I’ll never forget the day the principal of our neighborhood school tried to recruit my unborn child. Through various interactions as a member of the Campus Leadership Team, as an education reporter, and as a neighbor of Bowden Elementary, I knew the campus culture and climate. I had met the teachers. I had observed classes and staff meetings.
Dignowity Hill, where we lived, was gentrifying, but the neighborhood school was not. It was high-poverty, low-performing, windowless; and some of the teachers were not what I wanted for my kids — or anyone’s kids. It has since improved, I am told, and is slated for renovations thanks to a recent bond election.
Nevertheless, four years ago, the principal gestured to my growing belly and said, “You’re going to send her to school here, right?” I didn’t answer. I smiled weakly and said, “I haven’t met her yet. I don’t know what she needs.”
I hadn’t met my daughter, but I did know something about her: She would be privileged. My husband Lewis and I both have advanced degrees. We have professional jobs, excellent health care, and college savings funds for our children. We’re also white. Our privilege is immediately visible.
The principal knew this, too. She knew my unborn student would bring some of that privilege to school. Wealthier parents have more time to volunteer as “room moms,” fundraise and advocate, which is one reason why their schools end up with better teachers and better curriculum.
A superintendent in a different district put it to me this way, “When people see you, they see a room mom, because most room moms look like you.”
The principal of Bowden Elementary also knew that privilege is a good indicator of standardized test performance, so my unborn student would have been, assuming she developed neurotypically, likely to be a plus for the school’s STAAR scores. (Or whatever test they are using when she’s in third grade.)
The principal also needed to fill her school, because school funding in Texas is tied to enrollment. In addition to my one student, there was the possibility that I might convince other young professionals moving into Dignowity Hill to send their future children to Bowden — which would fill more seats with middle class kids.
“School administrators are constantly involved in making their schools look better,” UTSA professor Bekisizwe Ndimande, who researches school segregation, told me. The recruitment effort didn’t surprise him at all, because it’s pretty common practice. Principals at poor public schools aren’t the only ones recruiting white, educated parents. Wealthier schools also vye for these families.
I don’t blame any principal for wanting a room mom or standardized test ringer. Honestly, if they met Moira now, at age 3, I wouldn’t blame any educator for recruiting her as a student. She’s curious, inventive and diligent. But in 2013 she wasn’t any of those things. She was a way to get an affluent kid — and all the parental resources that come with her — into the school.
This is where I take issue: I object to a national education system so dependent on privilege that my unborn child and my room-mom mystique would be a coveted asset.
Economically and racially integrating schools is an elusive goal for most struggling districts. The academic and social benefits of diverse classrooms are blazoned across the nation by researchers and journalists. But how is that integration supposed to happen?
It isn’t as simple as mixing a couple of privileged kids into a school where most of the kids are weighed down and distracted by poverty, hoping that some of the privilege spills over onto classmates, schoolmates, and the entire district. It’s not as easy as injecting a few middle class parents into the PTA so they will storm the school board meetings and demand better teachers. Integration requires a system.
Right now, we have schools that were designed by the middle class for the middle class. The length of the school day assumes that there’s a parent who can pick them up and stay home with them from 3:30 p.m. on. Homework assignments assume that there’s someone at home to help, and a quiet space to work. The bare provision of a teacher standing in front of a classroom delivering information for seven hours per day assumes that students have the nutrition, rest, and unburdened psyche they need to focus on that information.
Poverty contradicts those assumptions. Students from single parent homes, or homes where both parents work long hours might not have someone waiting at home to go over homework. Students who are hungry, stressed, and sleepy have a hard time focusing in class, more so when it requires seven hours of sitting still absorbing abstract material.
A school looks good when it’s full of middle class kids because that’s when it’s functioning as it was designed to function: as one of many places students build and cultivate the skills they need to prosper. The higher the concentration of poverty in the school, the more isolated it is from other resources, the less the school is able to function as designed.
If we don’t start designing schools with less well-resourced kids in mind, then integration is doomed.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, recently pointed out that even those parents who love “diversity,” but who just want the “best” education for their kids, end up placing their kids in predominantly white schools. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, Hannah-Jones explained that when forced to choose between the hard advantage of academics and the soft advantage of diversity, “White people understand that they’re fighting to get into white schools for a reason. It is a benefit. They’re going to get the best teachers. They’re going to get the best instruction. They’re going to get the best curriculum.”
She’s right. Education reformers bemoan the poor education given to low-income kids (who are disproportionately black and Hispanic) and then ask more affluent parents (who are disproportionately white) to place their kids in those same schools. That is prohibitively difficult for most parents to do.
I find myself agreeing with Ndimande when he said, “At the end of the day it would be very dumb for a parent to take their kid out of a good school.”
We can’t hang the dream of truly equitable, integrated classrooms on family after family voluntarily giving up the advantage afforded to them by segregation. Advantage is, by definition, a zero sum game, and progressives know that unless everyone is committed to zero, there’s a large, disproportionately white swath of the country that is ready and waiting to collect whatever advantage they can. In this game, the stakes are ever-higher: If I take my kids out of the elite kindergarten, will they be able to compete against their peers who stayed?
I tell myself that I should, as Gandhi said, “be the change I wish to see in the world.” But what if dropping my own kids into struggling classrooms does little more than satisfy my own middle class angst at their expense?
The biological drive to advance your child is strong. We love our kids and want the best for them. Even if a parent puts their kid in a high poverty school, they will still fight for their kid. Left unchecked, whatever privilege and resources that do transfer to the school will concentrate around the middle class kids. The best teachers and the best programs will go to the middle class kids within the school. Evidence, locally and nationally, supports this phenomenon. Even integrated schools can be segregated on the inside.
At the end of the day, privilege doesn’t transfer automatically. We have to actively spread it around.
Fortunately, there are school systems, or pockets within systems, that are trying to achieve balance. Below are just a few lessons learned from game-changing initiatives nationwide — lessons that show what is possible even in an extremely segregated city like ours. It may strike some as idealistic or wishful thinking, but only insofar as we are resigned to the status quo. We did put a man on the moon, after all.
To build a better system, we need to start at the beginning, with the end in mind:
» High poverty schools need to be the best schools. They need to be layered in support from nonprofits and volunteers whose children may not go to that school. High pay and prestige should go to teachers who excel in low-income classrooms. Innovative and rigorous curriculum should be popping up all over struggling school districts. Visiting a low-income classroom should be inspiring. When middle class families want to enroll in these amazing schools, they need to be welcomed (because we want integration), but not allowed to take over (because that defeats the purpose).
» Kids without a lot at home need more from their school. We need school models that assume that kids don’t have tons of resources at home, and so provide support, counseling, and mentorship. These schools will need more money from the state. A lot more. Schools and districts trying to do this will need political cover from voters, taxpayers and citizens — especially those who would benefit the least — loudly and constantly rallying around these efforts.
» What the top companies and schools prioritize will influence the whole system. What we now call “soft skills” are the human skills that make the world work, and they are built in diverse classrooms. We live in a competitive nation, and education is part of a larger quest for prosperity.
All of this creates a climate that reassures parents who want to integrate, but are, frankly, afraid. It also reduces the risk that white people who do integrate could feel like we are here to save the day. There’s a moral hazard in white or affluent people feeling like equity is a benevolence that we can bestow and retract at will.
I want to put my kids in a classroom that is not majority-white or affluent, because they live in a city and a world that is not majority-white or affluent. But I know I’ll only do it if I am convinced they are getting a great education. So yes, I’m one of the reason schools are segregated. But I don’t want to be, and if we can get serious about building better schools, I don’t have to be.