By Trina Ortega
I was at my third-grader’s school, Crystal River Elementary School, in an after-school art class watching children apply glaze to ceramic bowls. One student was using the “splatter” technique, and the glaze sprayed anyone who was standing nearby. My maroon dress had just been adorned with a new pattern: small aqua dots of pottery glaze. It was messy, beautiful and funny all at once.
My friend, Maria, looked at my dress and laughed. I wracked my brain trying to remember the Spanish word for “clean” or “wash” so I could ask: Do you know if it will wash out?
“Lavar en agua, creo que sí?” I bumbled. Maria nodded noting that she understood what I meant, but then shrugged her shoulders. Thankfully, the art teacher confirmed the glaze was water-based and that it would come out.
Maria only speaks Spanish. I am a fifth-generation American who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Denver, but my parents didn’t encourage us to speak Spanish — How else would my siblings and I assimilate?
When I really need to communicate with Maria, I lean on her daughter, Jasmine, who is fluent in both languages and willingly plays the translator. Every time I’m in this situation, I feel bad for Jasmine and lament that I cannot speak Spanish. Every day, I am grateful that my son has a daily Spanish class.
And every day, I am grateful that he goes to school with people of different backgrounds — both ethnically and socioeconomically.
In a time when public education is very much at risk with H.R. 899 (the bill that would eliminate the Federal Department of Education); House Bill 610 (funding for a voucher program); and a U.S. Secretary of Education who is a school voucher and school choice proponent, I don’t take Crystal River Elementary School for granted.
Carbondale epitomizes the notion of “school choice.” For a town of only 6,000 people, it always baffles me that we have four K–8 “choices.” (I put choices in quotes because limited enrollment charters and private schools do not guarantee a spot for every child.)
And in my “perfect” small mountain town (where a bad day is based on lack of powder at the ski hill or rain making the hiking trails too muddy), more middle- and upper-class families are for school choice. In my progressive-minded little town, families are giving up on the public education system. Parents are protective and want what’s best for their child. That’s understandable.
Some days pass and I don’t think much of it. Other days pass and it makes me sad that in such a small town, kids don’t know each other and that instead of bridging the racial divide, school choice is making it wider.
When I first waded through the four-school choice in Carbondale 10 years ago, I came to realize that I was into it for more than just “the best” for my individual kid. The second time around, only four years ago, there was no wading; I knew that my second child would attend CRES. I want a well-rounded experience for my children that has less to do with the teaching method and more to do with operating in a diverse society. Don’t get me wrong, the school has to be good and retain quality teachers, but in my decision, the latter point about being part of a diverse society was weighted more heavily than the individual… even when the individuals are my own kiddos.
Opting for local, open-enrollment schools is about being part of the social fabric of a community. There is value in that beyond the ABCs. My children are happy, thriving and safe. (OK, so my high schooler wants school to start at 9:30 and end at 1:30 … and he also wants music every day.)
On that note, we should deeply examine why more families of privilege are choosing charters and private schools, and we should consider where and how our public schools are exceeding and where they need improvement.
I support public education. I want open-enrollment public schools so that our kids can know one another, grow up together, be part of the greater social fabric that reflects a community, where they can learn compassion by simply interacting daily with a person from a different cultural background.
Can we have that in a public school while also providing quality academic teachings for the individual? Yes, but not if families continue to opt out of the public education system. For my neighbors who’ve never set foot in the doors of the local open-enrollment schools and to those who’ve left, I invite you to come back. Let’s work together to envision the public schools we want for all our children.
Will it take hard work and, at times, a little faith? Absolutely.
It is sometimes messy? Count on it. But like the glaze the student was splattering on her bowl (and her surroundings), the end result stands to be absolutely beautiful, colorful and functional. I won’t try to wash that away.