When we moved from New York City to Madison, WI, I did tons of research on how to pick a place to live. But I didn’t realize that once you pick a city you have to do a lot of research about where to live within that city.
We had never even visited Madison before. We looked on a map. There was a nice park, and if you live in NYC, the idea of living in a rented house on a park is a dream come true. So we moved there.
It turned out that six registered child molesters lived within two blocks of our house. Something you never consider when you live in NYC is that there are places in the United States where renting costs so little money that people who exist on the total fringe of society live in houses.
Nearly all the kids in our elementary school qualified for free lunch. I didn’t think much about this until I dropped my son off late to school and I noticed there was mayhem in the classroom. I looked for the teacher and she was on the phone. Oblivious to the kids. So I went to the principal’s office and he told me there was a girl who came to school with her eye bleeding from a punch and they were calling authorities and dealing with the little girl.
Who could complain about that? Of course the girl took priority.
But the truth is that almost every day there was a problem like that. Multiple kids in the class were living in homeless shelters and they moved each night or lived in cars. (For a great book about kids living in cars—one you should read out loud to your kids—try How to Steal a Dog.)
I started trying to help. One boy, a few doors down, lived with his mom, who was some sort of drug addict. It was hard to tell what exactly was going on in the apartment because the boy told contradicting stories. But we were sure that there was never food in his house.
I started inviting him over for dinner since he never seemed to want to go home. Then he started saving food on his plate to take to his mom. Eventually I’d just give him an extra bag of food to take home. Then he started coming to our house right after school, for a snack. And then he was just sort of a fixture at our house.
I realized that so much of his energy was consumed with how to find food. So it makes total sense to me that there is a movement to serve kids breakfast at school as well as lunch. Right now kids can go to school early to get breakfast, but we all know that school is too early for kids who already don’t get enough sleep, so asking them to get there even earlier to eat is not working.
But what will happen is that the kids who do just fine eating breakfast at home will now eat breakfast at school. And this is how school encroaches on family life in the name of supporting the poorest kids. Kids from stable families don’t need to eat breakfast away from home. There is plenty of evidence that kids who eat meals with family are more successful. So it makes no sense to me to take kids away from the family breakfast table if they are already eating there.
This is similar to the fact that kids from educated parents do not need to learn to read in school. Educators know this to be true, but we have to teach all kids to read in school to make sure the kids of uneducated parents get a fair shot at reading.
The list of trade-offs goes on and on. But anyone can see that public school is an effective safety net for at-risk kids. It could be even better if we would use the resources with that in mind. But if we continue to give rich kids equal resources we are squandering public funding on kids who don’t need it.