couldn’t name a single thing. And then I remembered that the high school where I teach is a school that gets the whispered comments, sideways glances and raised eyebrows. And I remembered, that none of what was said about us, by those who didn’t know us, was actually true about us. I remembered that if people only knew us from the headlines, then they didn’t actually know us.
The only thing that was scary was that Belle Ryan was the school I didn’t know. And when it was the school I didn’t know, then it was lumped together with all those other schools I don’t know. And it became synonymous with the headlines of those failing neighborhood public schools. Those headlines that never tell the whole story, that never capture the full picture.
As I attended that ceremony on Friday, watching that beam be placed in the final skeleton of our new building, I know that it also signified our commitment to something bigger than myself and my child. I know that we are now a part of our school in our district.
When I started this journey, I was troubled and somewhat ashamed at the ways in which the overarching narrative about public schools could make me question something that I had believed in so strongly for over a decade. I found myself lost and frightened and questioning my own judgement. As a teacher and an advocate for public schools, I realize that the ultimate way to counter the narrative is to actively show our commitment. I can see now how strong the forces are that wish us to believe something different than the truth about our schools. Whether it be through negative news stories, arbitrary measurements of our students’ abilities, constant “crises” in education, comparing apples to oranges day after day after day, or legislation designed to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, the constant bombardment can become difficult to navigate.
However, as is true for anything that we don’t know or are uncertain about, the best way to find out is to experience it ourselves. To walk in those doors and see what is really there, not what we are told is there.
Jenny Razor is a High School English teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and has been for the past 14 years. She was formerly a regular contributor to the MOMaha blog in Omaha, Nebraska, has been published on Sammiches & Psych Meds, as well as The Good Mother Project. She is a former Nebraska Writing Project board member and believes her best contributions to her teaching, her parenting and her world are on the page. She is married and has two boys, ages 6 and 2.