No One Prepared Me for This; Parenthood in the Age of School Choice

by Dana Wellhausen

When I think back on it I realize how naive we were. Before enrollment season even started we jotted down a list of public schools for our rising Kindergartener. When school tours and info nights started it felt like all we had to do was go to confirm the final order for our district choices and check the boxes for our charter choices. Easy, right? What neither my partner nor I expected was the depth of the conversations we would dig into, the shift in priorities, and what would emerge as her learning journey into the world of public education in Oakland. Like so many other parents around us and before us we had to utter “no one prepared me for this.” Welcome to parenthood in the age of school choice.

A little background first. Ten years ago my partner and I bought a house in the Longfellow neighborhood. This was far before the idea of a kid crossed our minds so we weren’t combing GreatSchools to find a house that would give us choice neighborhood preference. We were literally trying to find something we could afford. Many years later when we had a toddler, we enrolled her in a bilingual daycare and then a Spanish immersion preschool. So, when we started to think about Kindergarten it only made sense to focus on schools with dual language programs.

We wanted her to be bilingual. For a kid born in California these days that just makes sense. Interest and demand for these programs, particularly in a few schools, has grown over the years. In response, this is the first year that the district has put a Spanish language assessment in place to help bring balance between enrollment of native and non-native speakers. I was heading down the path of having our daughter tested. Of course we wanted her to test into the Spanish language pathway, right?

If Our Daughter Gets in, Who Doesn’t?

Throughout our enrollment journey I was glad to have the views and questions that my partner threw at me. Unlike me, she does not think about Oakland education every day. She brought a fresh perspective and often raised the questions that we had to wrestle with most deeply. She was not sold on the language assessment. “Why should we take a space from a native speaking student?” I saw her point. While our daughter would bring her native English skills to a school, her years learning Spanish did not replace what a native speaker would bring.

It is the blend of these two worlds that makes these programs stronger. Now I say all of this knowing many friends who choose to participate in the assessment. And we 100% support that. We made the choice that felt right for our family and respect the choices of other families to do the same. That is our job as parents. And we owe each other the respect to honor our individual choices. And by no means should our choice suggest that we don’t support the assessments to help bring balance to these programs. We are happy to see this new process happening in Oakland.

The Important Questions to Ask for Our Family

On our tours we wrestled with the balance of how we saw schools through the cold, hard look of data and what it felt like inside a building. As part of my partner’s dive into Oakland public education we sat in my office for nearly three hours on a Saturday where she would ask a question and I would pull up the data to answer it: “Where do the kids live who attend that school? What is the demand rate? How are they doing in math? What about absences?” Yup, this is the exciting life of being married to someone who looks at a lot of education data. Some schools we visited felt so warm that I wanted to spend all day there. One school we toured had created such a strong community for the students in the neighborhood. Students who traveled across several borders to even access education were surrounded by a safe, understanding, and nurturing warmth. Here again we had to pause. My often quiet and thoughtful partner raising a similar question, “This school is so amazing for the kids in this neighborhood. What does it mean if we try to take a space for our daughter?” This school reflected the community in which it sat – a true reflection of the neighborhood. What might happen to a neighborhood student who doesn’t get in because our daughter did? Perhaps we over thought all of these questions and others would see us as fools. But these felt like important questions to ask.

“so many of the choices we made for our daughter felt intentional and this one felt well, like a lottery.”

From Applying to an Offer: Only the First Step in a Longer Journey

In the end, we submitted our applications for district and charter schools and waited to see how the lottery would treat us. The school we originally thought would be our first choice overall did not even make it to the application. We had dual language schools on our list, but not prioritized as high as we had planned. The reality of living in the congested Bay Area set in and we needed to find a school closer to home and work. Both of us felt a sadness about having to make these tough decisions. And we know that we are not alone. Ideals and wishes have to meet reality. When it came time to hit submit on our applications I had to trust (sometimes it felt like blind trust) that we would land in the school community we were meant to be in. It felt odd, so many of the choices we made for our daughter felt intentional and this one felt, well, like a lottery.

The day after the lottery assignments came out my partner was asking me for about the eighth time to explain what I knew technically about how the lottery works. She was perplexed by some of the assignments others families had gotten particularly for district schools. It did not make sense to her that for the same school some families who ranked it last got in while other families who ranked it number one did not. We were less surprised by the results for charter schools even for our own choices. This led to a conversation about the Opportunity Ticket. She wanted to know if students from schools that closed or merged would really have a chance to get into high demand schools. “Do you want me to show you the presentation from the school board meeting?” I had to ask. I just could not explain this well before breakfast.

I did not expect that at the end of the enrollment process these were the questions that my partner would raise regularly, but I was glad it was happening. We need more parents to dig in deeply and ask these tough questions, not just at school board meetings but across school campuses and to each other. I know that right now there is a lot of division in Oakland around education. I keep thinking about and hoping that in the end there is more that can unite us than divide us.

August still feels far away, but I know that it will come quickly. The first day of Kindergarten will be a huge milestone for our daughter, but also for us as parents. As we contemplate joining the Kaiser Elementary school community we will come ready to roll-up our sleeves and work for all the students in that building (or whatever building that loving school operates within). We are all in this together.

Dana Wellhausen has lived in Oakland for more than twenty years and worked in Oakland education at the Rogers Family Foundation for nearly six. Together with her partner Jenny, a land surveyor working all over Oakland and beyond, she is the proud parent of an incoming Oakland Kindergartener who will debate you on whether or not a Diplodocus is a dinosaur (hint, it is!). Views shared are her own.

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