Whether it's happened to you or not, you probably already know that becoming a parent makes life really different. I'm a full-time working mom of a preschooler and a toddler, but when I was first home on maternity leave and transitioning back to work part-time I did what people told me to do: go to the playground to make new mommy friends who were also not working.
So there I was in my mid-30s profiling other Alphabet City parents and determining who might be a prospective friend. My neighborhood is where the musical Rent is set, as well as the indie film Raising Victor Vargas. It's known for its squatters' rights movement, and for its rapid gentrification. The heart of the neighborhood is Tompkins Square Park. Unfortunately, I have made zero friends at any of the playgrounds in the park. I don't want to hang out with über-wealthy gentrifiers, and they don't really get me either. But as a product of elite schooling, my low-income neighbors and I find plenty of social barriers between us as well. Thanks to the gentrification explosion, racially diverse, working-middle class housing complexes (such as the Mitchell-Lama co-op I am so happy to live in) are disappearing in my native Manhattan, but I have found fellow residents of such the best bet I have at new parent friendship.
So, I suppose I know from personal experience how segregation works. As a Native New Yorker, black daughter of an interracial marriage, and a... uh ...member(?) of an interracial marriage, I like to think I will raise my sons to feel as comfortable with diversity as my husband and I do. As we begin the process of pre-Kindergarten admissions for our oldest son, we are guided by the belief that anything less than fully integrated communities and schools are unacceptable, and that we must be part of a movement -- in whatever small way we can -- that works toward educational equity. But that doesn't mean I don't know what life is really like: as we enter this new social realm of neighborhood parents, we seek people who speak our language, and share our values and interests. Social segregation is understandable, even if it is regrettable.
When it comes to passing conversations with neighborhood parents in playgrounds, my building's elevator, or the bus during the morning commute, the anxious topic of elementary school often comes up. The more I talk to people, the more I understand how apartheid is being sustained in our school hallways. More often than not, I feel ideologically isolated from my middle class parent peers. Despite the fact that there is a diverse array of options in our district, District One, over and over my casual conversations are with parents who are concerned about getting their kid into G&T (Gifted and Talented program). From the NYC Department of Education website: "G&T programs provide challenging instruction to children with exceptional academic capacity. In G&T programs, students are grouped together in a class with similar students and receive appropriate instruction in all content areas."
While African Americans and Latinos are the majority in NYC public schools, they are a small fraction of these G&T programs. A further economic breakdown of G&T students would illuminate a lot, but the Department of Education is notorious for its lack of transparency and information is nearly impossible to obtain. As noted by Danny Katch,
The phrase "gifted and talented" suggests classrooms of extraordinary children--perhaps even X-Men-style mutants -- who need a unique environment of super-collider labs and isolated writers' cabins to reach their amazing potential. Actually, G&T admission is based on standardized tests, which primarily measure the ability of a young child to sit still, follow instructions, and have a parent with the time and energy to know about the test and read children's stories aloud each night.
This seems obvious to me, so I often find myself surprised and annoyed when other parents talk to me as if I share their bizarre anxiety about G&T admissions in our district. My sons are brilliant, of course, but I have no interest in participating in a racist scheme I don't believe in; it's a thinly-veiled refuge for scared middle class families seeking to escape genuine contact with, or accountability to, the low-income residents of our neighborhoods.
I've never met anyone who has said, as honestly as one openly-prejudiced teacher essentially did to a New York Times reporter, "I don't want to send my child to the local, predominantly low-income school, because I don't want them to be around those people." And I've never heard anyone say outright, "Those schools are bad because the people who go there don't deserve any better, and I want my child to be in a comfortable place of privilege." There are plenty of people who think like that, even if they wouldn't admit it. But I've come to realize that not everyone who is considering G&T for their child is simply a racist in denial, which is good because a conversation with those people would go nowhere.
