Thinking about School Segregation as a Parent (Part 1)

segregation

I was late to reading this piece in the New York Times Magazine by Nikole Hannah-Jones about ‘Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,’ but it’s a good one. What’s most powerful about it is that, of all the great things that have been written and produced about our deepening problems of school segregation, this piece by Hannah-Jones can speak with a poignancy and authority because of how honestly and earnestly she wrestles with these issues through her family’s own school decisions, her own daughter’s schooling.

What we wish for our society’s schools and what we would want for our own children’s schooling can be surprisingly hard to reconcile. I’ve learned that tension as a parent, but also as a teacher who has sat with parents for long hours, listening to their troubles and conundrums, and also as an educational researcher. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children,” says John Dewey.  That’s been a precious notion to me, one that I make part of my mission as a teacher, that families should feel less of a gulf between their hopes for their own children and the whole school community’s hopes for every child.

But it’s not so simple to agree on what the best and wisest parent wants (or who the best and wisest parent is), nor on who “the community” is and isn’t. Because integration– not just “diversity,” but transformative, anti-segregation, good-for-all-of-us integration– involves some very different people with some very different ideas being willing to coexist. And not just coexist, but to find common cause and harmony on the most important, and often most sensitive, thing to almost anyone: raising their children.

I want to keep thinking and writing about this in this space, knowing that the issues are very personal and also socially complicated, and therefore the problems complex and gnarly. Which is to say, I’m not prepared to offer a listicle of “How to Become Involved in Desegregating Schools as a Parent” or “Ten Tips for Reconciling the Deepest Divisions and Suspicions in Our Society Through School Rezoning Meetings.” I think Hannah-Jones’ piece is a great place to start, but accompanying that is an agreement to respect how important, particular, and often wrenching these decisions are for parents, no matter what their ideals or concerns (as Hannah-Jones devotes more than a few words to acknowledging.)

For our own part, my wife and I have shared the ideals that our daughter’s social-emotional, intellectual, and personal development weren’t best served at a cloistered school exclusively serving “high achieving” and privileged White and Asian kids. Nor were they best served at a school where her culture, language, passions, and personhood as a Chinese-American would be unrecognizable or reduced to stereotypes. Although we are theoretically on the same page, this hasn’t always meant perfect agreement on the practicalities, the real decisions. So far (and we’re not far into it), we’ve felt really blessed that the school district where we work has many examples of great, diverse (actually diverse) schools, one of which offers a Mandarin dual-language immersion program. It is challenging for the school to be as integrated as some others in the district, though I’ve often been encouraged and impressed by the staff and families and their commitment to inclusion. The school is not a high poverty school, but it is about 35% Latin@, 20% Black, and 20% Asian, though I believe those demographics skew differently in the DLI program, for understandable reasons.

So the complicated questions aren’t at all settled for us, and we expect them to remain difficult, especially as we continue to try to be committed as parents, educators, and (for me) a researcher in this district to all schools and all kids while we parent our child as we ought to. But I take from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ example a model of transparency and probity that I hope might be helpful to others who care about these issues.

As the discussion continues, I’m reminded by two bits of wisdom from today’s Revised Common Lectionary passages of the Bible, if you’ll allow my drawing from them. One is the source of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” song, Ecclesiastes 1, which reminds us that there is a time and a season for everything. The second is Matthew 25, where Jesus says that whatever we’ve done unto “the least of these,” we’ve done unto him. Taken together, the passages are reminders that we should not be quick to judge or cast blame on individuals as they search out what is the right time and choice for their own children, that there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them together.” Yet we’re also reminded that we’re judged not only by how we have taken care of our own kin, but also by how we have taken care of “the least of these,” of children least privileged by our historically unjust systems with power and resources, as our own children. As my satirical listicle title above is meant to suggest, I know this is placing a huge weight on a very tough and tender pressure point, working out our deepest rooted divisions through our most delicate and defensive worry, our children’s lives. But hopefully, for exactly those reasons, we realize we can’t shirk our responsibility to thoughtful and careful dialogue, to rolling up our sleeves and working toward better answers. I think we owe that to our children.