schools- the danger of a single story

Much sooner than I am ready for, backpacks will be donned and kids will be heading back to school.  Here in the NW, that means a variety of things: from Catholic to Quaker, from progressive to traditional, Montessori and Waldorf, public, private, and charter, Single-sex and co-educational.  Not only do our surrounding schools have their own “brand”; they each have their own reputation.

You know what I mean.  Not the official website tagline, but the ‘word on the street.’  The way parents and kids tag the schools in our area.  The stereotypes we learn about each school.  This school is for the brainy kids, that school is for jocks, this one for liberals, that one for conservatives, this one is strict, that one is a free for all.

I won’t list them here; that would only serve to reinforce the stereotypes.  But we all know they exist.  Each school has it’s own reputation, and oddly enough, I have found that much of that ‘rep’ comes from parents whose children never set foot inside the schools they’re discussing.

Chimamanda Adichie gives my all-time favorite Ted Talk: The Danger of a Single Story.  Beyond her gorgeous delivery, the talk is a rich essay about her experience as an African living in the U.S..  She warns against the danger of only having a single version of a person, place, or event.  “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”.

I believe this same danger exists when local schools are discussed.   Having only lived here two years, I have been in many conversations where a school name is brought up and another parent (whose child does NOT attend that school), says, “Oh, that’s the fill in the blank school”.  I have done school searches for far too many of the last 5 years, and while my experience has shown me that there may be a glimmer of truth in each school’s reputation, there is also MUCH more to each one.  In fact, I found surprises- both good at bad, at each place I visited.

This is why, when looking at schools, I try to use a broad lens and see where the visits lead me.  Once settled in to a school culture, I learn even more deeply about the limitations of reputations.. and all the things the ‘single story’ has us missing.  Talking to people about schools is a crucial stop towards narrowing the field of choices; talking to people whose children actually attend those schools prevents the field from becoming artificially thin.

What reputation does your school have?  Has it lived up to that reputation?  If you have decided to look at options beyond your catchment school, to whom do you listen when doing school searches?

Speaking of school searches, this fall, GAP will be adding school reviews from actual parents whose children attend those schools.  If you would like to review your child’s childcare center, preschool, or school, please contact us at  

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