Despite its public-facing image as a diverse cosmopolitan metropolis that brings together people from all over the world to live in relative harmony, New York City public schools are some of the most segregated in the country. The story of how this came to be is what Chana Joffe-Walt and her Serial/This American Life collaborators set out to tell, through the lens of one public school in Brooklyn, originally called IS 293.
The story was a personal one for Joffe-Walt, whose own children were approaching school age. Meanwhile, how our schools got the way they are and why we can’t just flip a switch to fix them turned out to be a complicated question, or at least an uncomfortable one. What was intended as a single episode or podcast segment about a desegregation effort in one public schools turned into a five-part stand-alone series about the disproportionate power white parents wield over public schools.
Joffe-Walt and her team had stumbled into one of the basic truths about public schools: that you can ask what you think is a straightforward question and find yourself deep in the weeds of policy and politics. This is, I think, a reflection of one of the basic truths about parenting: it challenges our utopian instincts (that parenting can turn you selfish was essentially the plot of mother!). How much oppression and exclusion has come from society’s twin terrors, “won’t someone think of the children” and “won’t someone think of the property values?”
They named the series Nice White Parents, which became a source of controversy itself. The trailer alone generated thousands of comments, with people calling it divisive and racist, all without having even heard the show. Reporting took Joffe-Walt from IS 293’s efforts to become a French-immersion program (including some extremely cringe moments from a fundraiser at the French embassy) to a charter school in the same building (with great results but questionable methods), to interviews with white parents who had initially written letters urging the school to desegregate only to eventually not send their own children there.
Through it all, she found parents who theoretically wanted to “integrate” but remained deathly afraid of their children “falling behind.” Is there a way to square that circle? I’m not sure the show comes to a definitive answer, but it certainly challenges some of our core assumptions. I spoke to Joffe-Walt about it last week.
So tell me about your personal connection to this story.
This was now in 2015. I had been doing a lot of reporting on school segregation and was interested in public education and the role of segregation in creating and perpetuating inequality in public schools. It’s hard when you’re covering segregation to see something actually change with such an entrenched problem, and I heard that there was a school that had this dramatic demographic change basically overnight, and I was interested in watching what happened there. Initially, when I went to the school, I was really much more interested in desegregation and how to achieve that and what things get in the way of that. Then in both watching what happened that year at the school and trying to understand the dynamics there, and especially when I learned the history of the school, that’s where my focus shifted to thinking the story is actually more about the disproportionate power that white families have within public schools.
The thing that you found was the French immersion program?
Yeah, I mean, the French immersion program, the way white families came into the school with a really genuine interest in participating and creating a kind of school that they felt like would be good for everybody and missed what was there already. Then as the school year went on, that just became… I think there were many opportunities for that to be addressed that kept being missed. And so the school was really reshaped by these families that came in without a lot of participation or voice from the families that had been there already.
Right. What did they do? And what were they missing?
I think they were missing a sense that this was a community already before they showed up. The school was under-enrolled, but that did not mean that the people who were there didn’t choose to be there. And then I think being able connect with parents who were there and have an open discussion about what everybody wanted for this community, and then I think also just not talking about the racial dynamics, clearly. Part of what was happening at that time in 2015 was that people and school leaders were recognizing that schools were segregated and that was a problem that was getting worse. But the response to that was to create magnet programs, incentive programs, programs like dual-language programs, to encourage white families who previously had neglected public schools to invest in and participate.
And those programs really don’t talk about racial dynamics at all. The idea is that you get everybody into the same building through a sideways effort. And then it was a question of, “Well, what happens next?” Once everybody’s in the same building, that’s not really enough to create a real integrated community without speaking directly about the change that has happened and the power and racial power that’s happening in the building.
And so then they did start talking about the racial dynamics at some point, didn’t they?
Yeah. I went into the school in 2015 and a lot has happened in the country since then. I think there was a shift just in the community in their understanding of some of these dynamics. And I think within the school more directly, there were staff and leaders and families that resisted the change that was happening and felt like… People started to use the word that the school felt like it was being colonized, and that there needed to be some barriers in place to more powerful families being able to set the agenda. And part of what came along with that was a more explicit conversation about racism and power and what it meant to be creating an integrated school.
Did that help, the more explicit conversation, I mean?
Yes, I think that did help. I do. I think that the school has become a place where a more diverse set of families feel like they have a place and belong and have a voice in what happens. I think it has helped empower students to also feel like they get more of a say in what’s happening in the school. It’s not a systemic solution to have one school that is doing that, but I think it did within the building really help.
Speaking of magnet programs, in reporting this, you had to go back into the history of school segregation. What was the original idea behind busing and how well did that work and then how is that affecting what’s happening in this story?
Do you mean the original story of the school or just–
I mean, with school choice and these magnet programs, that’s a way to try and recapture what they were originally trying to do with busing, isn’t it?
