When I read Saratu Ghartey’s story last fall that beautifully and honestly captured her experience touring, searching for, and finally selecting a “good” preschool for her son, I recognized myself. I, too, have been consumed by tours and distraught by the inequity among schools across districts — for years as an educator and now as a parent, too.
I spent the first decade of my career teaching at Title I schools that served mostly black and brown students, many from immigrant families. The first was an ambitious small high school with unrealized dreams of inspiring community organizing, and the other a more established 6-12 progressive school nestled in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. Regardless of location, neither school was sought after by middle-class white families.
Some of my students came resistant, unconvinced that they had anything to gain from a white lady like myself. And in the beginning, their doubts won me over. So I sought out mentors, drowned myself in teacher books, and eventually learned how to lead with a stern, intentional, witty kind of love. I committed myself to crafting curriculum that was culturally relevant, to helping students see the ways that their stories, their histories, their voices mattered.
I was often disheartened by the apathy I saw, kids more interested in their cell phones than the texts I had presumptively selected. Often when I pushed disengaged students, I found that their minds were on a sick loved one, an anniversary of a death, a shooting in their building, the chronic discomfort of a shelter. My lesson was white noise floating above the soundtrack of their trauma. And, as teens do, they formed community around their traumas, taking on each other’s burdens so that the load would be dispersed. This meant that many of my students were often distracted, and I often found myself drained and ill-equipped to give each student’s crisis proper attention.
And yet, I was also energized by my students’ willingness to re-engage each day. Teenagers, though often grouchy, are refreshingly optimistic. Their resilience, brilliance, humor, and belief in possibilities fueled me. They were not hamstrung by crises, and some went on to win writing contests and earn competitive scholarships at prestigious colleges. I loved them fiercely, and we always made space for laughter. My colleagues were among the most dedicated, innovative humans I have met and they helped transform the lives of their students.
Because of these experiences, I am one of the white parents Ghartey describes: I have chosen to enroll my white daughter in a high poverty, mostly black and Latinx school because this school embraces and values the children of our neighborhood. Ghartey asserts that the stakes for her black son are too high to make this choice, and unfortunately, the stakes are different indeed. Though I worry that class and cultural differences may leave my daughter feeling out of the loop and efforts to fit in may present as cultural appropriation, I, unlike Ghartey, do not fear that assimilating to her school culture will lead my daughter to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Authorities will never view her skin color as inherently threatening.
So I share my own experiences more for families like mine, grappling with whether the benefits of a diverse school outweigh the perceived costs. I know that they do, for all students — a perspective informed in part by having worked for the past year at a more economically diverse school where addressing students’ socio-emotional needs is more manageable because fewer students live in poverty.
The students at my current school often produce more, take their thinking further, and perform better on state tests not because I have magically become a better teacher or because they have greater aptitude — it is because a majority of them come from middle-class homes. A majority of them trust that school will help them succeed (as it helped their parents) and enter the classroom with their personal needs satisfied. Their investment fuels an atmosphere where learning is the main focus.
This dynamic allows me as a teacher to dedicate more time to students whose skills are lagging or who need additional emotional support to deepen their thinking. Last year, one of my students lived in temporary housing and entered with a vendetta against books. I was able to give him the extra attention he needed — access to headphones, a laptop, a school Audible account, new books by the brilliant and relatable Jason Reynolds — and this reader jumped three grade levels by June. I could do that because the majority of the other students in his class could make progress with greater independence.
In another class, I was able to offer individualized attention to a student whose home language was Montenegrin, and whose struggles with English syntax barred her from comprehending grade-level texts. In collaboration with our dynamic special educator and speech teacher, I helped this student gain confidence and make progress. We discovered midway through the year that another student, whose parents were embroiled in a divorce, was contemplating suicide. Because his crisis was not competing with many others, we were able to get him the immediate attention, support, and resources he needed.
I also witnessed the powerful benefits classroom diversity had on my white, middle-class students. One boy learned through his interactions with a Latinx classmate who lived in public housing that the phrase “all lives matter” was offensive, and a girl found inspiration in a black peer who boldly shared her critical insights with peers but who privately struggled with writing mechanics. In his final evaluation of the class, a white student, who flaunted his wealth and openly ridiculed his less affluent peers, reflected that his experience that year taught him how to listen more to people and be kinder. “You never know what someone is going through,” he wrote.
This isn’t just the beauty of a diverse school — this is the reason public schools exist. When we pool our resources and allow everyone to access to rich, joyful learning and high expectations, we allow public schools to be the great equalizers that they ought to be. Yet, in a city where we have the unique opportunity to bring kids of various backgrounds together through school, we usually decline. When middle class parents flock en masse to specific schools, they deplete others of the opportunity to realize public education’s equalizing potential. And even as individual families make difficult choices to integrate schools, the system remains hypersegregated.
As I weigh K-5 options for my daughter, I am not immune to that sinking feeling that my daughter is going to miss out if I don’t fight for entry into the schools that get all the buzz. I’m drawn to more progressive options outside of our neighborhood where children learn more through exploration, teachers have the luxury to draw out their natural creativity and curiosity to deepen learning, where success on the state test feels more like an afterthought than the driving mission.
Yet these schools are already oversaturated with white upper to middle class kids — demographics that stand in stark contrast to our beloved neighborhood. As Ghartey wrote, many families of color choose schools with a more traditional approach when possible. I could also throw our hat in the ring at the “unicorn” school and others like it. But I think the unspoken requirement to beg for admission into a public school disqualifies the institution from truly being for the people.
As I consider these possibilities, I recall what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said at a recent event I attended for parents and advocates seeking a less segregated school system: “If you make the choice only for your child, you’re choosing to sacrifice someone else’s.” I know true equity means giving up privilege so that others may also enjoy it. It means making myself vulnerable to the “rocks” Ghartey mentions that are inevitable whenever a community changes. It means that my daughter’s classrooms may not look as flashy as the most coveted elementary schools because her teachers are using their prep periods to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students. It may mean that some of her peers come to school distracted, or that the presence of the state test looms over too much of the work they do.
But let’s get real: my daughter will carry her whiteness and its privileges into this setting and will be just fine; the rocks for her are never going to be as sharp as they are for Ghartey’s family. Throughout most of history, we’ve left it to black families to be the pioneers of integration. It’s long past time for white families to step up in New York City.
And they should because it’s best for us, too, on the merits: at an economically and racially diverse school, my daughter will grow up as part of a vibrant, resilient community, among classmates who live both a few blocks away and a whole world apart, broadening her perspective and enfolding her in a real neighborhood. The attractions of diversity played a big role in my and my husband’s decision to settle in the city rather than the suburbs. But that’s only window-dressing if we don’t insist that this diversity be reflected inside schools and not just outside them.
Though I am hopeful about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase school diversity, I think school integration will only be achieved when white families like mine commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods. It may take hard work — more PTA involvement, more fundraisers, more listening and understanding — but most things worth having do.
Alie Stumpf has been teaching reading and writing in New York City public schools since 2006. She lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches sixth-grade humanities in Manhattan.
About our First Person series:
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