Classroom Consciousness

The challenge of choosing your child's school is an emotional process, compounded when balancing diversity, academic excellence, and interests for an adopted child. Here are our reader's tips for figuring out the right school for your family.

AF readers and AFC community members sound off about diversity at school.

If your family was formed through transracial adoption, finding the “right school” for your child may be challenging. Parents sometimes face a perceived choice between academic strength and a heterogeneous population. And they must also consider each school’s philosophy, its size, and their child’s personality and learning style, as well as practical matters, like location and cost. And the parents who have no choice worry about enriching their child’s education or diversifying his life, or both, on their own.

AFC blogger Meghan began grappling with this question during the wait to adopt transracially. Moving to a larger house would probably mean moving away from her diverse neighborhood in Queens, New York. During a visit to a prospective town, she mused, “What would it mean for my son to grow up in a Norman Rockwell setting?” She posted her quandary on and appealed to community members: “Please share your experiences as transracial families in your communities. What works, what doesn’t? How did you decide where to live?” Meghan received an outpouring of advice and revealing experiences.

There’s no easy way to decide, and no shortage of opinions about what’s most important. We solicited advice from adoption and education experts, and stories from AF readers and AFC members, about diversity at school and the decisions they made.

Focusing on Diversity

Many families who adopt transracially try to ensure that there is cultural awareness and diversity in their children’s lives. While children enjoy heritage festivals and events at the family’s adoption agency, “That’s not enough,” says adoption therapist Susan Branco Alvarado, who was adopted from Colombia. She attended an elementary school where she was one of three children of color. Alvarado chose to pass as white — “I could get away with it because I had an Italian last name” — but she became friends with the lone African-American girl. “I connected with her. I needed someone to help me look at life as a minority.”

When families seek diversity in a school, they generally do so with their child’s ethnicity in mind. “Children spend so much time at their educational institution that it becomes their community, aside from family and friends,” says Sara Kominsky, of Christiansburg, Virginia. Because her family’s local public school option “sports a 98 percent white population,” she sent her two daughters, with “light brown” complexions, adopted from the U.S. and Azerbaijan, to a private school with a nearly 50 percent minority population. “We’re fortunate to have the option and the resources to make it feasible,” she says. Kominsky acknowledges that the long drive is a bother — “but I look at my girls’ eager faces, bursting with curiosity and trust, and every minute is worth it.”

Deborah Johnson, a consultant on adoption and diversity, who was adopted from Korea, agrees that a diverse school is ideal for transracially adopted children. “I see school as socialization. Most parents can supplement academics; if your child needs challenging reading material, you can take him to the library. But you can’t fill the role of a person of color in our society.” As Johnson says, race becomes more important than adoption issues or culture of origin as our children grow.

How far should parents go to ensure diversity? What about moving? This isn’t feasible for every family, but it’s an option some can consider. Maybe the move needn’t be a major one. Justice and Dave Riccardi moved from their suburban town to a small city, 15 minutes away, after adopting their two children, who are Puerto Rican and African American, from foster care. “We decided that an ethnically diverse neighborhood and school were important. Our children already have to deal with having white parents, white grandparents, and a mostly white church congregation and extended family. They deserve to fit in somewhere.”

“We got criticism from family members who felt we were trading quality of education for diversity,” says Justice. “But our city’s population is more than 70 percent Hispanic. When I step into my son’s classroom, and see him blending in (even though I don’t), I know I made the right choice.”

If you worry about academic standards, work with your child at home on advanced reading or other materials, seek out a summer camp with an academic component, or enroll your child in an after-school enrichment learning center.

Assessing Academics

How can you tell if a school is right, academically speaking? Charles Kyte, Ph.D., executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, and a former school district superintendent, believes that there is too much emphasis on test scores: “It’s too easy, in a way, to tally up good scores versus bad scores.” He advises families to look beyond a school’s deficiencies, real or perceived.

Kyte recalls a school in his old district that was rated poorly. “It was one of the finest schools in Minnesota,” he says. How can that be? The school had excellent teachers; its test scores were skewed by a number of students who were English Language Learners (ELL) and thus struggled with standardized testing. A school like this might be a great school for a transracially adopted child, he points out. “There wasn’t a huge number of children of color, but the school was diverse. And the atmosphere was caring, with teachers and personnel who were good at working with ELL students, and who were respectful of race.”

Seeking a Nurturing, Tolerant Environment

Some families, however, find that the school that seems to be the most nurturing doesn’t happen to be the most diverse. “I would never pick a school for its diversity alone. Academic achievement and well-rounded educational opportunities are primary, in my mind,” says Amy Gill, of Toledo, Ohio. The mom of two boys, of Mexican descent, adopted in the U.S., speaks from experience. When her family lived in California, the boys attended the school where she taught. “The school was extremely diverse. But all the focus was on test scores, and they were never high enough. Teachers were tense and kids were bored — and rightfully so, because school was a grind.” The school the children attend now is primarily white, in a town with a tax base to support “funding for art, music, and other extracurriculars. My boys can’t wait to get to school, because they are having fun and being creative. Ultimately, I think this is more important than whether or not they see students with the same skin color in their class,” says Gill.

