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CEPEDA: Trouble with a 'textured' life

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- In his revealing book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," Charles Murray spends hundreds of pages using statistics to illustrate the rising inequality that is increasingly putting the white working class on the path toward generational poverty.

Murray concludes by suggesting that the "new upper class" -- which increasingly is cloistered in pockets of rich, highly educated super-neighborhoods -- move into the communities of "regular" people.

"Age-old human wisdom has understood that a life well lived requires engagement with those around us," writes Murray, who himself lives in what he describes as an increasingly troubled "blue-collar and agricultural region of Maryland."

He closes: "A civic Great Awakening among the new upper class can arise in part from the renewed understanding that it can be pleasant to lead a glossy life, but it is ultimately more rewarding -- and more fun -- to lead a textured life, and be in the midst of others who are leading textured lives."

Murray's invocation sprung to mind a few weeks ago as I was reading stay-at-home dad Andy Hinds' "Why I Want to Choose the 'Disadvantaged' Local School (and Why I Might Not)" on The New York Times' "Motherlode" blog.

Hinds describes the gut-wrenching choice he has to make about whether to put his "mixed-race, socioeconomically advantaged, English-proficient twin girls" into the good school where his neighbors' kids go or into the troubled school only a five-minute walk from his home. His idealism makes him wonder if he and a group of caring, motivated parents could change a school with 100 percent poverty and a predominantly Hispanic student body. Ultimately, such participation could make a difference for the whole community.

Hinds worries that, "Even in the best case, we can expect some attrition once the distance between our expectations and the reality comes into focus. If I end up being one of the parents who bail on this movement, it might make things awkward with some of my neighbors."

I chuckled when I read that. You see, I'm in the middle of a similar grand experiment. I moved into a newly redeveloped community with failing schools. Several of my new neighbors joined me in the belief that we were going to lift our neighborhood schools up by our very presence and effort. Yet here we are, over a decade on, with schools that are still failing miserably.

But unlike Hinds, I don't have to worry about my neighbors' feelings -- when they realized their children were being left further behind from their peers in nearby school districts with better facilities and more resources, most of them simply moved away.

This summer, our schools are undergoing dramatic restructuring designed to, for the umpteenth time, boost student achievement. Our community is experiencing its annual restructuring, too, as the parents of eighth-graders who can afford to move take that option to avoid having their children attend our troubled high school.

My son began a special summer program last week for incoming freshman who will be taking honors-level courses. It's a small attempt to prepare students who performed well in middle school to collectively lift the performance of their high school class by getting good grades in the very few honors and Advanced Placement courses the school offers.

In a school where 63 percent of the students are low-income, the chronic truancy rate is almost 20 percent, and about 6 percent of the classes are taught by teachers who are not "highly qualified" -- that's optimistic. But I'm grateful for the attempt to give these kids a leg up. Most impoverished schools can't even do that.

Desperate parents are resorting to lying about their home addresses to get their kids into higher-performing schools -- and in some cases getting arrested or jailed for it -- so it's admirable that there are people out there like Hinds who would even consider risking their kids' education for the greater good.

Hinds, however, closes his essay, "Ultimately, I'm not going to let my kids go to a school that fails them."

If only every parent had that choice. To those who (BEG ITAL)can(END ITAL) choose decent schools for their children, a word of advice from someone already leading a "textured" life: It's a noble gesture but not at the expense of your kids' education.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter,@estherjcepeda.