Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Public vs. Private: The Hard Truth About Savannah Schools

August 2014:

On the first day of school, I pulled into the tree-lined, landscaped campus of the most expensive private school in Savannah with my new pre-kindergartner and accidentally found myself in a parade of decorated luxury vehicles being driven by incoming seniors.  The street entrance was lined with cheering friends and family holding signs and giant blown up photographs of them to celebrate the start of their final year.

I was not supposed to be in the parade.

I did not miss the poeticism of beginnings (for my 4-year-old) and endings (for these incoming seniors), but I was overwhelmed by sheepishness in my conspicuously dated and un-decorated Nissan Rogue. And I was utterly taken aback by how surreal it felt.

More “Am I really driving in this parade?” than “Do I really have a kid starting school?”  

More “Am I really paying for her to think this is normal?” than “How cool is this?!”

Rather than crying about sending my first child to school, I was obsessing about her inevitably distorted sense of reality.

My husband and I went to public everything all the way through medical school and are huge supporters of public education.  It was incredibly difficult for us to choose to send our daughter to a private school.  But these are the hard facts about the school she is zoned for:

*68.6% of kids on free/discounted lunch

*22% White

*Ranked worse than 73% of Georgia elementary schools

These statistics are the exact reason why we should send our daughter to that school and the exact reason why we can’t. The hard truth is that the schools here are still mostly segregated by both race and class.  Families who can afford it send their kids to private schools (of which there are an abundance).

When we lived in Nashville, schools were similarly segregated and we were told most of the private schools were founded around the time of Brown v. Board of Education.  I found a statistic that two years after the ruling, only 49% of Americans believed that schools should be integrated (61% of Northerners and a paltry 15% of Southerners).  Rather than integrate, the South burgeoned with private schools.

The Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and Kharis’ school was founded in 1955. Coincidence? I don’t think so. But regardless of when (or why) it was founded, it has achieved greater racial diversity now than the public schools Mickey and I attended. But by socioeconomic standards, it’s still pretty homogeneous.  

Her school is less than a half a mile from the public elementary school she is zoned for, but a world away in privilege.

How can I justify sending her to private school? 

How can we say we believe in public education and then choose something that perpetuates a system of inequality we despise?

The truth is, we went to visit this school and were just blown away.  We had no idea schools like this existed.

  • These kids have an elementary science lab with salt/fresh/brackish water giant aquariums and vaulted ceilings with painted underbellies of fish so it’s like you’re under water.
  • The campus has a planetarium and sculptures and all kinds of gardens (Shakespearean/butterfly/organic).
  • The kids plant/cultivate/harvest vegetables they donate to local food pantries.
  • They learn about things like coding and micro-finance in elementary school.
  • Kharis’s Pre-K teacher has a Masters in Educational Psychology from the University of Georgia specializing in “Gifted and Creative Studies.”

It’s no wonder graduates from this school are welcomed into the Ivys.

Do I think Kharis needs or deserves an Ivy league education? 

Of course not!

But as a parent, if you have the ability to give your child the best education you can possibly imagine, how do you not choose that?



I don’t know how to fix segregation and inequality. I don’t know how to not feel guilty about perpetuating it.

I just know that despite all of my conflicted feelings, I am happy for Kharis. I am so excited for her to learn in such an intellectually stimulating environment. A stellar education is a good thing. It is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to celebrate.

We just need to find a way to make it available to the kids down the street.


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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.

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1 Comment

  1. Kassi

    You shall bring your children up in privilege (that you were not born into) to prepare them to do great things for the lesser of us. That’s what your children will learn, and I’m so proud of you for your deep, soulful knowledge that there is much work to do in this world.

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