Published on June 7th, 2022 | by Sarah W. Jaffe


What Makes a “Good” School? Excerpted from WANTING WHAT’S BEST

I was at a child’s first birthday party the first time I remember being asked the question. I had my daughter strapped to my chest in an infant carrier and was angling toward the table with the wine on it when a friend came in with her husband, who I hadn’t met.

“This is Sarah, Alice’s mom,” she said, introducing us, and adding, “the ones who live in Kensington.”

“Oh cool, cool,” he said, shaking my hand. Then, before the handshake was even complete, he asked, “So how are the schools down there?” He lived in Park Slope, about two miles to the north of me.

The simplest answer to his question was: I don’t know. How could I know? At the time, my only child was eleven months old. I’d never been inside any of the school buildings in my neighborhood, much less met any of the teachers or administrators who worked there.

Thinking back on the question (which I’ve now been asked many times since), I can see that there are two assumptions baked into it: first, that even if I didn’t have school-aged child, I could know (via internet research and public reports, I guess) “how the schools were.” Second, that a school’s quality is a fixed, immutable thing. A school either is “good” or “not good” year after year, and a parent’s role is to make sure that they put their child into the “good” school rather than in a “not-good” one.

I said something about “not really being sure” and something about how “I think they’re basically fine” before trailing off and grabbing a plastic cup for the wine.  

Now, after having talked with dozens of parents, as well as experts about school choice, I no longer think it’s a small-talk question.

not that anyone in Park Slope would ever litter, right / Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

It’s been about six years since I read the essay that most profoundly shaped how I think about schools: Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” Near the beginning of the essay, Hannah-Jones, who is Black, reflects upon her own parent’s decision to enroll her in a voluntary desegregation program when she was in second grade, which bused her away from her neighborhood school to a majority-White school with significantly more affluent students. She reflects on those years as being difficult socially but “world-expanding,” and an integral part of the reason that she was able to eventually become a magazine staff writer. (Vice President Kamala Harris made a similar point in the democratic primary debates about the role that busing had played in her ability to become a candidate on that debate stage.) In the essay, now that she was a middle-class parent herself, Hannah-Jones grappled with how she saw other middle-class families around her maneuver to opt out of the majority-Black and Latino, and majority low-income, schools for which she and other families in her neighborhood were zoned. She writes, “I understood that so much of school segregation is structural—a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.”

It’s odd that it took this essay for me to see what was, in retrospect, an obvious fact: every school I’ve ever interacted with has been segregated.

In Seattle, where I grew up, I attended both private and public schools, but in all of them, the vast majority of students were White (my Catholic middle school had five hundred students, and only one Black student in the whole school). After college, I taught English in the Bronx. That school had over one thousand students, not even one of whom was White. Yet I don’t recall applying the word “segregated” to those schools until I read Hannah-Jones’s essay. I believed that the schools reflected the neighborhoods they were in. If I’d really been pressed to explain it, which I never was, I might have said that the schools were a relic of old neighborhood divisions, or that it was really a class issue. I didn’t think about any of it as a deliberate choice.

Photo by David Ballew on Unsplash

But deliberate choices by White families have led to this status quo, and talking about how parents choose schools is inextricably linked to talking about race. Though racially segregated schools have been outlawed in the United States for over sixty-five years, public schools in the United States today are still segregated. Brown v. Board of Education is the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation by law. But the court’s 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision explicitly allowed forde facto segregation, in that case allowing the mostly White Detroit suburbs to avoid court-ordered desegregation efforts with city schools.

Today, US schools remain de facto segregated. In 1988 I was two years old; that was also the year that US public schools were the least segregated by race. Since then, in my lifetime, schools have steadily “resegregated”; or to put it more accurately, both individual parents and local, state, and federal government agencies have made choices that have led to a resegregation of our schools. And schools have never been fully integrated; in his essay “The Case for Reparations” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that there “has never been a point in American history where even half the black children in this country have attended a majority-white school.”

Fermi playground, Brooklyn / Photo by Nelson Ndongala on Unsplash

And yet integration, on its own, is not a panacea. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself noted the problems with a narrow focus on “integration” without deeper change. In a 1967 speech to an auditorium filled with Black educators in Atlanta, Dr. King cautioned that “too many Americans . . . think of integration merely in aesthetic and romantic terms, where you just add a little color to a still predominantly White-controlled power structure. We must see integration in political terms, where there is shared power.”

But parents who are accustomed to having power aren’t typically good at sharing it. Nice White Parents,a blockbuster podcast released in 2020 from Serial and the New York Times, documents exactly what happens when privileged White families are oblivious to the idea of “sharing” power, even when they are the newcomers to a school. The podcast tells the story of how White families came into a school that served Latino, Black, and Middle Eastern children, pushed aside the parents who were already there, denied them access to the money they raised, and destabilized and disrupted the school.

Megan Hester was no stranger to the behavior highlighted in Nice White Parents. She’s the mother of two daughters who attend global-majority schools, and she has worked in the education justice movement for more than two decades as a parent organizer, trainer, and researcher. She currently serves as the director of the Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative, an organization housed within the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.

