By Bill Mefford
A few nights ago I attended a Parent-Son Banquet at my son’s public school for a program called Cohort. Cohort was started 17 years ago for young men of color at Wakefield High School, a public school, and the word literally means a group of people banded together. My son is biracial and has attended Cohort throughout his freshman year. Cohort was started because the teachers at the school wanted to do more than mentor individual male students of color and prepare them for life after high school. They have successfully created a band of Black, Latino, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American young men who meet each week, talk with one another about the impact of racism on their lives and all of society, and encourage one another to set goals for their lives and to achieve them.
At the banquet we heard from Wakefield alumni who graduated from the Cohort program and went on to college and graduate school and are now working successfully in careers like engineering and social work. Most powerful were the testimonies of students currently in the program – by freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors all included. Each one who spoke talked not only about how Cohort helped them achieve their goals, but had also given them the community and close friends they needed as support along the way. They all spoke about the racism that is endemic in the United States, but how they had been assured through their time in Cohort and their bonding with one another that they would not be defined by the stereotypes and prejudices of others – even if one of those who holds prejudices sits in the most powerful seat of power in the country.
I left the banquet so grateful for my son’s public high school. My boys have attended public high schools all of their lives and these schools have not always been in the safest or wealthiest neighborhoods. My family has chosen to live in poor to low-income neighborhoods all of our lives and sometimes the public schools have not been rated as among the best in the state or even in the area. But we didn’t want to home-school because we saw that as an abdication of our connection to the neighborhood and our mission as Christians to seek the welfare of our community. We want to live incarnationally and you can’t if your family exists in a separate reality than the families that live around you. If your kids go to public schools what is good for everyone’s kids is good for yours as well.
And we are fervently opposed to vouchers for privately run schools because they benefit only a select handful of students. There is a battle being waged against public education in this country and the person leading the fight is, amazingly, the one person who is supposed to be supporting public education – Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of the Department of Education. She is working to undermine public education through implementing a voucher system that will most likely not benefit any of the students that are part of the Cohort program at my son’s public high school.
Private school vouchers do not adequately serve low-income students because the cost of tuition and fees at schools that accept vouchers generally exceeds the amount of the voucher, making voucher schools unaffordable for most low-income families. That would rule out most of the families at my son’s school who are now part of Cohort. Further, because voucher programs lack accountability and oversight, vouchers often fund poor quality schools, including those schools that employ teachers with no credentials.
Could you find a program like Cohort at a voucher school? I suppose it is possible, but not likely because so many of the Cohort students could not afford the fees associated with voucher schools. I also do not believe you are certain to find the teachers who teach in public schools with their level of expertise and experience. Wakefield has amazing teachers.
But what is most important is that we do not need vouchers. If we more adequately funded all public schools instead of ciphering off money for voucher programs, we would have more programs like Cohort in more schools and that means more students of color attending colleges and graduate schools.
Like everything, the problem with education today is leadership. And I am not talking about the leadership in our public schools. I am also not saying there aren’t ineffective teachers in public schools. I am saying that in all of the years of our very active involvement in the public schools of our two boys, my wife and I have not met one. The leadership problem we have is, as usual, in Washington DC. I guess someone forgot to drain the swamp as he promised. We have a president and a Department of Education Secretary who simply do not believe in public education and that creates a burden on all of us who do.
But, since the Parent-Son Banquet, I am so incredibly thankful for the leadership at my son’s public high school and I think we ought to find more opportunities to say thank you to the teachers and administration in our public schools.