For families and their kids who have been in elementary school together and have established themselves as a community, the looming decision about middle school pits them against one another and breaks them up into factions. This happens in as early as the fourth and fifth grades, and again a few years later when middle-school families are under pressure to make their high school decision.
During the process, an unspoken-about tension builds up between parents and kids. People who once were collaborators on the same “team” increasingly find themselves judging each other. They repeatedly justify and emotionally defend their decisions, to both themselves and to each other. Parents and kids start to break their ties and actually become opponents who start sniffing each other out.
Carrying through with the harsh judging they’ve learned at home, students might even insult the schools their classmates have chosen. For instance, one day my 10-year-old daughter came home from school and worriedly reported to me that one of her classmates (who knew he would be going to a private middle school) had told her that she was "going to get beat up" at the public middle school we had chosen. The subtle and not-so-subtle judging of one another happens again in the seventh and eighth grade.
Another nasty side effect of school choice is that schools now have to "sell" themselves. School choice appeared in my district, but the already resource-poor traditional public schools weren't provided with any extra resources to meet the added demands of increased promotion and marketing. I'm talking about things like Web site management, brochures, newspaper ads, school tours, information nights and other events.
In the fall hunting season, prospective parents and kids visit the school for a tour during the school day. A set of teachers and administrators now have to take time away from their work to do "the sell." There is a heightened expectation for staff to work extra hours in the evening so they can pitch their school at parent meetings at feeder schools for multiple times. And the pressure is even on for school staff and parent representatives to make visits to potential smaller feeders during the school day.
All of this activity adds up to a lot of time and energy exclusively spent on the sell, sell, sell, sell, sell. Of course, this is the business model, where what is sold is less important that how much of it can be sold. And in order to survive, some public schools have essentially been forced into hiring marketing firms!
Schools do the best they can knowing that how they present themselves during this time means everything to the future well-being of the school. Some schools have parents who pick up the pieces with much of the marketing, only because they want to make their school attractive to other strong parents in the community. So the schools with the most skilled and hard-marketing parents are able to generate a greater amount of interest.
In the urban setting where there is a dearth of middle class parents, many of the schools want to acquire as many of the middle class and more-discriminating low income parents as possible. They know that the higher caliber parents usually produce children of a higher academic and behavioral caliber, so acquiring those families will affect the school in a positive way for many years.
And always present, when parents encounter other parents at the grocery store with whom they once had a relaxed relationship with in elementary school, is that silent sizing up of one another. "How's Bret Harte going for you?" "How does Johnny like Tech?" Both the questions and responses, verbal and non-verbal, are emotionally loaded.
People don't openly talk about the schadenfreude they feel when something negative about someone else's school has appeared in the news, or when they learn that some kid isn't doing so well at one of the competitor schools. People don’t openly talk about how their feelings of insecurity and envy get triggered when they hear something exceptionally positive going on at a school they hadn’t chosen. No one talks much about the grieving and sadness caused by all this competition-produced divisiveness.
You can bet that the people pushing this disruptive business model on families in fragile communities wouldn't permit their own families and kids to be subjected to it.
PS: Here's a sad article about two schools in the same building: Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School: Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door, Steven Thrasher, The Village Voice (2/23/2010).