When Melvina Kelley started the education of her son Scott, she wanted above all a strong curriculum and an emphasis on discipline, so she sent him to a predominantly white day care center.
In talking to her son one day she happened to ask him what color he was, she recalled, her voice choking. "He said, 'white.' I found out that Scotty who is light brown . . . felt darker-skinned people weren't treated as well as whites or light-skinned black people at his school. I decided it was time to pull him out of that school."
As an increasing number of blacks scuffle their way into the middle class they can afford to choose an alternative to sending their children to public schools.
This is Black History Month, when many pause to recall black accomplishments. This choice faced by middle-class parents grows out of a tradition of black emphasis on education and the civil rights movement. How black parents make these educational choices will write a new chapter in black history.
The Washington Post gathered a group of middle-class black parents with young children who are still wrestling with the selection of schools and a second group of parents who are now sending their children to private schools.
The five parents in the first group had children from 4 months to 9 years who were currently enrolled in private day care centers or private and parochial schools.
Like their white counterparts, they seek above all schools with solid academic reputations, good discipline and small classes.
But for blacks, particularly this middle-class generation whose ideals were formed in the civil rights days of the 1960s, their decision on a school is complicated by their desire to stay in the city and their desire to develop a black consciousness in their children.
"Teaching black children pride in themselves has to start early, because it can be cut down so quickly in the outside world," said Kelley, special assistant to the executive vice president at American Bus Association. Scott attends St. Augustine, a predominantly black Catholic school at 15th and V streets NW, where he is a fourth-grader.
Mary Futrell, president of the National Education Association, knows well that more and more middle-class parents are opting for nonpublic schools.
"As more and more parents become a part of the middle class they say, 'I'll put my child in another school, a private school,' " she said. "We're at a critical point in the schools, and if black parents don't feel their kids are getting a fair shake, they won't hesitate to go in the schools and take their kids out," she said, noting that public schools are trying to correct some problems such as the disproportionate number of black students being suspended and the disproportionate number of blacks enrolled in vocational programs instead of academic curriculums.
More than 90 percent of black children nationwide attend public schools, but there is a small but growing number of black children attending private schools. For example, in 1975 one of every 16 black students, or 6.4 percent, attended private schools. In 1983 the number stood at one out of 12 black students, or 8.6 percent, according to U.S. Census figures. During that same period, white enrollment in private schools remained at about 20 percent.
Locally, the number of black school-aged children in private schools has remained at 8,000 to 9,000 or about 10 percent for the last five years, according to public school officials. The percentage of black students in city Catholic schools has increased while the actual number of black students in these schools has remained at between 7,000 and 8,000, according to the Catholic Archdiocese.
Joanne Doddy Fort, a lawyer and private school graduate, has enrolled her 6-year-old son Bryce in the Academic Enrichment Center, a private school at 6119 Georgia Ave. NW. He started in day care there, and because the center has classes for the first through third grades, she decided to let him remain.
"My decision to put Bryce in private school was not a decision against public schools," she said. "I needed a program that has a preschool and afterschool program." But she added, "They have small classes, the hours I need, strong academics and a wonderful black history program."
After third grade, she and her husband may send their son to Takoma Park Elementary, their neighborhood school, said Fort, who attended public schools until ninth grade, when she helped integrate Sidwell Friends, a private school in upper Northwest.
"What makes me and my husband uncomfortable about predominantly white private schools, like Sidwell Friends, is that today they do not have the economic integration that they had when I was there," Fort said.
"One of the things those private, white schools do is they have a subtle way of saying, 'We are the best . . . . ' " she said. "A school that gives my son a false sense of security can be as damaging as one that gives him no sense of security at all. I benefited from public school . . . being in class with poor, rich and folks in-between, you got to judge people according to what they have in their heads."
The decision to send their daughter to a predominantly black private school has been a wrenching one for Malcolm and Carolyn Barnes. Malcolm Barnes is a former D.C. public school teacher, and Carolyn is a graduate of the city's public schools.
"She is in private school because I want her there," Carolyn Barnes said. "I am pro-private school. I thought she could get lost in a very large classroom in public school."
Kelley Ann, 6, attends Jewels of Ann, at 2011 Bunker Hill Rd. NE, where there is a ratio of 10 students per teacher. "Kelley is shy, and I wanted her to get individual help," her mother said.
"This is something my husband and I differ on," said Carolyn Barnes. She thinks the difference is rooted in her experience in District schools and his experiences in public schools in Pennsylvania.
Malcolm Barnes, executive director of the Adams-Morgan Community Development Corp., said he agreed to keep his daughter at the school because she attended the day care center. But he added, "I'm from Pennsylvania and a product of public schools. We are proud of our public schools. I think the lack of support of public schools by some of the better-educated black parents is part of the reason the schools are suffering."
Next week: Private schools and black society.