A feel-good story about high-schoolers doing a good deed revealed a stark parenting divide.
I recently wrote a short piece about students at the St. Louis-area Ladue High School raising more than $80,000 for children’s hospitals as part of a months-long fundraising effort. I quoted the co-organizers, who talked about the long hours and passion they put into the project, along with a charity official, who praised the students’ teamwork and commitment to the cause.
For context, I included a sentence noting that it helps fundraising efforts that the district is “well-resourced,” located in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the state. When the accomplishment being noted is a large sum of money raised, it makes sense that being situated in a relatively affluent area helps -- to some degree.
A parent, who wished to remain anonymous, responded angrily, upset that this detail was even mentioned. A parent of one of the teenagers quoted, however, responded with great appreciation for the coverage.
While we all want to believe our success is solely a product of our hard work and talent, most of us know that’s rarely the case. Many of us benefit from things we haven’t earned, like the circumstances into which we were born. Some parents are comfortable with their children seeing their accomplishments in that perspective. And anyone wanting to raise resilient children can teach them not to rely on, or expect, unqualified praise.
What was surprising was the reaction of the district.
Bailey Otto, a communications assistant with the Ladue School District, sent a critical email after the piece ran online.
Otto wrote that “the portion of the article where you reference the school district’s ‘well-resourced community’ using one of our ZIP codes is inaccurate. The district serves 10 different municipalities throughout six ZIP codes,” she said, and attached a chart of these ZIP codes and their median incomes. She added that “painting the district in such a broad stroke is inaccurate at best, and it denigrates the hard work of our students by suggesting that they did not have to work as hard to fundraise for the event.”
The attached chart did not offer a breakdown of the ZIP codes of the students who participated in the fundraiser, but rather of the entire district. The district couldn’t say what percentage of the fundraiser’s participants came from its wealthiest corners. Yet its own chart highlights how much wealthier the district’s students are compared to the rest of the state. Every ZIP code was higher than the Missouri median income of $48,173, with half of the ZIP codes showing median incomes of more than $100,000.
It was an odd data set to use to say, essentially, “don’t call us ‘well-resourced.’”
The most unfortunate part of the complaint is that it paints the students as victims in a story about their achievement. What a missed opportunity to talk about local economic realities and disparities.
Missouri’s most recent data indicate that 11 percent of students in Ladue High School are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the most commonly used marker for the level of poverty in a district. That percentage is among the lowest of public high schools in the state.
It’s not a stretch to say that raising the same amount of money in an impoverished district would be harder than in one of the state’s wealthiest. Should this logical fact take away from anyone’s sense of worth or accomplishment?
When an objectively affluent district complains about a mention of its socioeconomic advantage -- even when talking about the ability of students to raise money -- it’s not doing the kids any favors.
Jill Farmer, whose daughter participated in the fundraiser, said she didn’t find the sentences in question unfair. While the district has more economic diversity than most people assume, “it’s fair to say kids with resources can sometimes tap those resources more easily,” she said. “To point that out doesn’t automatically deduct the hard work -- the blood, sweat and tears -- that went into raising that money.”
She shared a historically American value that those who have much ought to do much. So, when did wealthy Americans get so fragile?
It may have something to do with the fact that the haves and have-nots in America live increasingly segregated lives. Those comfortably in the middle class, or higher, may have an intellectual idea of what it means to be poor in America, but they have no clue of what the daily reality looks like for many families. How many of us from middle- or upper-class backgrounds have spent even one entire day in an “under-resourced” school -- one in which the majority of students cannot afford to pay $2 for school lunch, let alone commit to raising hundreds for a charity fundraiser?
Students from an impoverished district could spend just as many hours, with the same level of commitment, and would face a much harder challenge raising that sum of money.
The original story, which noted that this school raised the most money in the state, also noted that a high school in Carmel, Indiana raised the most money in the country -- bringing in more than $400,000. One of the organizers pointed out to me that the Indiana high school is far bigger than hers.
It can be easier to see the advantages that others bring to the table than it is to admit our own.