As I watched some clips and commentary on Betsy DeVos’ Senate Confirmation Hearing today (which you can learn more about here and here) I thought about her possible changes from two points of view – thinking back on my time as a student in public school, then thinking about my possible (distant) future as a mother. DeVos answered controversial questions about voucher programs, guns in schools, and proficiency vs. growth, defending her vision for education reform in the face of many angry Senators. I grew up in Southwestern Connecticut, Fairfield County, known for the harsh disparities between towns in a county that’s home to less than 100,000 people. I was born in Stamford, one of the larger cities in the area, then moved to New Canaan, a “bedroom community” that borders Stamford, which is where my parents currently live. Stamford is known as a working city. With a larger population, there is a greater difference in household income from the poorest to wealthiest residents. As a city, Stamford supports a larger network of public schools, with a substantially more diverse student population. I went to Westover, a magnet school, for kindergarten through 2nd grade. I’m the youngest of four, so all of us went to Westover for elementary school, and my oldest sister spent a year at a Stamford middle school – Turn of River. Of course I don’t remember the deliberations or financial motivations for moving to New Canaan, but what my parents have explained to us over time is that the schools in New Canaan are substantially better. In our last year at Stamford my family was told that one of us would not receive the additional academic support we needed because of funding cuts. We also learned that two of us would not be able to join the advanced academic program for gifted students, because funding cuts meant that Westover couldn’t support specialized classrooms. It became clear to my parents that academic growth was going to be difficult for any of us, whether it was because school in Stamford would be too challenging or not challenging enough. Moving to New Canaan is one of the best things my family has ever done, and I have had an amazing childhood and young adult life growing up here. I know that if we had not moved to New Canaan I would not have been able to get involved in the extracurriculars I loved, taken the classes that shaped my academic career, and had the experience of living in a small town with outstanding athletics and school pride. However, I also know that growing up in Stamford, even if I was only there for 8 years, has had a profound effect on my outlook on the world. From a young age my parents encouraged me to be friends with whoever I wanted to be friends with, kids from my classes, my soccer team, that I met on the playground. In Stamford I had birthday parties that included kids of all shapes and sizes, all colors and classes, and I never thought a thing of it. It wasn’t until I got to New Canaan that I realized diversity was something to be aware of. As a traditionally white, Catholic town, diversity in New Canaan is somewhat of a joke. So many of my classes were all white students, and having someone from a non-white background often led to offensive jokes or mentions of racist stereotypes. Spending even just a fraction of my formative years in the (comparatively more) diverse setting of Stamford led me to be comfortable around people of all different backgrounds, and carried over through my time in New Canaan. Much of the discussion in today’s education system is around the concept of “individual choice,” often leading to extensive racial segregation in specific areas. My parents both grew up in Stamford, and they often comment on how they wish they didn’t have to move to New Canaan because of the lack of diversity and culture of wealth that permeates the town. However, no one can deny the importance of being able to let your kids walk to school alone, having a supportive public school system, and the benefits of a smaller, suburban town. I am truly thankful for the opportunities that my parents afforded me by making the move, and continue to value my experiences both in Stamford and New Canaan.
If you’re interested in reading more about the difficulties of racial segregation and the value of education in today’s world, check out one of my favorite New York Times Magazine pieces here: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html?em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20160616&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=73481174&_r=0