The changing perception of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Collegiate from a “struggling” neighborhood school into a progressive institution serving the children of privileged parents happened quickly. In 2012–13, there were no white students in the grades 6–12 school in Brooklyn’s famously gentrified neighborhood. The following school year, frustrated by overcrowding at nearby mostly white schools and impressed by Park Slope’s dedication to academics and inclusion, 10 white families decided to enroll their kids at the same time. Overnight, Park Slope’s sixth-grade class roughly matched the city’s demographics.
National news outlets trekked out to the outer borough to learn about how the school had achieved integration. Prior to that time, Park Slope Collegiate represented the pervasiveness of segregation in U.S. schools—and of New York City schools as a whole. Despite having one of the country’s most racially and economically diverse populations, New York City also has one of the most segregated and stratified public school systems.
Park Slope Collegiate had also been losing students.
“Our middle school was just shrinking, shrinking, shrinking,” says Jill Bloomberg, Park Slope Collegiate’s principal. “Not because we weren’t good, just because—well—it's complicated how schools are evaluated.”
Bloomberg and her staff had fostered a progressive, anti-racist curriculum that many scholars view as critical to breaking down the barriers of segregated education. But it took the presence of white students to undo the stigma that the majority-black-and-brown school wasn’t good enough for the children of more affluent white parents.
“One of the problems with the choice system is that schools develop a particular reputation based mainly on the kids who go there,” says Bloomberg. “They kind of become like prophecies then.”
Overcoming these “prophecies” requires a multi-tiered approach, including overcoming policy and parent perception, then doing the work to maintain an equitable school climate. It’s a tricky equation, one school leaders, academics and advocates across the country are working together to solve.
The Policy Problem
Amy Stuart Wells is a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and is a leader in studying race and educational policy. She says the tangled issues that lead white parents to make false assumptions about schools have to be addressed on multiple levels.
First, there’s the policy problem: holding schools accountable for very narrow and often culturally biased measures of student achievement, such as AP course enrollment rates or standardized test scores. These measures can, in turn, contribute to the false assumptions that cause white parents to gravitate toward white schools.
Wells also points out that a wide body of research shows that culturally diverse settings foster deeper learning for all students: increased opportunities for critical thinking, social and emotional development, problem solving and creativity. When students attend racially homogenous schools, they miss out on these benefits.
“You're not only learning cognitively, challenging your assumptions and beliefs about things,” Wells says of integrated school environments. “You're also learning social and emotional skills of getting along with people who are different from you and negotiating differences.”
Courtney Everts Mykytyn is intimately familiar with the judgments many white parents hold about majority-black-and-brown schools. In 2014, she founded Integrated Schools, a volunteer group that advocates for enrolling children in schools that are racially, ethnically, linguistically and socioeconomically diverse. Mykytyn believes advocacy, in addition to policy, is the key to helping white families appreciate the benefits to their children of attending an integrated school.
I don't think, frankly, that it's the work of people of color to beg white people to send their kids to school with their kids. That's not what this is about. It's about building a just and equitable democracy.
“We've tried policy for, what, six decades? And we're just about right where we started,” Mykytyn says. “We either ‘white flighted,’ we are finding charter schools, [or] we are gerrymandering district boundaries or school boundaries. We’re breaking this over and over and over again, despite policy. Because we can get around all that.”
Mykytyn acknowledges that choosing a school is an extremely personal decision, one she and her husband, who are both white, struggled with a decade ago before deciding to send their two kids to neighborhood schools where they were and still are in the minority. Her hope is that, through the work of Integrated Schools, white parents will better understand the value of diverse schools and give it more weight when making enrollment decisions.
“We’re raising generations of adults who think that you have to get every last thing for your kid,” Mykytyn says. “It just keeps redefining the narrative around what you're supposed to do as a parent. As opposed to caring about the mission of integration and valuing that, we've been hiding that behind cool STEM programs or arts programs or whatever the magnet [school] theme might be.”
When white parents pursue selective dual language, performing arts and other specialty schools, they’re also siphoning funding from nearby neighborhood schools. But the way school funding is allocated represents a policy problem that educators and school administrators can’t solve without legislative intervention.
“Different cities and districts allow you to ‘permit’ into the next school over if there's space,” Mykytyn says. “You have to kind of game that system, and privilege helps you game stuff. It teaches you how to game stuff, and it gives you the skills to game stuff and the entitlement to think you should.”
Integrated Schools attempts to help white parents become better informed about their choices by encouraging them to make the “Two Tour Pledge”—a promise to tour two schools that serve a majority of students from racial, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds different from their own. The pledge also calls on parents to find two positive things to say about each school, to tell two other parents about the schools and to ask two questions about the level of socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity at all the schools they visit.
“Until we actually bring in the people, until you actually change the narrative around what we're really talking about and building that buy-in, I don’t see how we could move forward with integration,” Mykytyn says. “And I don't think, frankly, that it's the work of people of color to beg white people to send their kids to school with their kids. That's not the story. That's not what this is about. It's about building a just and equitable democracy.”
