How attending the local Title I school shaped my family

By Sheli Massie

Guest writer

Nancy Hill Elementary, District 129

West Aurora Schools, Aurora, IL

When my oldest daughter was in second grade a student in her class pulled a knife on the teacher. I was young and scared. And that is how I reacted: scared. I pulled her from the school and enrolled her younger sister and her into a private Lutheran school we could not afford. We ate ramen noodles and drank watered down milk just to make payments. They went from a school of over 500 to one under 60. The only diversity was the lunch lady. At the time it was a fear-based response. I reacted and did not respond.

My experience was different: I went to private school and public schools as a child. A “plaid skirt, knee highs, Mass on Wednesday mornings” private school. My parents chose to send my five siblings and I to Catholic school. I am more than sure that our local parish gave a large discount in tuition costs. In eighth grade we had a choice to continue with private education or go to the local public school. I chose public, along with my two brothers. From what I can remember going to public school when we were younger was never an option or even a discussion. At least not at the dinner table. We only talked about who got sent to the principal’s office that day and if we remembered all of our prayers. It was very life giving.

I come from a family of educators and health care professionals. I also come from a family of privilege and private schools. It was never an question when an extended family member went to a private Christian school. It was just the norm. We were never brought into the discussion of our education until the summer of our eighth grade year when we had moved into a new neighborhood from the inner city. A choice was then handed to us. I knew nothing about the public school I would be attending except that I didn’t have to wear plaid anymore (who am I kidding, I grew up in west Michigan, of course I wore plaid again).

I married a school teacher who went to public schools. He lives and breathes public education. So it was never a question that our five children would also attend public schools. Private schools in the beginning were not even a part of the equation. We were just excited to have our children in school. I didn’t know it was a Title I school. I had no bearings for what that even meant. I knew we were a minority, after the first day lining up outside, but it didn’t occur to me that every other school was not as diverse.

Did you know? To qualify as a Title I school, at least 40 percent of a school’s students come from low-income families. Title I funds are then allocated to implement school-wide programs to upgrade the instruction of the whole school. The goal is to improve students’ proficiency measured by state standards. Some schools, which have fewer than 40 percent of low-income students, offer targeted-assistance programs to help kids most at risk of failing.

Forty percent low income to qualify as a Title I school. In ours, 88 percent of our school is low income: eighty-eight. Seventy-seven percent Hispanic, 11 percent black, and 7 percent white students attend the school.

I can climb onto my pride mountain and tell you what a disservice we are doing to our children putting them in homogeneous private schools. And before you tell me that you have diversity in your school, please consider that when it says “private” in front of “school,” it is privileged. Anytime a family has a choice of where their kids will attend school, it is a privilege.

We live in the second largest city in Illinois and take great pride in the community we live with. We love our school.The principal, the teachers, the families, the kids, the diversity, the cultural exposure are all reasons why we push into it. And for it. But have we always, and will we always? Does fear continue to drive our decisions of why we stay or go?

The private school did not last for our family. It was not sustainable or realistic. It did not have any diversity nor did it have resources available to educate my children and all of their specialized needs.

HEY, FRIENDS: Want to share your family’s public education story? Contact me — 

We returned to the public school, have done a season of homeschooling and then returned to public school again. I wish I could say it has always been good. But when you are in a Title I school that is 88 percent disadvantaged, you and your children will be witness to things and circumstances of real life. Of a hard broken reality that you are not exposed to in the suburbs. You will see broken families and broken children. You will see crime take family members and hunger on a child’s face. You will see resources not available that others see as expectations.

You will see parents, caregivers, grandparents working three jobs just to break the cycle and give their child a chance. Yes, you will be witness to all of this. But if you are fortunate to look closely you will also see these things: You will learn that relationships over test scores matter. You will learn that teachers are the hardest working and most underpaid people on the planet. You will see teachers doing after school programs for kids, without pay, for free just because they believe in giving these kids a chance.  

You will learn to enter in and listen to people’s stories. You will be humbled and honored to be welcomed into homes that do not speak the same language. It will be the most heartbreaking and life changing journey. Your children will not need to be taught about other races just one month a year. It will be their normal.  

I asked my oldest daughter, who is now a sophomore in college, if she was upset that we had raised her in the Title I public school system. If she wished we would have moved or eaten ramen noodles everyday to send her to a private school. She shook her head and said “no, Mom, I am the lucky one. Kids my age that I meet now have no idea what it looks like to live outside of their privileged bubble. They go on mission trips for ‘exposure’ which is just poverty porn if you as me.” (I don’t know where she gets this social justice attitude.) “Raising me here in this neighborhood is my life, it is who I am and who I will fight for. I don’t want to fight for the privileged.”

We tolerate education for other children that we would never allow for our own. That we are even able to have the conversations or make this kind of choice is privileged in itself.

I don’t know if their is a right or correct answer. I just know this is what we have chosen for our family.


THESE WORDS BROUGHT TO YOU BY: Sheli Massie is a colleague of mine in Redbud Writers Guild. She writes at and on the socials as @shelimassie_. Sheli is a Speaker, Story keeper, and Seeker of justice, healing and hope in a broken world. 

READ MORE: Read Erin & her guests’ posts in the Passing Notes series HERE.


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