AFC member Susan C. echoes Gill’s sentiment. The culture of the school “is every bit as important as the literal racial mix,” she says. This mother of a child adopted from China transferred her daughter, in the fourth grade, to a school that was more diverse and, more important, “more tolerant and flexible. If I were living in a place where racial diversity in the classroom was not an option, I would look for a culture of tolerance. It is intangible, but you know it when you find it.”

To Diane Benjamin and Naomi Siegal, diversity meant more than ensuring that their daughter, Anna, whom they adopted from Guatemala, wasn’t the only Latina in her kindergarten class. Benjamin says, “We wanted a school that could encompass our daughter’s multiple identities. The one we chose has adopted kids, biracial/bicultural kids, recent immigrants, Latin Americans from various countries, children with same-sex parents (like us), and the usual Minnesota assortment of blonds.”

Living With Limited Choices

Before she adopted four racially mixed siblings, through the foster care system, Vickie Highfill lived in a relatively diverse area. Today the family lives in an area that, she says, “is mostly white, and the schools reflect that.” She moved for practical reasons — to be near extended family. “I need the help my parents provide — watching the kids when they are sick, taking them to dental appointments, and so on. And, most important, I want my kids to know their grandparents.”

Highfill is already anticipating the challenges of dating. Her oldest son, Sheldon, who’s 13, is now a handsome young man. She wonders how her neighbors will react when they realize that the African-American teen at their door is interested in their daughter. “This is a beautiful setting. But the mindset here is 20 years behind.”

If a multi-ethnic school isn’t possible for your family, there are other ways to introduce diversity. Karen and John Lott, parents of two sons born to them and two daughters adopted from China, joined a Chinese Christian church. All four of their children have made friendships through the church’s youth group. Some families vacation in areas where their kids can experience being in the majority. Sports leagues and other extracurricular activities may also draw from a wider, more diverse geographic area.

When You Need to Rethink the Decision

What if the hard choice you’ve made doesn’t work out — or what if your child’s needs change? You can always move your child, and that isn’t the end of the world, says Kyte. But, he cautions, “don’t move too quickly. Take the time to work through problems. Sometimes it’s just a rough patch and not so bad in the end. Or perhaps you can change classrooms within the school.” If a move must be made, Kyte says timing is important. “Unless something is absolutely intolerable, it’s best to wait until the end of the year. There’s a pecking order among kids, and those who come into a class late aren’t always accepted.”

Linda and Scott Mazar recently moved their middle-school daughter, Amira, from a small, highly rated immersion school, 25 miles from their home, to a much larger neighborhood school. Unlike the immersion school, the local school doesn’t have many children of color, but there is still a good amount of diversity. Overall, they say, the new school is a better fit for their “artsy” daughter’s interests. Amira has become involved in theater and has joined the band; neither of these activities was available in her former school. “She is so happy there,” says Linda. Her daughter maintains her cultural ties through an intensive weekly language class, as well as the ethnic dance school she’s attended for 10 years.

No matter what you decide, there will be trade-offs. If you’re committed to finding diversity outside of school, “you have to do your research and stick your neck out,” says Sharon Ramsey,* a single mom who adopted three African-American children from foster care. “There is no way I can move to a more diverse city, for career reasons.” But the family attends an African-American church, and they now socialize with a circle of good friends from their church. Ramsey found the church online, and church friends recommended other activities. “At first it wasn’t comfortable for me to be in the minority, but my kids are in the minority every day.”

AFC member sjbj agrees that “living in a diverse city is only the beginning.” This mother of a boy adopted from Guatemala has realized that, “although the city we live in is diverse, people here generally don’t mix — neighborhoods are pretty much homogeneous. So it takes an effort to make friendships across racial lines.”

You should also know that your child’s perceptions may differ from your own. “Although we live in a fairly small town, there are kids of every race at my children’s school, and I thought of it as diverse, based on my own childhood in rural upstate New York,” commented AFC member JMazz, who adopted two African-American and two Ethiopian children. “That illusion was shattered when my second grader said, at the beginning of last school year, ‘There are only 18 brown kids in the whole school, Mom.’ Even though I know that number is not correct, my son sees that situation as important.” JMazz makes an effort to “go to the small city south of us, where there are a lot of African-American and biracial families, when we shop or dine out. No one looks twice at us.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to school selection, and the choice may be racial diversity or academic excellence. Every child is an individual, and each family situation is different. You may hit the bull’s-eye on the first try, you may need to move your child, or you may need to seek diversity outside of school. There are many roads to a healthy racial identity, and if one road doesn’t lead to success, there’s always a chance to try again.

*Name changed to preserve privacy.

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