In her work, and in her life as a parent, she’s seen how White families who enroll their kids in schools that serve lower-income kids of color often come in with a “colonizer attitude” that they’re going to “save” the school. The problem is so pervasive that her organization put together a training titled “From Integration to Anti-racism: How We Show Up as White Families in Multi-racial Schools.” The purpose of the training, she says, was to help White families reflect upon their internalized racist beliefs “so that we can be productive when we can go into our schools, and build strong relationships, strong community, and not do some of the stuff you hear about in Nice White Parents…. We don’t want parents sending their kids there thinking they’re doing something great for the neighborhood, or some kind of charity act.”

I talked to Megan with Eva Bogaisky, a parent who had taken Megan’s class about four years ago, who is, like Megan, a White parent who sends her children to a global majority school. Initially, Eva says, when she had moved to her neighborhood, she internalized the belief that “nobody” went to the global majority school near her, and that it was a place to be avoided. That started to shift when she walked by the school building and heard a little boy ask his father, “Is that going to be my school? It looks like a castle!” She recalls, “He was so excited about it and that made me feel so confused and awful. Part of me really wanted to ignore that feeling, but here he was, looking at this school with so much wonder and openness, while my view was so negative and closed—and if we’re going to be perfectly honest, steeped in racism. I realized in that moment that he was right and I was wrong. It really could be a castle.”

But after enrolling her children at that school, Eva also had to push back on other White families from the neighborhood viewing that act as one of a “savior.” She recalled a neighbor telling her that it was “really great what she was doing for the place” when she casually mentioned where her children went to school, as if the presence of a White family added inherent value to the school. Another parent told Eva, “If you build it, they will come.” She continues, “I told my husband, isn’t it already built? There are already six hundred children who go there!”

The failure to recognize that these schools have already been “built,” and already have value, is the central tension in Nice White Parents and a focus of Megan’s work. In an interview published on Everyday Race Blog, she shared some of the questions that families fail to consider when enrolling in a school:

What has come before us?

What is the history of this neighborhood?

What have people been working on?

What do people want?

What have the challenges been?

What have the priorities been?

What has been achieved in the schools and why?

If we don’t ask those questions, Megan points out that “because of the way a person moves through life with privilege—a lot of us tend to expect and assume that what we want is what everyone wants.”

She also questions the paradigm about what a school “needs” to look like, have, or be to be “good.” (I don’t even have a school-aged child, but I’ve internalized the pervasive cultural ideas about what children “need”: outdoor time, organic gardens, project-based learning, sports.) “Why do we, as White parents, want to give our kids’ schools the same things that we can give them in our families?” Megan asks. Of her older daughter, she adds, “I can never give her the experiences that she gets at [her school]. We can arrange project-based learning summer camps, or sports, or all those things.” She’s heard from parents that they couldn’t send their child to a certain school because there wasn’t enough recess. She pushes back on that: “What you’re telling me that despite the fact that your child gets out at 2:20, that the thirty minutes that they might potentially have on the playground is more important to you than all of these other factors?” Later, in an email, she clarified: “It would be great if my kids got all the community and relationships and life knowledge and skills they get at our local school where they’re among a small handful of kids demographically like them, plus recess every day and an outdoor edible garden and overnight camping trips, etc. But because of racism and inequity and privilege hoarding, that’s not a choice American schools usually offer to us. So given the choice, those experiences just aren’t worth what you have to give up for your kid to get them, and the lessons your kids inevitably internalize in the process.”

At one point in our conversation, I mentioned how she’d found schools that were “great for her kids,” which Megan cautioned as being oversimplistic. “Everything we define as ‘great for our kids’ is connected to privilege and entitlement.” She said that her schools are a mixed bag, with some great experiences, and some not, and that it may not look like what someone like me would think of when I say the words “great school.” “But,” she says, “the experience has been great for my kids and is a thousand times better than it would have been in one of these selective schools that are super inequitable and embed in children this mindset that they’re better than those who didn’t get in.” Megan also doesn’t think that the parents who have, as she put it, “pulled out all the stops” to avoid sending their children to the zoned school have necessarily chosen an easier road. “As a privileged parent, you get to choose your struggle. One struggle is you get thrown into making relationships with people of different classes, races, languages, and religious backgrounds, and going outside your comfort zone. But if you send your child to a more homogenous school, it’s ‘Now I have to make sure my kid doesn’t live in a privileged bubble and internalize these notions of superiority and entitlement’—that’s another kind of struggle. But is that really the kind of struggle you want to be engaged in? Do you want all the energy and effort you’ll spend fighting for your child’s well-being to be one and the same with fighting for other kids in your community and for equity? Or do you want it to just further widen the privilege gap?”

She is also clear about the ways that this central decision—to step out of the race for the “best school”—has had ripple effects for the rest of her life. She’s spared herself a lot of the agony: “So many things that White parents agonize over . . . I don’t have to torture myself over every single thing because the bulk of our lives is aligned around this core decision, which has integrity.”

Published in slightly different form in Wanting What’s Best: Parenting, Privilege, and Building a Just World (Parenting Press, 2022), excerpted by permission

Feature image (child drawing on white paper) by Anima Visual via Unsplash

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About the Author

Sarah W. Jaffe is a lifestyle writer with Romper whose work has appeared in Slate, Catapult, Mutha, and The Rumpus, among other places. Her work has focused on mental health, the healthcare system, and the foster care system. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 4-year-old daughter and is currently getting an MFA in creative non-fiction at The New School.

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