Taking the long view on education choice

Editor’s note: This commentary from Walter Blanks, press secretary for the American Federation for Children and a beneficiary of education choice, is an exclusive to reimaginED.

We all can agree education choice is extremely important and that it has been transformational for students.

Well, most of us can.

While there are countless success stories from across the country of families exercising their right to choose the best education setting for their child, having that choice simply is not enough. Going to a new school takes dedication, grit, and determination. As we watch education choice sweep the nation, there are many stories that haven’t been told of students who are underrepresented and under supported.

During the American Federation for Children’s 2021 Annual Policy Summit in Milwaukee, Shaka Mitchell led a panel on this very topic: underrepresented students and families in private schools and how to support them.

The panel included AFC Future Leaders Fellows Jacob Idra and Nanya Morris-El; Diana Batarseh from King’s Academy; Ramona Patrick from Citizens of the World; and Vanessa Solis from the Nativity Jesuit Academy. This comment from Mitchell is representative of the wisdom embodied in the panel:

“The schools that parents choose must serve those students well. In surveying the existing resources, we felt additional tools were necessary to equip those who seek to foster inclusive, equitable, and mission-oriented environments for all students and families.”

Entering a private school for the first time can be daunting for a child. He or she must adjust to a new environment while dealing with social issues involving other students, perhaps understanding a new curriculum, and simply trying to fit in with people who don’t look like he or she.

An alumnus of education choice who was interviewed had this to say:

“(I wished) that I saw more people—students and faculty—that looked like me. I couldn’t relate to a lot of the students (entering ninth grade). Their parents had money. If they had trouble, their parents got them tutors. Their problems in life were not similar to my problems in life.”

Research supports the fact that school choice is a great way to create a better education environment for children, but social and mental contingencies sometimes are left out of the picture.

During the panel, AFC Fellow Morris-El also discussed how difficult it was for him to make that transition from his zoned public school to a private school. He knew he was receiving an incredible education but often felt he didn’t relate to other students due to racial and socioeconomic differences.

Batarseh, from King’s Academy, discussed the importance of a road map for school leaders and suggested useful ways for faculty members to recognize these issues to help students acclimate to their new environment, including more thoughtful hiring practices and creation of engaging ways to sustain and encourage diversity in private schools.

Bottom line: Education choice can expose children to many different worlds and unlimited opportunities. But it’s extremely important to not simply place a child in a private school and leave that child there.

Every single day can be a battle for underrepresented students, even in the correct educational environment. With the proper support, those students can emerge with bright futures and an unmatched potential for their futures.