I mean, within New York City, when there was a large movement led by black families and Puerto Rican families for integration, there was tremendous resistance to that. And that was talked about as busing, although busing was not really the issue at the time. There were also parents, white families who aligned themselves with that movement for desegregating schools. And some of those families wrote letters and advocated for this particular school building to be an integrated school building, but then did not end up sending their kids to that school. Over the many decades of the building’s life since from when it was built in 1968 until now, until 2015, there were many efforts to recapture the white families that had abandoned the building and keep them in the school system, cater to their interests and needs and keep them in the city. And yeah, that has been a long story basically ever since then.
And then there was a charter school vignette in this. Can you explain how the charter schools work?
Yeah. Charters are not operated by the city. They’re public schools in that they are free for anybody to go to and you can apply through a lottery process for most charters, including the charter that’s in the building. But they’re privately run and they get public funding. And then in the case of the charter that’s in the building, there’s still private funding as well. And so they have more flexibility in terms of the curriculum and the teachers — they don’t have a union for their teachers. They generally have a fairly different approach to education or a particular brand.
So the brand of the school that’s in the building, Success Academy, is that they are very focused on achievement and delivering the same educational quality and achievement for poor kids, for kids of color, as white kids get. And so this school, Success Academy, is incredibly successful in terms of test scores. It’s also a fairly regimented and uniform approach to education, so there’s some kids who thrive there and there’s also kids and families who feel like it’s too demanding or demanding in a way that does not suit their needs. And what I was interested in Success is the difference between Success, which is down in the basement of this building, and BHS, the original school, which is upstairs, that have just two totally different approaches to what it means to be a public school and provide a public education all within the same building.
Right, and how would you describe those two different approaches?
The thing I thought about a lot was that in education, people talk about equality versus equity. And I think Success is very focused on equality, meaning that every child has an equal outcome and is treated equally and served equally and the education is equal and it really feels that way in Success classrooms. Teachers say the same words in the same way and teach the same curriculum and the discipline and behavior management is very uniform and regimented. Upstairs at BHS, they’re more focused on equity, and equity is really within education talked about as more meeting every kid where they’re at and understanding that kids have different experiences out in the world. The school is sort of a microcosm of the world. And so treating everybody equally does not make sense when you have some kids who are coming from a shelter and have not had adequate education up to that point and they’re really needing remediation instead of whatever else is happening in the classroom. And that racism is a thing that kids are experiencing outside of the school and needs to be addressed in different ways for different people. I think the equity/equality difference to me felt like the biggest separation in terms of the ideology of those two schools.
I mean, is that part of the whole root problem, that you have all these kids that are expected to be in the same classroom and they all need to go at different speeds and need different things?
I mean, that is a huge question in education in general. I think if you are in the equity camp, yes, you believe that what schools should do is affirm and address every child exactly where they are. And that is, going back to the founding, really, is a big part of what the ideology of public school is: that it’s a place for every child, that serves every child, and every child gets a quality education. I think that equality people would argue that it doesn’t need to be different for every single child, that if everybody is well-resourced and treated the same, everybody can achieve the same.
I mean, so the idea here is we’re trying to stop white flight away from these certain public schools, right? They’re trying to get them back into certain ones that they’ve left and have gotten sort of underfunded?
I think that has shaped a lot of policy leading up to maybe around 2015 when I went into this school. There’ve been all these initiatives to lure white families into schools and into participating in schools with black kids in particular and kids of color, and that you can induce integration and reduce white flight without explicitly committing to it or forcing it. I mean, I would say that that is a fairly demeaning approach to education and that the schools can’t be entirely focused around trying to lure in people who are not willing to participate on equal terms in public schools. But yeah, I think that has really shaped school policy for many decades.
What does being willing to participate in public schools on equal terms mean?
I think it means recognizing that you and your needs are not the only needs within a public system and that the goal of a public institution is to meet the needs of everybody and pursue what is in the greater good. I think for white parents in particular, that means remembering that we are not the only people in public schools and that we need to listen to what our neighbors of color want and dream of in public schools and then support them in demanding that from the institutions that serve all of us, and remembering that those things might not always directly benefit our child and are part of a larger public good that we all benefit from in a bigger picture way.
I mean, if you take out some of the more racially coded stuff, it seems like a lot of what these parents worry about is if their kid is reading or doing math or whatever at a higher level and they send them to a school where the kids are doing it at a lower level, that it’s going to slow their kid down. Is that a legitimate concern? Is there a way to assuage that fear?
I mean, for me, I feel like the most compelling argument is this larger vision of public schools, that public schools are created, that the purpose of public schools in my mind is to be a common space where people come together and that we need for a functioning democracy. I think for me, it’s balancing that responsibility that I think we should have as citizens to trying to foster community and not shelter ourselves from the experiences of the people who live right next door to us. I don’t know if that assuages a fear about math. I think that is a compelling argument for me about wanting to participate in an integrated school and is important, is a value to me that feels like it’s a public good value that you could invest in.
All episodes of ‘Nice White Parents’ are available via Apple, Spotify, and wherever else you get your podcasts.