“Woven Into the Fabric”
Building equity into the mission is important at any school. But schools that serve diverse student populations must be particularly careful not to allow parents with privilege to create resource vacuums within the school or to allow staff to unwittingly cater to their white students. Bloomberg’s work, for example, didn’t end once her school integrated. Its newly held status attracted even more white parents, creating the responsibility of maintaining a mix of students that represent the community. The school’s efforts to build an equitable, inclusive school community is an ongoing process that requires a number of advocates, educators and activists to build policies and practices with the same goals in mind.
Matt Gonzales is the school diversity project director at New York Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for integrated schools and communities in New York City and New York state. He agrees that the work doesn’t end once white students are in the door.
“I would argue to an educator that segregation and racism are woven into the fabric of public education,” says Gonzales. “Part of the work that we are committed to around integration is trying to detangle and disassemble that fabric from our educational institutions and our practices.”
Gonzales and New York Appleseed aim beyond diversifying the demographic breakdown of a school’s student population. They strive to ensure all of those students are served equitably and feel welcome, valued and supported within the school. Scholarly institutions ranging from Columbia University’s Teachers College to Harvard’s Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools (RIDES) project are also taking up the charge. Both build road maps for school district improvement, along with progressive, anti-racist professional development programs for teachers and administrators. Columbia Teachers College, for example, offers a summer institute called Reimagining Education: Teaching and Learning in Racially Diverse Schools that trains over 400 educators a year.
Gonzales is committed to “ensuring that schools are diverse and serving populations that are reflective and representative of the communities that they serve and then the cities that they're in.” But it’s more than that.“[It’s] also that they're intentionally ensuring that teachers and curriculum and practice and school policy is inclusive and affirming the identities that our young people are bringing into the classroom,” he says.
Lee Teitel, faculty director for the RIDES project, focuses his teaching and research on what it takes for integrated schools to succeed. Understanding the difference between desegregation and integration is one key.
“A lot of people use the words interchangeably,” Teitel says, noting that the distinction is critical to student experience and achievement. A school may technically be desegregated, meaning students of different races and ethnicities show up to the same building every day, but, “just because diverse students are there, it doesn't mean they are getting access to the same experience, and it doesn't mean, necessarily, that they're actually getting positive experiences,” Teitel says.
Teitel and his colleagues believe that to achieve true equity, schools must aim beyond desegregation and work toward true integration. To be integrated, schools have to meet the needs of everyone who attends them. He and his team focused their research on how to reach those goals.
“In our first year, we spent a lot of time asking a diverse group of people, parents, teachers, school leaders, sometimes kids, ‘What would positively attract you to go to a diverse school or send your kid to a diverse school?’”
The answers led Teitel and his colleagues to identify the ABCDs of diverse and equitable schools:
All students have strong academic preparation, capitalizing on and connecting to students of all backgrounds, with high levels of knowledge and skills.
All students have a strong sense and appreciation of their own culture and heritage, as well as those of their diverse classmates.
Commitment to dismantling racism and oppression
All students understand the role that institutional racism and other forms or oppression play in our society and have the skills, vision and courage to dismantle them.
All students appreciate and value different perspectives, thoughts, and people and have friendships and collaborative working relationships with students and adults from different racial and economic backgrounds.
Visit the RIDES website for more information, practical tools and metrics that can help you achieve the ABCDs in your school.
Park Slope Collegiate’s anti-racist curriculum is an example of what Gonzales and New York Appleseed recommend: It speaks to the school’s Latino and black students in ways that recognize and value what they bring to discussions. Such an approach is critical to fostering growth for students of color within a system that often devalues their perspectives.
It’s an important element, but it isn’t the only one.
“At the same time, we need to be working on professional development for educators, so they know how to teach in racially diverse classrooms and schools,” says Wells, the Columbia professor. “We have a lot of research and evidence that shows how to do that. A big part of it is working on your own racial literacy as educator.”
Like Gonzales, Wells says it’s important for teachers in multicultural classrooms—the vast majority of whom are white women—to be aware of the demographic mismatches in their classrooms and to spend time investigating their own cultural assumptions and biases. Many educators aren’t taught to tap into this type of racial awareness and instead bring a “deficit-based” approach to student knowledge, Wells says.
“When we talk about integration and we’re talking about creating schools and communities where students are learning, it's much more about the learning and what we call socio-cultural issues at the school,” Wells says. “It's about whether students feel safe, feel loved, feel valued, feel secure, feel like their way of being and knowing from the community and their home experience is valued in that context. We honor that. We should be honoring that for all students. There's good in every community and every family.”
Danny Cross is a freelance writer living and working in Cincinnati, Ohio.
For a deeper dive into this topic and what it will take to achieve truly integrated schools, read TT’s interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist and MacArthur Genius Grant fellow, is a major voice in the national conversation about school segregation and the lived experiences of students of color.