Surviving with Public Education

When my college roommate of two days casually said, “I really just don’t understand how people, like, survive in life with a public school education,” I was stunned into silence.

The five of us we were in the obligatory new roommate powwow, avoiding the overhyped and under-attended orientation week activities. The conversation had taken a sharp turn from family structure to high school education when ‘The Roommate’ made her statement. My other roommate, challenging her, grew up in the suburbs of Rhode Island. She shot back with, “I did, and I was in the top five of my class actually,” in true icy, eye-narrowing fashion.Obviously flustered, ‘The Roommate’ amended her original statement to, “Well, not everyone of course, just city public schools and their education situation.

At this point, all of my roommates looked at me. They knew I had grown up in New York City, so naturally I should have something to say. Yes, I went to a city public school. Yes, I was one of the 1.1 million children in the New York City Department of Education (DOE). However, the above phrasing makes my “education situation” seem like a deep, dark secret. No, it’s not a secret, nor is it a “situation.”

Ever since a distinction was made between the two in society, public schools have always seemed to garner bad reputations compared to private schools, particularly in my hometown of New York City. Schools like Dalton, Trinity and Spence often shine like beacons of light over the 400+ public schools in the DOE.

Growing up in New York, I was lucky enough to meet and befriend a diverse array of people. A significant amount of my childhood friends did attend private high schools, and were wonderfully pleasant and could care less about the status of my education. However, the occasional face has been pulled when I mentioned where I attended high school. There are 400+ public high schools in the DOE system. With that large of a number, why does it seem so easy to categorize them as less worthy?

Yes, poor-performing public schools are plastered all over local news stations with the constant barage of “which one is going to close?” is in the air. But, there are more than 400. There is no way they could, and should, all be generalized into one group.There are nationally recognized “specialized schools” like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science that require an admissions test very similar to the SAT (in its design, content, student stress level and name: SHSAT). There are schools that require a cumulative middle school grader greater than 90 to even be considered, and there are schools that require a wonderfully worded essay. In some cases, admissions can be more competitive than college with schools having around 200 seats and a few thousand applicants.

I soon found out that this is not a situation that is specific to only me, nor is it a situation specific to New York City. Talking with some classmates, I voiced my observations on the prejudice against public school, and those who were educated in the public school system, here at Sarah Lawrence, a flood of agreements and personal anecdotes came through. Those who went to public high schools, whether in New York, Texas, California confirmed that they too were subject to the face pulling.                   
Why should the high school you attended be used to signify yourself as a human, or your worthiness of being in a Sarah Lawrence student? Did we not all tirelessly edit our admissions essays and meticulously fill out the Common App? Did we not all get accepted to the same institution?

The bottom line is that I had a fantastic high school education. This is not because I saved tuition money, but because I made the most of it. No matter if it was government funded or not, generalizing an entire education system into a game of survivor is, well, ignorant. And, ironically, the Sarah Lawrence community prides itself on their lack of social ignorance.




  • Reply January 28, 2014


    Well written and well put. I never attended public school, I was educated through a mixture of Quaker Friends school, Homeschooling, Charter and a Montessori High School. However, I have many friends who attended public school for their entire K-12 experience and they have gone on to excellent colleges and got an excellent education.
    I have always felt lucky that my parents choose (and were able to make this choice) to send me to different sorts of schools, for the sake of how I learned best. In elementary school, I was labeled as Gifted, and as I continued my education, saw how a lot of public schools failed these Gifted kids, through little fault of their own.
    I think public education should be able to give students the very best education, but for a lot of students, this is not always the case. Due to lack of funding, large enrollment and often rigid requirements.
    I am sorry that your roommate was not able to see the positive things about getting a public education. There are positive and negative aspects to both kinds of education, not to mention the sense of entitlement and superiority that private school breeds in some.

  • Reply February 5, 2014


    Good article! I’m a proud former public school attendee. I just wanted to add that I feel that public schools offer an educational dimension that private schools can’t match. Private schools, with few exceptions, consist of a pretty homogenous student body with an unrealistic understanding of kids outside of their social class. Public schools are great because as a public school student you get to see a cross-section of society as it more or less is in reality—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Leave a Reply