Confessions of a Public School Nomad


How far would you go to get your kids the best education? We went 775 miles for it. And I almost stabbed a guy.

We used to live in a third floor walkup in the University City section of Philadelphia.

There was a mosque across the street, and this place called Saad’s on the corner where you could buy Middle Eastern deli food. I didn’t know such a thing existed until we moved there. Now I associate cheese steaks with schwarma.

It was beautifully ugly. There were three thrift stores and two coffee shops, within a block from our house. Two ethiopian restaurants and a bar called the Watusi. It was the first place I ever went where you could drink a shot and play chess, while people competed for a $100 grand prize in karaoke.


Greenline Cafe

Students and scholars loved that little grimy neighborhood. It was the philosophical intersection of Paris, Mecca and Timbuktu. But for children- not so good. There were parties and fights and panhandlers. A lot of panhandlers. The kind that would approach a nine year old girl and ask for her lunch money. The kind that would call her a liar if she said she didn’t have any.

We had moved there for the school; Penn Alexander. It  was one of the best elementary schools in the city, and after crunching the numbers, we realized that it was the only one that we could actually afford to move close to. So that’s what we did.

I didn’t know how rough it was there until after we moved to Atlanta.

I was telling a co-worker about the guy that tried to steal our food. The coldest night that winter. My wife and I, my two step kids and our baby daughter were walking from our car to  the front door of our apartment building.

First he asked for some money. Then he put his hands on the bag. Then my arm.

My family went in front of me. I lagged behind, keeping myself between him and them.

He wedged himself into the door before I could close it, and tried to force himself in. They were inside, halfway up the stairs. I showed him the knife that I kept in my pocket. He held up his hands, shouted, “Don’t stab me,” and then left.

That guy at work said, “For real?!”

The look on his face told me that our University City struggle wasn’t normal. The time I confronted the guy for trying get money from my daughter and her young friends. Remember, they were about nine years old. He’d move in like he was their drunk uncle, weathered hand outstretched. And when they told him no, he’d shout at them. When I found out, we “talked” on the corner, outside of Saad’s.

But that school was top notch.

Before we moved to Atlanta we researched the catchments and lined up our house search according to the district. Our oldest wanted to go to performing arts school. It had to have at least three stars; not easy to find… One month after we moved, two days before the school year started, we found out that they had rearranged the districts. Hours on Citydata, wasted.

Our oldest went to McNair Middle. They had lockdowns on a regular basis. Students attacked teachers. Teachers attacked them back. Our youngest went to McNair Learning Academy. That McNair.

I read an article in Slate Magazine suggesting that if you send your kids to a private school, then you’re a bad person. Her premise was sound. Instead of private schools, we parents need to dig in our heals and get active at the district. Makes sense.

She suggested that the right parents can motivate their  children no matter what school they attend – that doesn’t make as much sense. Can the right parents can make up for the lockdowns and the school fights, the bullying and the assaults?

At McNair they told my daughter that she sounded white. They called her Jamaican and African, because her hair is locked, English because of her diction. She couldn’t believe that these things  were considered insulting. But that’s the thing about an insult. It doesn’t matter that it is ridiculous. It’s the intent that counts. That, and the half dozen of people standing in the circle around you, laughing because they want to see blood.

She overcame that. She stood up for herself and soon she had her own circle of friends. I told her I was proud of her. I’m going to tell her again today.
While she could defang the bullies, she couldn’t make the teachers not quit. She couldn’t keep the principal from leaving during the middle of the year.

Student’s can’t overcome a school that is falling apart at the seams. And parenting can’t make up for it; not in the short term, anyway. How long does it take to turn the rudder on a broken bureaucracy? Five years? More? My kids are only going through primary school once. We have to make every grade count.

I wish I had a better answer, but looking back on the turmoil that the Philadelphia public school system has been undergoing; firings, school closing, budget shortfalls, I feel like by moving to Atlanta we outran an explosion.

Now what? These problems are way bigger than Miley Cyrus twerking, or even Syria, but I don’t hear too many people talking about education. Shouting about it, yes. Pointing fingers and wringing their hands about it from either side of an ideological divide, but not talking.  Meanwhile, our public schools are going under.

What do you do, when you have three kids and one childhood each to teach them properly? Twelve years isn’t a long time to get it right.

Some people go up to the school with a list of demands. It’s the right thing to do, and when that person gets with two or three other people, changes can happen. But remember, there are 23 schools in Philadelphia that were open last June but now no longer exist. Seven hundred teachers who won’t return to the classrooms. Activism doesn’t work when your city officials are ready to pull the plug. And in many cases, they pulled the plug years ago, they just haven’t told the schools yet.

So some people put their kids in private school. I can’t blame them.  Everyone can’t be like us, moving to find schools that aren’t on the respirator. Besides, eventually, we may run out of good school catchments to move our kids to.

5 thoughts on “Confessions of a Public School Nomad

  1. We’re facing a move next year to a pretty big area (compared to my little po-dunk hometown). I’m a mess trying to figure out if we choose my ideal choice of a public school district that lands my husband a 60-70 minute commute, each way or take second choice, a good but MUCH larger school which gives him a shorter 30 minute commute each way. Chances are we’ll do what’s best for him, I just hope my girls don’t get lost in the shuffle in a big school in a broke state.

    • Big schools in broke states, are not a good combination. But, if you have a strong principal and a staff that is experienced with ties to the community, you may be looking at a diamond in the rough. Your girls may just thrive there.
      My daughter’s school was and is still in flux. There had been a bunch of high profile shakeups, and the folks that were left were just making it up as they went. It showed.
      Unfortunately, you will never know what’s up until after your move. Good luck. PS. My kids are always way stronger than I give them credit for. I suspect yours are too. They’ll be okay until you get it sorted out.

  2. I’ve been hearing some really disturbing things about cuts to funding and the sorts of stuff that the teachers are putting up with, too… it is a shocking situation for all concerned. I don’t blame you at all for moving, but yes, it’s pretty rough if that’s not a possibility.

    • I feel like those cuts are only allowed to happen because people who aren’t directly affected by them, don’t care.
      I can’t explain why our teachers have been left with the entire blame for the failing public education system. But there will be fallout for this. It will have an impact on all of us, sooner or later.