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Charter schools no silver bullet for integration, but a start

Last month, Jennifer Stillman shared her research on school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods as part of our Useable Knowledge feature. In her initial post, Stillman said that gentrifying neighborhoods offer a unique opportunity for racially diverse schools. She proposed two policies to facilitate that goal, including the establishment of charter schools who prioritize a diverse student body. Today, Stillman responds to questions and comments by readers.

The comments posted in response to my recent GothamSchools Q&A on gentrification and schools were very helpful in pushing my thinking, and I greatly appreciate those readers who took the time to engage with my work. For those who read my interview but did not follow the back and forth in the comments section, let me quickly summarize what I heard from readers.

Two major themes were repeatedly expressed in some form: 1) that charter schools are not the answer to school integration, especially those being proposed by the Tapestry Project, an organization many of the commenters said they find highly suspect because of its affiliation with Eva Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, and 2) that the voice of the non-gentry is not being given its due, and that poor children of color and their families risk losing out during the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods.

I will start by addressing concern number two, as the point of my research, which was probably not adequately communicated in my short interview, was to understand the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods for the benefit of both gentry and non-gentry.

My research focus on the school choice process of gentry parents is because I believe, due to their greater access to resources, they are the ones who must choose to integrate for it to happen. But, as I expressed in response to one reader’s comments, it isn’t just the white, middle-class parents who would benefit from diverse schools. It is the non-white, poor children in our city who are hurt the most by the persistence of mostly segregated public school options. Diverse schools will not be white schools. They will be diverse. And racial and socio-economic diversity has been shown in other research to benefit low-income children who typically do not thrive in segregated settings. My background includes a stint as an urban high school teacher; I am not just a gentry mom. My research was inspired by my deep concern about school segregation from both perspectives.

That said, another reader’s point that poor children of color may not be served well by the gentry’s preferences, and that they actually might be better served by a school that “feels too traditional, too authoritarian in tone” for the gentry, is a point that I continue to struggle with. As I expressed to the reader, my teacher training program left me convinced that progressive, student-centered methods are most effective. And I know I want that for my own children. And I can’t help but think that what I want for my own children is what I should want for all children. But others have argued for the value of a more authoritarian style of pedagogy in certain circumstances, most notably Lisa Delpit in “Other People’s Children.” All kids learn differently, of course, but I’m not convinced that breaks down along race and class lines. Further research may or may not provide greater clarity on this point. Issues of race and class are emotional and intensely personal, and logical arguments about what should be, based on the research (including my own), are lacking in their ability to account for all of the nuanced realities of the day to day that people experience.

In response to the many concerns readers expressed about the Tapestry Project and my support for charter schools focused on integration, let me first reiterate that my goal of creating diverse schools is because I think diversity benefits all children (not only the gentry children, but also the poor children of color currently attending segregated schools). What charter schools have as a policy tool is the ability to start as new schools, which are much easier to craft into diverse schools with the right outreach efforts. Changing existing schools, though possible, is very challenging.

A recent New York Times article, “Integrating a School, One Child at a Time,” focused on magnet schools as a tool for integration. Magnet grants are given to existing public schools, which means that although they have the same freedom as charter schools to recruit from outside restrictive zone lines, they still must face the challenge of changing an existing school culture and attracting white, middle-class families to a school that has a reputation as segregated. The most successful (in terms of integration) magnet school in the Times story was the one that managed to start new by phasing out an old school. I favor charters as a possible policy tool primarily because of the newness factor. But I certainly don’t see them as some sort of silver bullet, and I realize that all approaches have drawbacks that need to be considered.

In closing, I would like to thank all GothamSchools readers for engaging in this public arena with me about a difficult, sensitive topic, and I hope those who are interested in trying to integrate schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, or those who disagree that this is an idea even worth pursuing, will continue to engage with me on my website or in person. I live in New York City and am always available for a lively debate over coffee or beer (contact information on my website).

If improving urban schools were easy, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation. I am always looking for better ways, and always trying to evolve my thinking as to what we, as a society, should be trying to do.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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