The Domino effect of wielding privilege

Opinion: Columns

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By Linda Francis

Director Success of All Youth

Although this pandemic has been horrible with respect to the loss of life and its effect on education, the economy, and our mental health, there is one positive thing I hope can be extracted from the experience. 

While many other countries are making decisions to protect the population as a whole, we continue to make individual decisions to meet individual desires. Too many of us still operate under the fallacy that rugged individualism is the American way — do what you think is best for you and yours and don't worry about others. Energy and resources are focused on a workaround for some rather than a solution for all. 

Admit it or not, our lives are intricately intertwined. Those who seek to gain an advantage can seldom do so without hurting others. The negative effects of this approach are compounded when any group wields an undue level of privilege.

The New York Times provides a prime example of this in their Nice White Parents Podcast, which traces the history of the creation of a "diverse" middle school in New York City. A local example exists in our approach to kindergarten. District 97 went to full-day kindergarten in 2009 — the assumption being that more time spent in instruction would lead to higher long-term achievement, particularly for disadvantaged and low-income students. 

The population of kindergarten students has also grown because of the needs of working parents. But with a specific birthdate determining kindergarten placement, comes an age range of just under one year for students in a grade. Some parents of children with late birthdays, particularly males, are questioning their social and emotional readiness for the expectations of current-day kindergarten. Some have been holding back their sons for an additional year of maturity and/or physical growth for sports — aka "kindergarten redshirting." This results in classrooms with age ranges of just under 2 years instead of one and presents additional challenges for schools, teachers, and students.

There is a certain amount of privilege associated with being able to make this decision since it has financial and time implications for the family. Consequently, the majority of kindergarten students redshirted are white males from more highly educated and affluent families. This alters the cohorts of students in a diverse school district like D97, which has now disallowed kindergarten redshirting, resulting in a slew of parents who are very upset and protesting and calling for lawsuits. 

The debate is now about parental choice and not the actual needs of children. This often happens when the solution is to do what's best for individual children and not raise the broader question of why kindergarten is problematic for a number of males. The issue is not actually a personal one; it is a systemic one that is being handled as a personal one. 

The impactful questions are not being asked and the opportunity to improve kindergarten for all D97 kids is wasted. The focus for so long has been on studying why Black, Latinx, and low-income students are not meeting expectations. Perhaps part of the answer lies in looking at how privilege has raised academic performance or whether expectations are reasonable and developmentally appropriate in the first place. 

This pandemic presents us with the opportunity to slow down and assess whether the systems constructed to afford privileges to some are even working for them anymore. Youth anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, even before COVID, and occurring at increasingly younger ages. The need to find kindergarten workarounds is clearly a sign that we are starting off our children's education on the wrong foot. And yet, this is the standard by which we are judging the success of the less privileged. Perhaps it's time to redefine success in much healthier and inclusive terms.

Whether it's the social and emotional well-being of children relegated to online learning or the structure of freshmen curriculum, the key to better solutions lies in asking how we improve the systems that serve all kids and not just our kin. The 40 or so OPRF High School students who got a chance to socialize together have now put in danger a much greater number of community members. 

What if the question were not how a limited number of youth can experience a sense of normalcy, but how we can create safe options for all of our community youth to be socially engaged during this pandemic? What if the Domino effect of wielding privilege resulted in many more benefiting rather than many more having to struggle in the wake of other's individual success. 

The decision to change paths is up to all of us.

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Reader Comments

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 21st, 2020 12:37 AM

Success of All Youth is supported by, which is funded, by our library, park district, every school district, Triton. So its everyone's taxes being paid to those groups and then getting funneled over to this. So the Director of a group that is funded by tax dollars is more than just kind of paid by taxpayers, if we are going to be honest and not pretend groups spring from the air. And going to all day kindergarten was a way for the school to be able to say enrollments were increasing, when the population levels in the town were the same as they had always been, in one of the many school tax increase moves.

