This Fusion piece has been sitting, open, in my browser window since I read it earlier this year. It hit home for me because the story of the the writer was a little too close to my own experience attempting to convince my neighbors to give their local neighborhood school a try, except I usually feed and water people with coffee and sweets instead of wine. It did make me think that I should be offering folks wine instead. Anyway, the title: American schools are still segregated. These parents are making it worse.
I’ll first say that my neighborhood school is as diverse as it can be. And I’m not talking about the comfortable “diversity” that is promoted by having a classroom photo with at least one black, brown, and yellow kid in the mix. I’m talking about real diversity where no one ethnic group is the dominate majority. Ruby Bridges largely reflects the real world with its socio-economic and racial diversity which is what we’re all told that children need in order to grow up as healthy, well-rounded adults who can navigate the world. While Ruby Bridges may reflect the neighborhood around it racially, it doesn’t socio-economically. From the piece:
Because while my children’s school, Cook-Wissahickon, is well-integrated ethnically, there is a lopsided socio-economic dynamic. Eighty-two percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, but while our neighborhood isn’t wealthy (according to City-Data, the median household income is $10,000 higher than the state’s median household income) the neighborhood certainly isn’t struggling in the way that 82% implies. It’s just that most of those middle-class families won’t send their kids to the neighborhood public school.
In my recruiting experience, economics, more than ethnicity, seems to be the engine driving people away from neighborhood schools. However, it would be dishonest to claim that race and class are easily separated in the minds of many Americans. Hannah-Jones’ reporting from Normandy, Missouri, also shows how unambiguously black and white the issue is in many areas of the country. But at least in my neighborhood, it seems that as long as everyone is making the same money, on the surface at least, nobody really cares what color you are. When you throw poverty into the equation, it complicates everything for many parents.
Cook-Wissahickon’s first year principal, Mike Lowe, believes that one of the only ways to combat the crisis in Philadelphia schools is to attract more middle-class and wealthy families. “If every family in our catchment sent their kids here, including the ones with resources, we would have a much louder voice politically. People with money, access, and political power need to be in the same room with their neighbors without,” he told me. “That’s the promise of neighborhood public education; bringing everyone’s children together in the same room and teaching them equally.”
That last part is crucial regarding the louder political voice. The Ruby Bridges community hasn’t fully come into its political voice quite yet, but there are folks willing to make some waves. And I’m not talking about me.
The hardest thing about the school conversation is that most parents aren’t thinking about race and class when they choose a school, everyone just wants to do what is best for their kid. But why do so many parents assume that what is best for their kid exists in a bubble that is too often separated by race and class? Why have we decided that what’s best for our kids is divorced from what’s best for the communities and larger cities they grow up in? To the point where we abandon our communities, or remove our children to exclusive schools outside our neighborhoods, in effect isolating them from kids who would naturally be a part of their world.
Everyone says the right things about the choices they make when it comes to schools, but to not acknowledge the fact that those choices have created a world in which schools are one of the last socially acceptable excuses for white flight and racial and economic segregation, is to not be completely honest.
And finally, and this is the part I still struggle with, although not as much as I used to.
When I’m selling a prospective parent on public school, I try not to let them see how angry I am. But I do want the young parents I speak with to understand the great hypocrisy demonstrated by the last several generations of wealthy and middle-class liberal parents. They learned how to say all the right things about the importance of diversity and integration, and then they completely failed to follow through with their actions. This generation of parents has the chance to start fixing the inequities in the system, and all they have to do is stay put and trust people like Principal Hall with their kids.
But still I, and other Ruby Bridges parents, trudge along. Hosting parent Q&A for our neighbors (there’s one this weekend if anyone in the Bayport or Alameda Landing neighborhood wants to have a candid discussion about Ruby Bridges, email me for details), talking about how great the school is, fundraising, building community, etc and so forth. All of the things that happen at other schools but on a much smaller scale and with a population that has much shallower pockets. All that we ask, all that the Ruby Bridges community asks, is that our neighbors trust us with their kids. That the lessons learned about a global community and being part of a community where everyone, and I mean everyone, is represented is just as valuable as smart boards in every classroom and iPads for the Media Center.