The Lottery

by caitlin

A and I love, nay LOVE, documentaries. We have watched nearly all of the PBS Nature docs on Netflix. Maybe that means we love nature (also true) or that we are the biggest nerds on the planet (likely also true). However, we’ve also watched docs covering everything from MS-13 to baking, proof positive.

Moving on…

When I saw the previews for The Lottery, a doc about parents and children who are a part of the lottery (duh) for enrollment in Harlem’s charter school system, I teared up and marked my calendar for the premier. Well, between helping my hubs start a business, quitting a beloved job, moving to another state, finding out I was pregnant, oh, and regular life I missed out on The Lottery in theaters. Monthsandmonths later and LOW AND BEHOLD, it’s an instant play option on Netflix. Hallelujah!

So here’s the gist:

Harlem has notoriously low performing public schools, not unlike most of our country’s urban areas. The Harlem Children’s Zone and the Harlem Success Academies are community based programs featuring charter schools (along with a slew of other solutions) that take a holistic approach to not only educating young people but aiming to end the cycle of poverty that is perpetuated by under-education in Harlem.

Fine and dandy, right? The prob: lotsandlots of people want into the charter school system because the neighborhood schools are underperforming, to say the least. There are only a certain number of spots for students to enter the program and they are allocated based on a lottery. Every year parents and their children attend this giant announcement ceremony that essentially determines the educational fates of the children.

The film followed four families and their adorable little pre-k kidlets as they prepared for the lottery and talked about why this kind of alternative education is the best option for their children. Then, of course you find out who gets in and who doesn’t. Some are elated, some are disappointed. The contrast of the hope and elation experienced by the “winners” and the hope and subsequent disappointment of the “losers” nearly broke this mama-to-be’s heart. Heart-breaking…like grown-men-crying-heart-breaking.

Here’s MY problem (with the system, not the movie…the movie was great): “Compulsory inequity, perpetuated by state law, too frequently condemns our children to unequal lives.” Jonathan Kozol said that. He’s kinda my hero. A lot of his books are older, but they are not irrelevant because although writers like him have shed light on the plight of ghetto (and bumpkin) kids in America the system has not changed. Read anything he’s written, it will change your life.

So the quote. It basically means that most neighborhood schools in the ghettos (or hinterlands) are inadequate. We know that, the Superintendents know that, the President knows that, and most sadly, the students that attend those schools know that. We make kids attend these schools. In fact, we send their parents to jail if they don’t attend. Because of the sub-par (read: below acceptable; not acceptable but a little below extraordinary) educations forced on these seemingly less valuable students, they are destined for a future that none of us would choose for ourselves or our own children.

This movie made me excited that schools can be successful at educating low-income students and preparing them for the futures they deserve. My beef: charter schools, while successful, serve only a relatively small number of students. They do not provide excellent opportunities for ALL students. They do not fix the broken system that miseducates and damns THE MAJORITY of low-income children to lives characterized by the expectation of failure. To add insult to injury, we then become cynical when these children fulfill the prophecy and become adults who cannot provide for themselves.

I’m ranting. I don’t know what the real solution is, and that frustrates me.

Additionally, I feel extremely uncomfortable about one thing in particular that is reflected in our inability to solve the issues of educational and economic inequality. You have probably heard the statement, “Education is the great equalizer.” To an extent I agree…but that is only true if children with setbacks in life are benefitting from positive educational experiences with high expectations and the necessary support to reach those expectations. Which they’re not. Do you see the evil veiled behind this seemingly covenantal cliche?

SOOOOOOOO, finally getting at my issue: we place all our hope for these kids, and encourage them to follow suit, in a corrupt education system and promise that if they stick it out and get an education everything will be alright. Our hope is misplaced.

When I was working for Communities In Schools of Jacksonvile I felt quite frustrated that I was peddling education as the solution to all of my students’ problems. Sure, graduating from high school and going on to college might make your financial situation a little better, but what about the rest of the brokenness? Will it fix that?

I can only rest in trusting that God is in control of everything. He knows that our systems (educational, economic, social, political…ugh, political) are broken. He knew when he created all of everything that humankind and the rest of creation with them would fall. He is redeeming it all. That’s present active participle, people. He is working now to save it all, BUT it won’t be redeemed, fair, equitable, just, until heaven. That’s where I am placing my hope.

And this may be bad theology (judge me, I dare you), but I am hoping for my babies in the ghetto that God will hear their cries and carry them out of their plight. All of them, because I think God has a heart for the ghetto.

Note: I believe that Communities In Schools, Harlem Children’s Zone, Harlem Success Academies and other organizations like them are doing great work by taking a holistic approach to addressing economic and educational disparities. I do feel like we do a disservice to children when we have them place the totality of their hope in anything of this world, as it will only leave them empty.