Deborah Wess  

Posted: September 18th, 2020 4:50 PM

Ms. Francis works for the Ounce of Prevention Fund. Previously, she worked for the OPRF Community Foundation, neither position paid by anyone's taxes. The problem is not with the children, of any age or gender. The problem, as any honest early childhood teacher will attest, is that today's curriculum is inappropriate for five-year-olds. Red-shirting has been a cause of great concern to early childhood educators and child development experts at least since the early 80's, when I entered the field. A longer school day can be great if it gives kids more time to get deeply involved in play-based learning. If it only adds additional short bursts of structured activities in disparate subjects no one benefits. Kindergarten's dual role as both education and childcare has always been in conflict. So too have individual families' expressions of what's best for their own kids (to refuse vaccination, to protest perceived objectionable materials, to demand safe lunch settings for their children with mortal allergies) always been negotiated and balanced against the needs of the community. But it is certainly any of our rights to comment on public education. It is a collective endeavor, one of the best civic institutions still standing, and the pandemic has shown nothing if not how its overnight disappearance (in traditional guise) has left children and parents reeling. Some kids are literally going hungry; others with special needs are receiving no services. All are less physically active and spending too long staring at screens. The harm is grave, the effects will be long-lasting, and we should all be talking about public education.

James Kebinger  

Posted: September 17th, 2020 7:30 PM

The author is spot on about kindergarten red-shirting leading to inequitable outcomes. Without looking at the data, it's easy to make a persuasive emotional case that each parent knows best for their child about kindergarten readiness and that they should have the sole discretion to make the decision when to enroll them. The reality of the world is that not all families are equally privileged with the resources and means to be able to provide childcare or other support for their child during that extra year before school. In fact, in data I received from the district via an open records request, we can see that far fewer non-white families choose to enroll their child at age six. If we look at the statistics of this year's kindergarten class for example, 54.8% of five year olds identify as white. 81.8% of the six year olds identify as white; that's a large difference in racial makeup that likely correlates with income and education levels of the families (I was not provided with income data in my request to the district). I don't claim to be an expert on the benefits of enrolling a child at six in a class full of five-year-olds. It's not hard to imagine that any advanced developmental benefits of starting kindergarten later continues to accrue for the entire time the child is in the school system and beyond. Such benefits may include consuming leadership opportunities or placement in limited enrichment programs, so red-shirting kindergarteners is not a victimless parental choice. In a world where all children enrolled at five, those benefits would be more equitably distributed. It's time to end redshirting kindergarten based solely on parental discretion. It leads to inequitable outcomes and hurts the rest of the kindergarten class. Genuine developmental delays can be dealt with through the district's capable early childhood programs.

Josh Vanderberg from Oak Park  

Posted: September 17th, 2020 12:01 PM

How about we decouple daycare from education and focus on some objective readiness criteria? Not every kid is ready for Kindergarten at 5, especially not the full day advanced program we seem to have. When I was a kid, back when Kindergarten was a half day and much less rigorous, I was not ready, and definitely benefited from another year. My parents weren't by any means rich or even affluent. These days nobody cares about the advantage being 49 confers when I should only be 48.

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 4:53 PM

"Too many of us still operate under the fallacy that rugged individualism is the American way ?" do what you think is best for you and yours and don't worry about others." Sounds like the parents and school were doing what they thought was best for you and yours, and don't worry about others, like the taxpayer.

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 4:46 PM

"District 97 went to full-day kindergarten in 2009 ?" the assumption being that more time spent in instruction would lead to higher long-term achievement, particularly for disadvantaged and low-income students." OK, this was an assumption 11 years ago. You would think that in that amount of time you could have reported if the assumptions of leading to higher long term achievement were realized. I would hope they were, or did we really expand all day kindergarten so parents didn't have to pay for a half day of daycare?

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 4:43 PM

In fairness, she does meander around with age groups. The problem in Oak Park is both parents need to work, one to pay for life and the other to pay for taxes. And the taxes are going to pay salaries for self described experts like this who we never ever needed to have around. Programs springing up out of nowhere with funding from things seemingly unrelated things like the park district, where no one ever gets to vote on the budget. People are having a little party, hiring their friends and allies into these positions on everyone else's back.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 3:54 PM

You're right, Tom. I read this too quickly and missed some things. My points do not apply to this issue. I stand corrected.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 2:57 PM

Bill, the article is about kindergarten. The author is someone we get stuck funding through the park district, so she can tell us about her anger and how privileged we all are to pay her salary.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 2:43 PM

Uhh, no... the problem is irresponsible parents allowing their kids to be irresponsible and put other people at risk. On there one hand, people complain- rightly- about irresponsible juveniles trashing the Village Presidents house and yard, then opine that parents who allow their juveniles to act far more recklessly are acting within their rights. They're not.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 1:14 PM

The problem is that people like Ms Francis think that they know better than parents about how those parents should raise their kids. She should butt out, as it is none of her business.

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