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In Praise of Urban Public Schools

By February 25, 2016 15 Comments

by Kate Kooyman
Theresa Latini is taking a short break from her rotation on The Twelve. While she’s away, we welcome Kate Kooyman. Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Witness in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you, Kate.

My oldest son is in kindergarten this year. We send him to our neighborhood school, and we live in an urban neighborhood. But don’t let that impress you.

Granted, I’m one of those annoying urban-public-school evangelists. I believe deeply that every kid has a right to a good education. I am totally convinced that racism shows up most visibly in our community’s educational disparities. I am sold that the solution is integration — I want more white folks to send their kids to city schools.

But here’s the truth: in spite of all those justice commitments, I’m not actually “taking one for the team” when it comes to our neighborhood school. I’m not saving it, or shaping it, or helping it, or fixing it. It doesn’t need me to do any of those things. My kid goes to a great school. My kid’s school has a perception problem, not a performance problem.

Here are ten things that I love about my kid’s urban public school.

1. I love his school uniform. I love that I can say “put on your school clothes” and that means one specific thing. He is more independent, and less stressed in the morning, making his mommy more sane and less mean. Plus he looks so handsome in his collar and khakis. Win, win, win.

2. I love witnessing the art of teaching. His teachers have perfected their craft. They are serious, they are educated, they are experts. When you go into his classroom, you see someone who is differentiating their style and content for such a wide variety of student needs it is astonishing. You see someone who is working fully 400% harder than I’ve worked on anything all week. We need to put an end to the Myth of the Bad Teacher. The teachers I know are the definition of professionals.

3. I love that there’s no culture of over-the-top birthday parties. Somebody wave a $25 Target receipt for a kid you barely know and who your child barely likes and say, “Amen.”

4. I love when my son asks me questions about something he overhears on NPR — “What’s a Muslim?” or “Where do refugees come from?” — and we can think of a classmate to help answer the question. I love that he has a little less to unlearn about an implied “us” and “them” because he belongs to a community that is diverse.

5. I love hot lunch, which is free for every student in our district, and is way more nutritious and creative than my turkey sandwich and baby carrots.

6. I love the local restaurant that raised thousands of dollars to buy tablets for our school. I love that our kids are going to be just as tech-savvy as any other American kid, and they’re going to know that it’s because their community is expecting that they will be opening businesses, running for office, pastoring churches someday soon. And their community invests in them so they can do it well — ‘cause their success is connected to our whole neighborhood’s success.

7. I love that my son is learning that his culture is not “the” culture. I love that he experiences moments of being the majority and moments of being the minority, and is gaining skills in navigating both those worlds. I love that someday he will be a better employee, a better church member, a better voter, a better person because he’s had both those experiences.

8. I love parent-teacher conferences. I get a stack of papers that all show tangible ways that my kid is making academic progress according to his own goals. He’s reading, he’s writing, he’s adding and subtracting at rates that surprise me. His school is a place where he is challenged.

9. I love that we can ride our bikes to school. (We’ve done that once, because I’m constantly late. But it was really charming when we did it.)

10. I love that one of his classes is Strings, so I get to watch him and 29 other 5-year olds try to play the violin together. It’s pure comedy, and totally adorable.

That’s just what I love today — ask me again tomorrow and I could come up with ten more.

I have a lot of prayers for my kid. But I think the one I pray for most often is for belonging. I want him to know that he is a miracle — unique, beloved, important. And I want him to know that he is part of a larger whole — a community of miracles, “woven together in a single garment of destiny.” I want him to know that he is vitally important, and so is every person he interacts with. I want him to see the very image of God in the faces of his neighbors, and treat them with the dignity that such holiness affords them. I want his life to reflect the reality that we belong to each other.

Our humble neighborhood school is showing me little answers to those prayers every day.

Thanks be to God.

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Sue Nave says:

    Thank you for expressing how many of us feel about our public schools – well said!

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks, Kate. You gave me a lot to think about reg. Public schools vs. Christian schools. I appreciate you!

  • As a teacher, I’m saying thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Harris says:

    I know this school (Congress) and I know what a treasure it is.

  • Rachel VerWys says:

    I love this article! My kids have attended urban schools, public and private, and we have loved both. I also want to reply to the comment of “public school vs. Christian school.” I don’t think this post is making an us vs them kinda statement. I think Kate is advocating for breaking a myth that urban schools aren’t performing, some are thriving! And that there is a need for people with means and the privilege to choose educational options for their kids to also think deeply about the whole community and education when making an educational choice. When it becomes an us vs them we all loose and most of all children loose. Last week I sat in a community meeting with school leaders from public, charter, and private schools together encouraging and supporting one another. I was blown away that educational politics were laid aside. A public school superintendent verbally encouraged the expansion of an missional urban Christian high school to grow so more students from his district could attend. I’ve very rarely seen this happen in my experience with education. When we together advocate for all students, make choices for the good of the whole community, and recognize the strength of multicultural urban schools excellence is achieved for us all. But we have a long raid ahead to get to this place. Thanks Kate for speaking and leading! (and my read on your post may be my own opinion shining through…)

  • Libbie says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I feel the same way. I’m a proud Godwin Heights parent! I am so blessed that God planted this white girl in the middle of a diverse neighborhood.

  • Brent says:

    Amen! & thanks for the good thoughts.

  • kate bolt says:

    Our family has grown in beautiful ways because our children attend Holland Public Schools. We adore the people that surround our kids each day and learn so much from them. Urban schools certainly do have a perception problem (and some are still working on the performance part, too) and HPS, for one, is addressing that through it’s new Language Academy.

  • Maria says:

    Wow! So true and well written. I relate to you…………….Gracias/Thank you!

  • Ron says:

    How did I miss this excellent essay when it was first printed? It is terribly important, well written, and spot on.

    As one who spent 33 years working in and loving the Grand Rapids Public Schools, I can testify in support of all you have written here. The system is populated by excellent staff, many of whom are motivated by precisely the same call as many Christian school teachers. The average Christian school parent would be blown away to know that there are teachers and administrators in the GRPS who hold Bible studies before the start of the day. They would be blown away to know that teachers and staff members would tell me that they were praying for me when I was newly appointed to a leadership position. They would be blown away by the ways staff legally and ethically shared their faith in various ways. They would be blown away to hear of the offensive behaviors public school athletes/students sometimes experience at the hands of Christian school students.

    I worry because The GRPS is now half the size it was in 1999, the year I retired from the district. Some of the decline is, no doubt, due to normal demographics but much of it is due to home schooling, the growth of Christian schools, and charter schools. Some of those alternatives have become popular because they provide segregated settings, not because they teach from a Christian perspective. it’s a skunk that needs to thrown on the porch.

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