In New York, a school system that changes by neighborhood

Students arrive at Public School 188 on November 5, 2012 in the East Village neighborhood of New York.
Students arrive at Public School 188 on November 5, 2012 in the East Village neighborhood of New York.
John Moore/Getty Images

Yesterday, 5-year-olds from all across New York City put on their favorite outfit, struggled into a too big backpack, took the hand of their grownup and set off for the first day of kindergarten. My daughter Ella was among them. Me, my husband, Ella and baby Lowell walked the two blocks together to her neighborhood public school and joined a crowd of other families and children outside of Ella’s school, waiting to go in for the big day. The entire block of the school was jammed. Everyone seemed to have Mom and Dad there. Everyone had their bags full of supplies, carefully labeled lunches, and spiffy new backpacks with their names embroidered on the back.

Ella’s school building is brand new. We walked into her classroom to find a beautiful, bright space full of blocks, playdough, markers and paints, the latest smartboard technology and two excited teachers eagerly awaiting her class of 20. In short, it was a lovely, idyllic first day and my husband and I were delighted to picture her there every school day for the next six years.

But I couldn’t help thinking what that special first day might have been like in the Harlem neighborhood we just moved out of. We loved the area but would never, if we could avoid it, send our daughter to the school she was assigned to there. And we could avoid it. We were blessed to have the means to move to another neighborhood. A more expensive neighborhood, a whiter neighborhood, a neighborhood with a good school. Most of the families in our old neighborhood didn’t have that luxury. And so their first day is in a crumbling school, poorly staffed and with inadequate supplies. A school that statistics tell us will disproportionately have the lowest performing teachers. Beautiful little children, sent off to a failing school for a third-rate education.

What kind of a message does it send to a child when their first experience of their government is a broken down school and a third rate education? What are they subconsciously learning about the way their city and their country feels about them? What human potential is lost in such an unequal system? We know in America we have the best and the worst in education. But living in Manhattan, you really see it up close. Some of the best public schools in the country and some of the worst, in the same borough of the same city. You can learn everything you need to know about a school in this city based on one number, the percent of kids in the school on free or reduced lunch. It’s not fair. That’s all I kept thinking as I dropped my daughter off yesterday. It’s just not fair.

And so, as I voted in New York’s mayoral primary today, I did so with one issue in mind, who has the best shot at fixing our tale of two cities public school system? Who can make it so the beautiful child in Harlem and the Bronx and Brooklyn has the same experience, the same shot at a good education as my beautiful child on the Upper East Side? Because if we can fix it here, we can fix it anywhere. As Sinatra and the end of the Yankee Games at the stadium lets us know: “It’s up to you New York, New York.”