I'm more fascinated by the conundrum faced by my peers, of all racial backgrounds, who are the gentrifiers in their neighborhood, abhor the inequity of our public school system, but dejectedly resign to use their privilege to find higher quality options within that system. A white couple I know, let's call them Helen and Henry, a native Wisconsinite and native New Yorker (both a product of public schools) went to some of the top colleges in the country for their multiple degrees. They live across the street from a public school in Brooklyn serving close to 90% students of color, mainly from nearby public housing developments. When their daughter approached Kindergarten age they took a tour of this school, which they are zoned for. Despite the fact that most of their friends wouldn't even consider it, they wanted to support their neighborhood school and see if it was a fit for their daughter. Unfortunately, the militaristic approach to discipline and punishment as well as the focus on standardized testing eliminated the school as an option for their family. Helen is descended from three generations of public school teachers. After an arduous and soul-searching process of considering educational options, she reflected,
Parents need to make the right choices for our families. I cannot and will not tell anyone what is best for his or her child. Those of us highly educated, or otherwise privileged, parents living in gentrifying neighborhoods have a particular dilemma in our midst: How do we strive to give our own children the educational experience all children deserve while we stand by and judge the schools our neighbors attend as inferior? If parents are truly not racist or not otherwise committed to maintaining status quo oppression, I don't see any choice other than finding some way to challenge our school system to serve the entire community.
It's Not About Bake Sales
If you've toured your local zoned school and find that your only reasonable option is to send your children to a segregated elite school or G & T program, then what can you do to undo segregation at the same time?
Option 1: At the community level, you can assert your voice. In Brooklyn, there was a recent community decision to support school diversity in a gentrifying neighborhood. This was accomplished through the efforts of parent and community leaders. There is a history of parent initiatives in Manhattan as well. Perhaps there is a task force in your community looking at how to better integrate schools that you could join, or you could even begin forming that task force with a diverse team from your school district.
Option 2 (ideally to be combined with option 1): Ok, this doesn't really apply if you truly found your neighborhood school too dismal an environment for any child, including your own. But if your child would be fine at your local school, and you just wish there was more emphasis on arts, or science investigation, or whatever else has been hacked away by the neoliberal agenda to make schools suck: get active in your school. The best way to exert and develop leadership as a school parent is to get involved in your school's PTA or SLT, or even your district's CEC. This is true for all New Yorkers. Mayoral control of schools may have squashed democracy, but parents can still organize collectively (and yes, I am saying that joining a PTA is a way to organize collectively). PTAs and SLTs are not just bake sales and fundraisers; they are what their members make them. They can be leadership forces within a school regarding instruction, budget priorities and the school's community and culture. These parent/teacher bodies have bylaws that are outlined in state law and the Department of Education is supposed to act as a supportive resource for their operations.
Important note: Gentrifier Danger Alert! Schools in gentrifying neighborhoods often have very active PTAs and SLTs that are completely dominated by white people leading fundraisers and shaping the school in their own privileged image. One white parent I know, let's call her Sara, was a PTA President at her daughter's middle school when white students were few and far between. Sara insisted on focusing PTA efforts on community building and organizing diverse parent engagement so that the school leadership included voices of the immigrant and non-immigrant Latino/a, Black, and Asian families that made up the community. White parents often encouraged her to lead fundraising galas and events, but she refused on the principle that she did not want to play a neocolonial role in the school community. She didn't want to facilitate domination by white parents through the usual tricks of wielding capital and ignoring people of color. The vision of the school, from the administration to the staff to the parents to the students, was one that honored the rich racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity of the neighborhood, and so the PTA focused its efforts on making sure that the instruction, culture and leadership of the school truly embraced and reflected that diversity. Be warned: Sara's approach would be difficult, if not impossible, in a school where the principal does not value diversity as a goal, or where the principal is a ruthless dictator.
Option 3: Choose your own strategy. Depending on your family's situation, you might be at a different stage. Maybe you just want to start by forming a study group with neighborhood parents to better understand the history of racial inequity in schools, the impacts of gentrification, or a range of instructional approaches and philosophies. Maybe your starting place is to independently engage with the organizations that have been serving your low-income neighbors for the decades before you moved there. Or maybe you'll find your inspiration to act through the process of bringing your child to a different playground in your neighborhood each week and having conversations with parents.
When you're a parent, what you will do for your child's happiness knows no bounds. Our goal for our children might be to have a diverse group of friends, but that doesn't mean we're working to end injustice. A city parent might find that the topic of schools is one of the more fraught conversations he or she can have. But make no mistake about the Jim Crow conditions in our education system today: separate is still unequal. How you respond to that reality might be the defining lesson you teach your child.